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Review: ‘Death and Mr. Pickwick, A Novel” by Stephen Jarvis

Death and Mr. Pickwick, A Novel

By Stephen Jarvis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

816 pages, $30

By Michael D. Langan

If Charles Dickens were not one of the greatest English novelists, Stephen Jarvis’ “Death and Mr. Pickwick” would be an over-reach.

It may be that no one has ever topped Dickens’s creative genius. He combined fantasy and realism with caricature and a picaresque style. These are qualities difficult to master, and I don’t see any of today’s writers near Dickens’s writerly reach.

Dickens’ skill and work habits produced a literary oeuvre that began with “The Posthumous Paper of the Pickwick Club,” followed by “Oliver Twist”, “A Christmas Carol”, “David Copperfield”, “Bleak House”, “Hard Times”, “Great Expectations”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, “Little Dorrit” and a number more.

This is where Stephen Jarvis’ “Death and Mr. Pickwick” comes in. The novel is a criticism of Dickens, a detective novel in the form of fictionalized literary criticism.  A fine read on its own, it is filled with the master’s style, detail and inside jokes. 

The book has a serious purpose, uncovering what Jarvis thinks is the theft by Dickens of “Pickwick”, the original work of Robert Seymour.  It is a book worth reading, but perhaps too fulsome for the average reader. 

“Death’s” premise is that Robert Seymour, an illustrator, was the real father of the idea of “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.”  This is old news for Dickens’ literati. That “Boz”, the young Charles Dickens, picked up the concept in March 1836 and ran away with it, making it his own with his inimitable style is not new.

Still, here is how Stephen Jarvis attempts to set the stage for his startling rejoinder.  In an “Address To Readers,” Jarvis writes,

“This book, based upon the life of the artist Robert Seymour and the extraordinary events surrounding the creation of Charles Dickens’s first novel, “The Pickwick Papers”, departs from the ‘accepted’ origin of “Pickwick”, as put forward by Dickens and his publisher Edward Chapman. It does so for good reason.  The accepted origin is not true.”

With this credo begins a long story-within-a-story. Its characters have strange names. The older, Mr. Inbelicate (derived from a printer’s error of “indelicate”), and the younger, hired by the elder, named Inscriptino, another printer’s error. 

They relate the tale of Henry Seymour, a furniture maker from Somerset, who returns home to die after working in London for Seldon’s, the master furniture worker. His wife, Elizabeth Bishop, heavily pregnant with their third child, Robert Seymour, who is called first-begetter of “Pickwick” in later years, travels to London to seek work.

Having arrived, Henry’s wife and three impoverished children are on the edge of starvation. There, Robert Seymour, her youngest, begins a career of making “snapshots”, i.e., sketches that are so good he becomes an illustrator. His skill at an early age saves the day for the family.

Unraveling the skein of the Seymour family is how Stephen Jarvis details his account of the intersection of the lives of Charles Dickens and Robert Seymour in the early 1830s. 

These years were a time when English popular culture became enamored with every kind of reading material: sketches, books, and other forms of print. All manner of reading and viewing fought for the attention of a burgeoning reading public.

Jarvis’ novel is an eye-opening experience. He has buried himself in 19th century London life and media “where (the origins of “Pickwick”) was shaped. This included the milieu of theatricals, boxing matches, and stagecoach houses from which its shapers took inspiration.” In this way it compliments other books, especially Michael Slater’s 2009 biography of Charles Dickens, “A Life Defined by Writing” of the “The Inimitable” as Dickens called himself. 

What strikes the reader about Dickens in this new novel, notwithstanding the criticism, is the indefatigability of the man.  Nothing was beyond Dickens’ ken. 

Dickens wrote, as Slater earlier remarked, “...short stories, topical journalism, essays, travel writings and writings for children, polemical pieces in verse as well as prose.” What lay behind this apparent façade of benevolence, according to Slater, was a combination of “attention, perseverance and exertion.”

Dickens himself said he wrote from his genial desire to “increase the stock of harmless cheerfulness.” Characterizing his writing in this way was Dickens’ attempt at avoiding the envy of other writers, while enriching his fortune and befriending readers. 

If Jarvis is right, Dickens’s capacity to take ideas from others wasn’t beyond his ken either. Appropriating others’ literary work in the mid-19th century was easier than now, but still litigious. 

DJ Taylor in The Guardian puts the “taking of the idea” more kindly: “The Pickwick Papers” came about largely by accident. Its original begetter was the melancholic artist Robert Seymour who, in November 1835, suggested to Chapman and Hall that they underwrite a series of engravings about the adventures of a cockney sporting club. Text was required to accompany the monthly installments and, after one or two unsuccessful try-outs, the publishers hired an up-and-coming 23-year-old named Charles Dickens, whose Sketches by Boz had just appeared in volume form. Dickens, being Dickens, instantly began to impress his considerable personality upon the project, and Seymour shot himself shortly after completing the plates for the second number.”

Stephen Jarvis punctuates Dickens’s skills with this impeccable piece of historical fiction.  Jarvis’ work borrows the style of Dickens in the telling of “Death and Mr. Pickwick.’”  Somehow this doesn’t diminish but enriches the treasury of those bygone days that still appear so new and alive in the works of Dickens.

Michael D. Langan is a longtime reviewer of fiction for The Buffalo News.