The amorphous literary period that directly preceded Queen Victoria’s ascension to the English throne in 1837 is notorious for true crimes of book history, from the suspicious disappearance of the middle chapters of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript to the regrettable posthumous burning of Lord Byron’s handwritten Memoirs. But these controversies have nothing on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the publication of Charles Dickens’s first serialized book, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836–1837). Pickwick’s true and secret history of creativity, betrayal, suicide, and elaborate cover-up is unveiled in Stephen Jarvis’s first novel, Death and Mr. Pickwick.
Death and Mr. Pickwick is sweeping, capacious, impeccably researched, and often very funny, but the novel’s outward appearance of improbable Dickensian miscellany conceals a keen truth-seeking impulse to set the historical Pickwick record straight. This is a book with an argument: Robert Seymour, the engraver of Pickwick’s first two numbers, invented the Pickwick Papers’ central premise, most of the characters, and the story’s outline, but when he committed suicide after artistic clashes with Dickens, the young novelist took exclusive credit for the tale, which propelled him to household fame and literary immortality. Leading up to the protagonist engraver’s climactic encounter with Dickens, Jarvis traces the history of Seymour’s artistic apprenticeship, his widespread success as a caricaturist, his encounters with proto-Pickwick figures, and the often contradictory elements of his personality (he is married to the “best of wives,” and he is attracted to men; he is a confident political satirist, and he is deeply ashamed of his dyslexia).
Alongside the development of Seymour’s complexity and its manifestations in Pickwick, the novel presents the history of the young Dickens as an evolution in nomenclature: an unnamed boy watching a clown at Bartholomew Fair becomes Chatham Charlie, a blacking-factory child laborer, who is transfigured into Boz, the writer of legal sketches. He finally emerges as the fully formed Charles Dickens only after the astonishing success of his first major work.
In the course of Death and Mr. Pickwick’s eight hundred pages, Seymour and Dickens meet twice—or only once, according to Dickens’s letters—and their biographical origins, artistic visions, and textual afterlives are characterized more by divergence than similarity. But Seymour’s death was to haunt Dickens for the rest of his career. The engraver’s widow challenged the novelist’s account of Pickwick’s composition, and Dickens responded by writing a fallacious “Preface” to his 1847 edition of the text, which rewrote the Pickwick Club’s origins in an invented Nimrod Club, and denied that Seymour contributed anything to the book’s conception. But the novelist sublimated his thwarted, vengeful artistic collaborator into fiction: “In Dickens’s Christmas Carol, the character of Jacob Marley is an allusion to [Seymour]. What is Marley but a man who comes back from the dead to accuse his partner?”
The many layers of Death and Mr. Pickwick are linked through their continual return to this question of partnership between men. Mirroring the uneasy collaboration of the established artist Seymour with the unknown writer Boz is the dynamic between the novel’s main story and its present-day frame. The narrator, a writer nicknamed Scripty, is employed to write the story of Robert Seymour by Mr Imbelicate, a Pickwick enthusiast whose family has for generations compiled masses of textual evidence to vindicate Seymour’s claim to conceptual authorship. (Recalling the instability of Dickens’s name throughout the book, the names of these characters refer affectionately to typos in the first print edition of Pickwick; Mr Imbelicate asserts that neither patron nor writer can be called by their real name until the errors of Pickwick’s authorship are rectified.)
The dynamic between the older, corpulent, credulous Mr Imbelicate and his devil’s advocate in the young Scripty parallels the Pickwick Papers’ central male relationship between the gullible Mr Pickwick and his knowing Cockney servant Sam Weller. The delineation of these framing characters owes something to Seymour’s fascination with extremes of bodily morphology; the narrator speculates that Imbelicate and Scripty feature a conscious reversal of the physiques of the thin Don Quixote and the fat Sancho Panza. In each layer of text—Imbelicate and Scripty, Seymour and Dickens, Pickwick and Sam—the bodies of the male partners indicate a differential in social or artistic power, distinguishing the master from the apprentice.
But in the history of Pickwick’s publication, the initial hierarchy of master and apprentice was quickly and irrevocably reversed, setting the historical scene for the emergence of the Victorian novel. In keeping with other serial illustrated publications of the early 19th century, the engraver was meant to take the creative lead, with the writer providing running description of images. After only the first number, however, Dickens had superseded Seymour in the planning and execution of the work. In what might be considered the keystone of Death and Mr. Pickwick, a passage that appears in the novel’s very center, Seymour comments on the rapid decline of the illustration and the ascendancy of the novel, a generic transformation that foreshadows Dickens and Seymour’s collaborative rupture and their contrasting artistic afterlives:
Something peculiar—something ridiculous—something infects our brains. It is as though we are embarrassed to use our eyes. As though we daren’t acknowledge that pictures give us pleasure and only words are thoroughly respectable—so respectable that it is beneath their dignity to be divided and sold in monthly parts. The only dividing we do is to put words in three volumes, when lavish binding is the fig leaf that covers our shame.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the book is so dedicated to restoring artistic credit to the illustrator of Pickwick, Jarvis does not introduce any replications of Seymour’s caricatures, although many works of art are vividly described. But the form of Death and Mr. Pickwick—for all the book’s improbably named characters, grimy and colorful representation of 19th-century London life, satirical aims, and tragicomic tonal range—isn’t precisely Dickensian either. Rather than replicating the form of a serialized work of prose fiction, which would normally appear in monthly numbers containing three chapters of extremely regular length, Jarvis eschews chapter and volume breaks entirely. Instead, he presents us with a disparate array of memory, testimony, ekphrastic description of images, frame narrative, and even little bits of invented Pickwick narration, with no single point of view dominating or offering stability.
As a book that brings together scraps of text from many sources, genres, and voices, Death and Mr. Pickwick resembles less a Dickens novel than a modern version of 19th-century literary albums or miscellanies, in which individual readers excerpted their favorite literature and art, lovingly recopying and recirculating them. In Loving Literature(2015), Deidre Lynch describes the album as a genre that indicates the album-creator’s “intimate possession” of the texts it appropriates. Nineteenth-century readers who loved books sought closeness to the book-objects of their affection through the personal re-inscription of their content.
Jarvis has not selected his subject at random. For the scrapbook and album keepers of the 19th century, Pickwick was the literary work that transformed the book from “thing” to “person”; Dickens’s readers, to borrow Lynch’s terms, “constructed the aesthetic relation as though it put them in the presence of other people.” The practice of album keeping is itself Pickwickian in nature, since Dickens’s title character collects the fantastic and unusual accounts of others in a notebook for the perusal of his Pickwick Club. Eventually, Mr Pickwick the character becomes undifferentiated from the notebook he produces, as Mr Imbelicate describes:
Anything the stranger said, Mr Pickwick swallowed, and wrote down. Though it has to be said that Mr Pickwick, like many men who keep notebooks and scrapbooks, showed little tendency to be modified, personally, by the things recorded. The notebook became his memory.
Pickwick’s trifold status as a narrative miscellany, fictional person, and actual novel points to the multifariousness of the literary object that Lynch argues enabled 19th-century readers to love books like persons. In Death and Mr. Pickwick, fictional readers mimic Mr Pickwick by developing feelings for the improbable characters and situations of the Pickwick Papers. Apparently motivated by the same drive for personal intimacy as 19th-century album keepers, the readers who appear within Jarvis’s tale create Pickwick-themed examinations, concordances, and indexes in homage to their beloved novel.
Jarvis presents us with a disparate array of memory, testimony, ekphrastic description of images, frame narrative, and even little bits of invented Dickensian narration.
But love for literature—and even love for Pickwick—is not a simple matter: in Lynch’s words, “love can be a matter of misrecognition, overvaluation, self-congratulation, aggressivity, fetishism, and/or jealousy,” and these sinister sides to the universal Victorian-era love of Pickwick emerge in Jarvis’s representation of the afterlives of those caught up in the novel’s creation. Moses Pickwick, the owner of the Bristol to Bath coaching service whose name was appropriated without permission for the central character, is initially enthused by his sudden fame, but goes mad in his old age as he regrets his unwilling insertion into a literary phenomenon. Robert Seymour’s son drowns himself after attempting to redeem his father. Charles Whitehead, who turned down the chance of being Pickwick’s author, emigrates to Australia and dies of drink.
Even Mr Imbelicate, the commissioner of the reparative modern text, is motivated by a deeply divided love for all things Pickwick, and by his forebear’s intimate bond with Robert Seymour and desire to avenge his death. Mr Imbelicate’s fate reflects the strain of this internal self-division, revealing the dark consequences of unrequited, possessive love for a work of literature that can’t be pinned down. In the conclusion to the book, Scripty, the narrator, remarks, “We may strive to find pattern and meaning in The Pickwick Papers, and sometimes we find it, but never do we succeed to our complete satisfaction; thus, we read the book again from the first page to the last, in our search for the meaningful whole.”
Jarvis’s Pickwick hopes to offer the closure that Dickens’s denied the reader by having Scripty complete a story that Dickens hinted at in the second number of Pickwick (the last one that Robert Seymour illustrated before his suicide), but to which he never returned. The appearance of this missing story brings together the text’s disparate voices: Pickwick, Dickens, Scripty, and Jarvis speak, for once, together. But Jarvis is far too canny to leave the reader with this vision of unity: the story Pickwick hears is revealed to be deliberately misleading. As they attempt to close the play of narrative, through the act of love, into a single text, Mr Pickwick and his layers of readers are “caught out, once again” by the freewheeling play of Dickens’s chaotic masterpiece.