Monday, August 17, 2015

‘Death and Mr. Pickwick,’ by Stephen Jarvis

by Michael Upchurch

New York Times

July 17, 2015

You don’t normally wish a novel would come with a bibliography, but Stephen Jarvis’s new book practically begs for one. Death and Mr. Pickwick makes some eyebrow-raising claims: that Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers was “so widely circulated that only the Bible, Shakespeare and perhaps the Book of Common Prayer can better its circulation”; that for a century or more Samuel Pickwick, the book’s genial bumbling hero, was “the most famous character in fiction there has ever been”; and that Dickens didn’t name or invent Samuel Pickwick.

It isn’t just a character in the novel who argues these points. It’s Jarvis who, in a prefatory note, insists that Death and Mr. Pickwick departs from traditional accounts of the origin of The Pickwick Papers because “the accepted origin is not true.” Instead, he credits the caricaturist Robert Seymour with dreaming up the concept of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (to give the novel its full title).

Death and Mr. Pickwick is, after a fashion, Seymour’s story, and it has some compelling elements. But it’s so weighted down with minutiae that it may defeat even the most rabid Pickwick Papers fan. Moreover, if you haven’t read the Dickens novel recently and don’t have it fresh in your memory, you won’t pick up on half of the games Jarvis is playing.

His novel, in broad outline, sticks to the known facts. There’s little doubt that Seymour and his publisher decided on the format The Pickwick Papers would initially take. The idea was to chronicle the pastimes of an imaginary gentlemen’s club in a pretend periodical whose “editor” would, in fact, write the whole text. The 24-year-old Dickens — already being published under the pseudonym “Boz” — was recruited to be that “editor” after other writers didn’t work out. By Dickens’s own later account, he balked at the constraint of allowing Seymour’s illustrations to shape his story­telling. The collaboration lasted for only two issues — featuring seven Seymour etchings — before Seymour killed himself in April 1836.


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