November 20, 2015


Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis review - an impeccably Dickensian debut : This story of the Pickwick Papers' prehistory dramatises the lives of those who were caught up in, and destroyed by, its triumph (DJ Taylor, 21 May 2015, The Guardian)

All this supplies the background to Stephen Jarvis's long, rumbustious and impeccably Dickensian debut, which might be described as an attempt to dramatise Pickwick's entire prehistory, the lives of everyone caught up in its coruscating triumph and the emotional consequences for those who failed to take their seats on the Dickens express as it sped unstoppably by. Its hero is Seymour, here portrayed as a gloom-ridden secret homosexual - cue serial dispatches from the front line of early 19th-century gay subculture - and its villain Dickens AKA the Inimitable Boz, a devious plagiarist who spent the years after his collaborator's premature death covering up his tracks and fabricating data to support his own view of Pickwick's conception.

If what follows has something of the air of an old-fashioned detective novel, this is because so much of it hangs on tiny shreds of disputed evidence - the question, for example, of whether Seymour's first drawing of Mr Pickwick depicted the avuncular fat man of legend or a thinner prototype whom Dickens urged him to flesh out. But at least as important in stoking up an atmosphere of sepia-tinted problem-solving is Jarvis's choice of narrator, the pseudonymous Scripty. Our man, employed as amanuensis to Mr Inbelicate, an elderly sleuth who has devoted his life to assembling documents relevant to the case, gets his moniker from the non-word "Inscriptino", a printer's error for "Inscription" in early versions of the great work. Such is Mr Inbelicate's absorption in the failings of Pickwick's printers that he has renamed himself after their mangling of "indelicate".

Was Dickens a Thief? : A new novel portrays the young writer of The Pickwick Papers as a conniving founder of modern mass culture (NICHOLAS DAMES,  JUNE 2015, The Atlantic)

Jarvis's novel is ostensibly about the origins of Pickwick: the gin-soaked precincts of the London press where it was shaped; the milieu of theatricals, boxing matches, and stagecoach houses from which its shapers took inspiration; and not least, the artists and writers Dickens would surpass. But look more closely, and it becomes clear that Jarvis has another aim: to tell the story of the mass culture that Pickwick created. He has written a novel that reflects upon the world-altering effects of novel-reading.
By late 1836, Pickwick was no longer just a serial novel. It was merchandise (Pickwick cigars, hats, canes, soaps), spin-offs (theatrical performances, bootleg editions, joke books), advertisements (on omnibuses, in newspapers). It was a virtual world--delivered in portable monthly episodes, the fictional action synchronized to match the nonfictional calendar--and it invaded the real one, creating a cross-class, national audience. The press run for its 19th and final installment was 40,000 copies, astonishing for the time. "Literature" is not a big enough category for Pickwick. It defined its own, a new one that we have learned to call "entertainment."

Death and Mr. Pickwick is Pickwickian in its length and crowded palette, composed as a series of episodic vignettes about Seymour's life and the lives of every significant figure that crossed his path. But unlike Pickwick, it has a conspiracy story to tell. Jarvis's novel is framed by the quest of two modern researchers--the elder Inbelicate and his aide, Inscriptino, or Scripty (pseudonyms taken from printer errors in early copies of Pickwick's first edition)--who have set out to discover why Seymour killed himself. Their search for clues gives the novel its propulsive momentum. The resolution of the mystery, revealed in a vivid unspooling of facts and motives, has a lot to say about the nature of the media culture that Pickwick helped spawn.

Stephen Jarvis Makes a Dickensian Debut With 'Death and Mr. Pickwick' : The English author's 'factional' first book reveals foul play behind the gentle fun of Dickens's first novel (TOBIAS GREY, June 18, 2015, WSJ)

WHO WOULD HAVE thought that behind such a good-natured novel as Charles Dickens's "The Pickwick Papers" lies a tale of coldhearted literary skulduggery? But in his debut novel, "Death and Mr. Pickwick," English author Stephen Jarvis uncovers the extraordinary events surrounding the creation of Dickens's first novel with all the flair of a Scotland Yard detective.

"It all really started when I saw one line in the preface of a modern edition of 'The Pickwick Papers' and it referred to the suicide of the book's illustrator and I was just instantly fascinated," says Mr. Jarvis, 57, whose previous work includes reporting for British newspapers and radio on unusual leisure activities such as toe-wrestling, snuff-taking and lying on a bed of nails.

The illustrator in question was Robert Seymour, a talented but depressive artist who killed himself in 1836 at the age of 38, not long after the first installment of "The Pickwick Papers" had been published, and after a reportedly heated argument with Dickens about one of his cartoons.

"I was particularly fascinated because nothing else was said about his death and I wanted to know more," says Mr. Jarvis. "Why did he kill himself? I just got this real buzz that there was something here that had to be written about."

Posted by at November 20, 2015 6:15 PM