Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis
Charles Dickens is dead; long live Charles Dickens. Stephen Jarvis has channeled the Great Man in his superb retelling of how The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club came to be and the controversy and tragedy that accompanied its birth.
Robert Seymour was a contemporary of Dickens and an illustrator who was much better known than Dickens. After Seymour created the fat and lovable characters of Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller, his cockney manservant, in a series of sketches, his publishers tried a number of writers in an effort to tie a story to the pictures. A young scribe who called himself Boz was finally chosen, and the career of the young Charles Dickens began to rise. Ignoring the circumstances of his raising from near obscurity, Dickens soon came to believe that he had created Pickwick.
When Seymour committed suicide soon after the serial began its run, the way was clear for Dickens to claim credit with no one to counter him to the end of his days. Jarvis effectively frames the big question, which was to determine how to cut Seymour out of the picture to ensure immortality and greater sales for Dickens. The lawyer Foster tells him to tell the truth, just do not tell the whole truth. As Sam Weller describes a person by his shoes at first meeting, a little truth sets the impression that Seymour had a limited idea that Dickens greatly improved upon. From that time on, in the context of this novel and real life, Dickens never denied that he was the sole creator of Mr. Pickwick. Seymour’s son says, “The great author may not have pulled the trigger… But I will always see Dickens as the cause of our family’s tragedy.”
Yet, this absolutely delightful reawakening of Dickens’ style tells us the rest of the sordid story and its effect on Seymour. Jarvis transports the reader to the world of early 19th Century London. One can almost smell the horse drawn carriages that just passed, experience the gaudy theatrical performances, and suffer the bareknuckle boxing matches in smoke-filled halls. We can hear the “pandemonium of hand bells on the street” and the cries of the street vendors as London went about its quotidian tasks.
Jarvis captures the right sounds of names that conjure certain sensibilities: Dr. Syntax, Mr. Inbelicate, Scripty, Wonk, Ely Stott, Francis Loosefish, Esq. The piquant sentence or description reminds the reader of Dickens’ genius. For example, “Clarke smoked like a man who adored tobacco.” We are told that George Cruikshank ate a breakfast of stewed cabbage and almonds for that was “Cato’s recommendation, after a bout with Bacchus.”
Truth and fiction blend to chronicle the real and imagined people and events that provided the smorgasbord from which Dickens drew to create the world of his first great novel. More importantly, it reminds us that Robert Seymour, long ignored and forgotten, played a vital role in launching the career of Charles Dickens. This is one 800-page novel that you will regret seeing end, and you will lament having to retreat from that world long ago. Stephen Jarvis, who grew tired of his office job and began writing about the unusual activities of his weekends in The Daily Telegraph, has written a brilliant first novel that will appeal to the myriad fans of Dickens and to those who have not yet discovered him.
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