“Death and Mr. Pickwick:” Q & A with the Author

9780374139667 copy.jpgOur summer issue offers a list of “8 Beach Reads for Bibliophiles,” one of which is a debut novel by Stephen Jarvis called Death and Mr. Pickwick (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30) that attempts to recover the true story behind the creation of Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. It is a rich, multi-layered novel that re-introduces us to illustrator and caricaturist Robert Seymour, who Jarvis believes initially dreamed up Samuel Pickwick and his fellows. Book and print collectors will be especially interested in how scrupulously the author illuminates the world of nineteenth-century British printmaking and publishing. In the Q &A that follows, Jarvis graciously answers our questions about the novel and its characters.

Q: How did you happen upon the idea for this novel? Do you study/collect nineteenth-century illustration or caricature?

A: In the UK, there is a BBC radio show called Desert Island Discs, in which celebrities have to choose eight records and a book to take to a hypothetical desert island. I happened to be listening when a British comedian called Griff Rhys Jones chose The Pickwick Papers as his book, which he described as “so full of life.” There was something about that phrase which resonated with me, and so I decided to get The Pickwick Papers out of the library, as I had never read it before - indeed, I had read very little Dickens before. I did Oliver Twist in school, but that was about it. Anyway, in the modern preface to the novel, there was one line referring to the suicide of the book’s illustrator, Robert Seymour, and I was instantly fascinated. Part of the fascination was that nothing more was said about the suicide - I wanted to know why he had shot himself. I had never even heard of Robert Seymour before, but I just KNEW that there was something here which had to be investigated and written about. Prior to that, I had had no interest in nineteenth-century illustration and caricature, but I am interested now. It was a golden age of British cartooning. The greatest cartoonist of the age was probably James Gillray, but Seymour was a very substantial cartoonist too. He was the most prolific cartoonist of his time, and it is estimated that he drew one-third of all the cartoons published in London, a phenomenal rate of output.

Q: Your research into the artists, printmakers, and booksellers of Dickensian London must have been massive. Tell us about your process. What books and sources did you find most useful?

A: The research was a mountain. Mostly I did it in the British Library, but I also went to Houghton Library in Harvard, as well as libraries in New York and Philadelphia, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It used to be said that more had been written about The Pickwick Papers than any other work of fiction, and I can believe it: there are literally thousands of books, academic papers and articles about Pickwick, and I made it my goal to read everything ever written about the novel, in order to truly understand the Pickwick phenomenon, and the historical circumstances which created it. I will choose three books as particularly significant. Firstly, City of Laughter by Vic Gatrell. This explores the so-called ‘debauchery prints’  which were around just before Pickwick. The Pickwick Papers emerged from traditions of graphic caricature, but public morality was changing, and the old prints were no longer acceptable, and Gatrell brilliantly documents the period of ‘anything goes’ humour before Pickwick. Second, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott. Seymour shot himself shortly after drawing a picture of a dying clown for The Pickwick Papers, and the clown was based upon the tragic life of a real person, J S Grimaldi, the son of the great clown Joseph Grimaldi. Stott’s book truly helped me to understand both father and son. Thirdly, The Pickwick Papers: An Annotated Bibliography by Elliot D. Engel. Although this book is now in need of updating, it remains the key guide to the literature on The Pickwick Papers. I would also add that I went through many volumes of newspaper cuttings at the Dickens Museum in London, and these were a wonderful source of material too.

Q: You contend that it was Seymour, not Dickens, who was the creative force behind The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Is this something that Dickens fans and scholars continue to debate?

A: Well, my novel shows that Dickens lied about the origins of The Pickwick Papers. The traditional origin of Pickwick simply cannot be true, and that is that. Some other origin of Pickwick happened, and the question is: what was the real origin of Pickwick? The indications are that Dickens was ‘writing up’ to Seymour, that is following the artist’s lead, which is the exact opposite of what Dickens claimed, and that Seymour’s influence continued after the artist’s death. Just how far Seymour’s influence extended will have to remain an open question, unless new evidence turns up. It is known that a huge amount of evidence about Seymour vanished in 1928 - specifically a 350-page unpublished manuscript, “The Life of Robert Seymour,” written by a man called R D Morewood, who was  a meticulous researcher and a close associate of Seymour’s son. This was the “Holy Grail” of my research, and I spent ages trying to find it - the hunt probably added a year to the time it took to write my book. I didn’t find the manuscript though, and I strongly suspect that it was deliberately suppressed by Dickensians, who did not want the truth about Seymour to come out.  If there is to be further investigation of Seymour’s role in Pickwick, this manuscript need to be found, if it still survives.

Q: Tell us a bit about the character who collects Pickwick

A: The collector is based upon a real person called J. F. Dexter, who devoted fifty years of his life to  collecting what he called “A Perfect Pickwick in Parts” - that is, a set of the serially-issued first-edition parts of Pickwick, which was perfect in every respect. Dexter even wanted every advertising flier that was ever inserted in Pickwick, things which were normally thrown away by readers. He spent his life hunting in attics, salerooms, private libraries and secondhand bookshops, in the hope of attaining perfection, and he came pretty close! His copy of Pickwick is the most valuable in the world. It’s in the British Library, and yes I have examined it!
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An excerpt of the novel is available. More information about the book and the author can be found at Death and Mr. Pickwick.

Image via Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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