I can’t decide who would make the better reader of Death and Mr. Pickwick: an expert on Charles Dickens who knows everything about "The Pickwick Papers" or a novice who has never even read it.
The former would experience Stephen Jarvis’s one-of-a-kind debut novel in a trance of recognition: here, over some 800 leisurely pages, Jarvis unfolds the entire prehistory of "The Pickwick Papers," to a depth that even a Dickens scholar would find hard to match. The history of the illustrated print in England; periodical literature and serialization in the early 19th century; the coaching trade and its displacement by railroads; the institution of the club, whether devoted to sporting, debauchery, or both; the evolution in manners from the rough-and-tumble Regency to the earnest Victorian period – these are just some of the topics that enter into the novel’s purview. But it is only the neophyte reader who would have the pleasure of learning about these things with Jarvis’s expert guidance and of discovering just how they all fit together in the story of Dickens’s first novel.
At the center of "Death and Mr. Pickwick" – the closest thing to a main character in this maze of a novel – stands Robert Seymour, the illustrator who may or may not have come up with the idea for "The Pickwick Papers", only to see Dickens steal his glory. Perhaps the easiest way to describe "Death and Mr. Pickwick" is as a historical novel about Seymour, whose life we follow, from his modest beginnings through his years of success and celebrity as a caricaturist to his tragic death.
Jarvis writes with impressive assurance for a first-time novelist, meticulously imagining Seymour’s London and the artistic world in which he moved. Yet Seymour himself is seldom at center stage for very long, since Jarvis regularly interrupts his story with flashbacks, cutaways, and tales-within-tales. Indeed, the whole book is framed as a tale told by an eccentric present-day collector, known only as “Mr. Imbelicate” (the typo is intentional – it appeared in an early edition of "Pickwick") to his associate, the narrator called “Scripty.” These levels-within-levels and teeming ranks of characters give the book a Dickensian feeling of profusion, though Jarvis wisely never attempts to mimic Dickens’s style.
To see how "Death and Mr. Pickwick" operates, take the story of Grimaldi the clown, an early example of Jarvis’s narrative sleight-of-hand. The first section of the novel introduces us to the young Robert Seymour, a Somerset lad who moves to London to work as an apprentice, discovers a genius for drawing, and begins a love affair with a fellow apprentice, a boy named Wonk.
One day Seymour and Wonk visit a fair, where they see a show that features a clown. Whereupon Jarvis abruptly breaks off and starts telling us another story about a clown – the master clown Joseph Grimaldi, a real-life celebrity in early 19th-century England, who makes it his life work to train his son, J.S., as his successor. J. S. Grimaldi grows up to be a clown as well, but without his father’s effortless genius, and he is worn down by the constant adverse comparisons. He takes to drink, falls ill, tries and fails to make a comeback, and finally goes mad with hallucinations and delirium tremens: “When he dropped the quill on the floor, the very patterns on the carpet were vipers, sleeping in their coils, but coming awake. Most terrible of all, the veins on the backs of his hands were vipers as well. They raised their heads out of his flesh and hissed at him, and he scratched at them, drawing blood.” Finally he dies a horrible and ignominious death.
Having told this story over 25 pages, Jarvis immediately returns to the initial narrative about Seymour. Why, the reader wonders, have we spent a quarter of the book so far reading about J. S. Grimaldi? What is his connection with Seymour, with Dickens, with "The Pickwick Papers"?
Such questions will recur many times, since Jarvis’s approach is a strange combination of the methodical and the digressive. The narrative about Seymour, which eventually intersects with and becomes a story about Charles Dickens, breaks off every dozen pages or so for an extended episode: about Bladud, the legendary founder of the city of Bath, or about a certain tremendously fat boy seen at an inn, or about a group of hard-drinking clubmen known as the Daffyonians. Even when the main narrative is in progress, it is clamoring with minor characters, most of them people who really existed: artists like Gillray and Rowlandson, editors like Chapman and Hall, politicians like the adulterous Lord Melbourne. Like the coach drives that feature in the book itself, Jarvis offers a slow journey full of interesting scenery – though one sometimes wonders if he is ever going to reach a destination.
As the novel unfolds, however, it becomes clear that every single detail in "Death and Mr. Pickwick" is there for a reason, and that reason is "The Pickwick Papers." The story of Grimaldi was, or might have been, the inspiration for one of Dickens’s flights of genius in "Pickwick," a gruesome story of a dying clown. The Daffyonians are an inspiration for the Pickwickians, the clubmen whose misadventures form the loose plot of the novel; the fat boy and Bladud show up in Dickens’s story, too.
Meanwhile, the deep background Jarvis offers about the evolution of English publishing and illustration serves to underscore the novelty of \"The Pickwick Papers," which pioneered the serial publication of fiction in English. Step by step, the reader is led to a summit from which the whole Pickwickian landscape is laid out like a map.
But the triumph of "Pickwick" – and Jarvis argues that it was the greatest triumph in English literature, the most popular, recognizable, and widely translated book next to the Bible – all belonged to Dickens. Seymour, who according to Jarvis’s theory invented the story and all the main characters, was muscled out of the project early on by the imperious Dickens, who stopped following the lead of Seymour’s illustrations and instead forced the artist to draw what he had written.
The indignity of this, combined with other financial and sexual problems, is said by Jarvis to have been the cause of Seymour’s suicide, which took place just after the second issue of "Pickwick" was published. Whether that is the truth or just another story is, of course, impossible to know. But surely there is no one in the world more qualified to tell it than Stephen Jarvis.