HISTORICAL FICTION

Book review: Death and Mr Pickwick - Dickens stole Pickwick concept

Stephen Jarvis, in this brilliant debut novel, presents evidence as to why Charles Dickens' 'Pickwick Papers' should be called 'the greatest literary hoax in history'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm
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How can I persuade you to lose yourself in first-time novelist Stephen Jarvis' magnificent, 816-page Death and Mr. Pickwick?

Perhaps by reminding you that The Pickwick Papers - the greatest phenomenon in literary history and, during its first century, the world's best-known book after the Bible - was an equally big book by another rookie novelist named Charles Dickens?

If, that is, Dickens really deserves being remembered as the creator of the legendary Samuel Pickwick, whose famous image - round and bespectacled head, big belly, black gaiters - is even recognised by those who have never read the book describing his picaresque travels around England.

Calling Dickens' authorial claim "the greatest literary hoax in history", Jarvis weaves a staggering amount of research into a gripping, fictionalised presentation of his emphatically non-fictional argument: Dickens stole both the concept as well as various scenes and characters in "Pickwick" - including the fat man himself and his three companions - from Robert Seymour, the caricaturist who illustrated the serialised novel's first two issues.

When the young and relatively unknown Dickens was approached about providing text to accompany Seymour's illustrations, Seymour was already famous, drawing every third political caricature in Britain, along with hundreds of illustrations satirising everything from Shakespeare to sporting life.

Three days after the only known meeting of Seymour and Dickens - between publication of the first and second parts of Pickwick in 1836 - Seymour shot and killed himself.

Examining Seymour's surviving artwork and life while poking holes in the shifting and contradictory accounts by Dickens and his allies of how Pickwick began, Jarvis leaves little doubt that for all Dickens' undeniable genius, Seymour had much more to do with Pickwick than Dickens ever admitted.

Jarvis' compelling case is reason enough to read Death and Mr Pickwick. But that account doesn't begin to describe this novel's breathtaking shape and scope. Full and round, it features a huge cast of colourful characters from the Dickensian era; if you're looking for a tight story, this novel isn't for you.

Unlike Dickens' treatment of the ill-fated Seymour, this younger writer pays continual homage to his companion. And like "The Pickwick Papers," they both pay homage to a vanished age of eccentrics - extending back through the Age of Johnson to Cervantes - when neither the novel nor life was as moralistic, rule-bound or plot-driven as they would become.

Death and Mr Pickwick  by Stephen Jarvis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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