Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr. Pickwick is an engrossing fictional account of the events surrounding the composition and publication of one of the classics of Victorian fiction, Charles Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.
In prefaces to editions of the book, beginning with The Cheap Edition of 1847, Charles Dickens explains how he became involved in the project. He was approached, he writes, by the “managing partner” of book seller, publishers Chapman and Hall to provide letterpress for a monthly serial publication that would allow for several illustrative etchings by the popular artist Robert Seymour.
It was suggested that the subject of the letterpress might be the comic adventures of a club of inept sportsmen, but that he felt the subject was too limiting and indeed somewhat hackneyed. It was agreed that he would have the freedom to take the subject in his own way and deal with a freer range of English scenes and people. Biographers and scholars have long given their imprimatur to Dickens’ version of events, although Seymour’s widow maintained that the idea for the series was her husband’s.
Along comes Stephen Jarvis and in the 800 page fictional tour de force he calls Death and Mr. Pickwick, he posits a counterfactual narrative. What if the biographers and scholars are wrong, what if Jane Seymour was right! What indeed! The book is filled with more than enough historically verifiable material about the period to give his argument plenty of cred. Jarvis knows 19th century England and his picture is painted with stylish wit.
Indeed, he may well have readers less familiar with the period scurrying to Wikipedia to learn more about semi-famous characters like the clown Grimaldi and socially scandalous Lady Caroline Norton or lesser knowns like editor Gilbert à Beckett and illustrator Robert Buss. The book is rich in detail, perhaps too rich for some, though often details and characters that seem gratuitous turn out to be, like Chekov’s gun, more significant than we were led to believe.
Moreover, built into this biographical narrative there is also an examination of what the ultimate massive popularity of Pickwick tells us about the phenomenon of pop cultural success. Pickwick was the Victorian equivalent of going viral. Understanding what made for its success clearly has something to tell us about the latest cat video making the rounds, and the latest cat video may well have something to tell us about the success of Pickwick.
Readers, I would hope, would not be daunted by this 800 page behemoth. This is a book, like its 800 page ancestor, that is worth the pages. On the other hand, if ever a book cried out for Seymour originals and Seymour-like illustrations from others, it is Death and Mr. Pickwick. Jarvis does spend a lot of words describing illustrations. One picture as they say.
While it is not essential that a reader have studied 19th century England and Dickens in general, and The Pickwick Papers in particular to understand what’s going on in the Jarvis tome, the more familiar with these things, the more enjoyable your reading experience is likely to be. At any rate keep Wikipedia handy.