About The Author
Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex. He is a member of the Dickens Fellowship.
His debut novel is Death and Mr Pickwick, a gloriously Dickensian journey through the story of the creation of Victorian publishing sensation, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by 'Boz'.
Now rather better known as Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, the book was originally published in 20 parts from March 1836 to October 1837. The first two issues were illustrated by celebrated caricaturist Robert Seymour, before he took his own life.
Jarvis' novel, based on his own detailed research into Seymour's life - he rediscovered the artist's gravestone, the whereabouts of which had been unknown for century - is structured around an ongoing investigation into the idea, supported by many Dickens scholars, that the idea for Mr Pickwick's misadventures was originally conceived by Seymour. Dickens himself always rejected the idea, going so far as to write a foreword claiming that the story was entirely his own work.
Starting from their earliest years, the books reveals how Seymour and Dickens came to be paired up for what turned out to be one of the most sensational projects in publishing history, exploring the Victorian fashion for bitingly satirical cartoons, and the sad aftermath for Seymour's family as Dickens took possession of Seymour's carefully plotted ideas.
It's novel worthy of Dickens himself, and also reminiscent of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick with its fascinating and detailed dissection of the culture of the time. And no prior reading of The Pickwick Papers is required!
In our exclusive interview, Stephen discusses what led him to believe that Dickens tried to bury Seymour's contribution, why The Pickwick Papers was the Victorian era's Big Brother and why it should still be regarded at Dickens' finest achievement.
Questions & Answers
Your fascination with The Pickwick Papers began with hearing Griff Rhys Jones choose it as his book on Desert Island Discs. What led you to the story of Robert Seymour and the suspicion that he deserved more credit for the book's origins than has been generally believed?
I was led to Seymour because I saw a single line referring to his suicide in the preface to a modern-day edition of The Pickwick Papers, and I was instantly fascinated – I got a real 'buzz' inside. The fact that nothing else was said about Seymour in that preface just made it all the more fascinating, and I just knew that there was something interesting here which had to be investigated and written about. As for my suspicions – well, at first, I accepted what Dickens and his publisher Edward Chapman had said about Pickwick’s origins, which was that Seymour had come up with an idea for a club of cockney sportsmen, called the Nimrod Club, but that Dickens overturned Seymour’s ideas, until only vestiges remained, in the form of the sporting tastes of the character Mr Winkle.
Moreover, Dickens’ publisher, Edward Chapman, claimed that he had come up with the visual image of the main character, Mr Pickwick, and had instructed Seymour to base the image on a man whom Chapman knew. I had originally intended to make this associate of Chapman’s a character in the novel – but then I couldn’t find any evidence for his existence. So that aroused my suspicions. Also, I discovered that there were characters that Seymour had drawn long before his involvement with Dickens which were obvious prototypes of Mr Pickwick. So my suspicions were even more aroused. I then looked in much closer detail at the accounts given by Dickens and Chapman of Pickwick’s origins, and found blatant contradictions, which meant that their version of events simply couldn’t be true. I go into this in great detail in the novel, where I have Seymour’s son discovering these contradictions. I also discovered that Dickens’s contemporaries gave a rather different account of Pickwick’s origins. For instance, the artist Robert Buss, who temporarily replaced Seymour as the artist after the suicide, said that Seymour had invented Mr Pickwick and the members of the Pickwick Club - that wasn’t the small role that Dickens and Chapman gave to Seymour. Everything I subsequently discovered cast further doubt on the claims of Dickens and Chapman. There were even newspaper reports which stated that Dickens had been ‘writing up’ to Seymour’s pictures – the exact opposite of what Dickens himself claimed.
When the story of Dickens and Seymour was covered in the press in 2011, it was mentioned that you were writing a biography of Seymour. Did this turn into a novel or is the other book perhaps still to come?
I always intended to write the story as a novel. However, I was aware that if I was too open about that, it could have made research rather difficult – it would be very easy for others, particularly academics, to dismiss the work as 'mere fiction', and be unwilling to cooperate. So, I usually said that I was writing 'a book' about Seymour and the origins of The Pickwick Papers, and people normally inferred that I was writing a biography. If people asked for more details, I would be honest, and say that it was a novel, but I didn’t offer that information unless pressed.
Where did you get the idea of your framing narrator and his associate, Messrs Inscriptino and Inbelicate, both named after typographical errors in the original publication?
I made it my mission to read everything ever written about The Pickwick Papers – and I came across an old newspaper clipping in a scrapbook in the Dickens Museum which mentioned these errors. Typographical errors are of interest to people who collect first-edition Pickwicks because they can make a first edition more valuable. I was really intrigued by the sounds of those errors – particularly ‘Inscriptino’ which seemed like a good nom-de-plume for a writer. I made a note of the errors, but wasn’t really certain how they would be used at that stage. I just had a feeling they would come in handy. Indeed, at that point, I didn’t really know how I would structure the book at all. Then, one day, it just occurred to me that ‘correcting’ the false origin story put forward by Dickens and Chapman was rather like correcting a typographical error. So Inscriptino and Inbelicate became characters.
Despite accolades such as 'the immortal book' and Inscriptino's declaration that instead of the Victorian era, we 'might just as well call it the Pickwickian era', other Dickens novels such as Great Expectations, Bleak House and David Copperfield are now more commonly cited as his greatest. Why do you think The Pickwick Papers has lost its pre-eminence?
The Pickwick Papers was the most famous novel in the world until about 1930, and I suspect that it went into decline because people were becoming more mobile. Pickwick is, at heart, a travel book – but by 1930, people were travelling a lot more, by car, train and plane. There wasn’t such a need for Pickwick to be the means of seeing the world. As for other Dickens novels being greater than Pickwick – I suppose it’s because people think that novels ought to have more of a plot and a structure. But when Dickens died, The Times proclaimed Pickwick as his masterpiece – and it’s easy to see why. Nothing else matches Pickwick’s scope, with its vast array of characters, and its diverse styles of writing. His other novels are, at the end of the day, just novels: you get to the end, you close them, and that’s that. Pickwick is different. After you have read it, you feel that you have travelled a very long way yourself. And what’s more, you want to re-examine the details of the journey, and try to find some coherence in them. That’s why you get people reading Pickwick over and over again. For instance, Harold Bloom is said to have read Pickwick about a hundred times, and he regards it as his favourite Dickens novel.
You've enraged some fellow Dickens fans by comparing the contemporary cultural impact of The Pickwick Papers with that of reality TV show Big Brother. Do you think Dickens fans today are simply unaware of quite how popular he was in his day?
Well, I suspect that people know that Dickens was hugely popular in his day, but they don’t realise that a great part of his popularity was down to The Pickwick Papers. But the truth is that Pickwick was Dickens’ most popular novel by far. And yes, I see definite parallels between Pickwick and Big Brother. Both are rambling, plotless things, in which alcohol fuels many an episode, and the emphasis is on observing characters. People are fascinated by other people, and that is why Pickwick became the greatest literary phenomenon in history, and why Big Brother is one of the most successful television franchises in history.
After such a mammoth project, do you have any idea yet where you writing and research will take you next?
I have an idea for another mammoth project! Watch this space… a few years down the road!