About the book
How Death and Mr Pickwick came to be
by Stephen Jarvis
I began this novel in 2001 after listening to an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
As is well-known, guests on the show are required to take eight pieces of music and a book to an imaginary desert island - and on this occasion the guest was the comedian Griff Rhys Jones. For his book, he chose Dickens’s first novel The Pickwick Papers, which he described as “so full of life”. I had never read Pickwick before, and so I borrowed a copy from my local library. In the preface, I found one line referring to the suicide of the book’s first illustrator, Robert Seymour, and I was instantly fascinated. Why had this man shot himself? Moreover, he had committed suicide shortly after illustrating an interpolated story in Pickwick about a dying clown, and I wondered whether the subject of the picture was related to Seymour’s own death. Thus, before I had read a single line of Pickwick, I had a “buzz” inside: I just knew that there was something extraordinary here.
But although this led to my starting a novel about the life and suicide of an early nineteenth-century artist, the novel transformed itself into a work of much greater scope when my research revealed other intriguing characters associated with Pickwick; and it changed once again when further research led to my uncovering the greatest literary hoax in history.
Writing a novel was a new departure. I had previously written articles, in a humorous vein, for The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers and magazines, concerning bizarre leisure activities: I would typically do something strange - such as lying on a bed of nails, or trying out a weird sport like toe-wrestling - and then I would describe my experiences and the eccentric characters I had met. This in turn led to my making numerous appearances on British and overseas radio programmes: producers always knew that I could be relied upon to supply fresh, amusing anecdotes. I now embarked on the rather more serious task of researching the visual culture of London in the 1830s - and it soon became clear that Robert Seymour was a central figure in this culture.
Seymour was the most prolific cartoonist of his day, responsible for literally thousands of pictures. He was also producing cartoons at a time of intense political activity, the period of the Reform Bill, and it is estimated that he drew one-third of all the cartoons of the era - a prodigious output, twice as productive as his nearest rival. Though largely forgotten nowadays, it was quite clear that Seymour had once been a major figure in London life. He had even been described as “the Shakespeare of caricature”.
But as my research continued, and I started to look into the background of The Pickwick Papers, I began to encounter other intriguing characters. One was the artist R W Buss, who was Seymour’s immediate successor as the Pickwick illustrator: Buss was fired after producing just two pictures, and was left mentally scarred by the experience. Then there was the writer Charles Whitehead, who turned down the offer from Pickwick’s publishers, Chapman and Hall, to be Seymour’s partner, and who ended his days as a broken-down drunk in Australia. Next, I discovered that the tale of the dying clown was based upon the tragic life of a real clown, J S Grimaldi. And then, I came across the case of the man who was so obsessed by Pickwick that he devoted fifteen years of his life to cataloguing every word in the book... The material I discovered was so rich, indeed, that it could not be ignored - and so I changed course. I decided to turn the novel into a fictionalised history of the entire Pickwick phenomenon.
And it is no exaggeration to say that Pickwick was the greatest literary phenomenon there has ever been: for almost a century, Pickwick was, with the exception of the Bible, the best-known book in the world. Accordingly, I decided that Seymour would remain the novel’s central character, but I broadened my scope, to explore the overall causes and effects of The Pickwick Papers. The novel would also parallel Pickwick’s structure, with numerous interpolations and digressions, all shedding some light on Pickwick. In particular, episodes in Pickwick would be replaced by my accounts of the real events that inspired them - so for instance, Dickens’s famous trial of Bardell v Pickwick would have its counterpart, in my book, in the trial of the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, for adultery, while Dickens’s interpolated story of the legendary Prince Bladud would be replaced by my own retelling of that legend. This gave the novel a range which could even be considered epic. Hence, although my novel is mostly set in the nineteenth century, the Bladud section is set in ancient Celtic Britain, and quite a few scenes are set in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The research was a huge project in its own right. It used to be said that more had been written about Pickwick than any other English novel, and I can believe it. There are hundreds of academic books and papers about Pickwick, and I realised that these all had to be read in order to truly understand the Pickwick phenomenon. This reading was supplemented by my extensive investigations of newspaper cuttings. I have no doubt that I have read thousands of individual items. This is why the book took over a decade to write.
But as my research continued, one thing became abundantly clear: the accepted origin of Pickwick - as put forward by Dickens, his agent-biographer John Forster, and his publisher Edward Chapman - was not true. Contradictions started to emerge in the origin story, and there was a complete lack of supporting evidence for the statements made by Dickens and his associates. I came to see the accepted origin as a sort of malicious hoax, whose primary purpose was to airbrush Robert Seymour out of history. For me, it makes perfect sense that Dickens would be a hoaxer - his hobby was conjuring, so he enjoyed deceiving people - but also, when I started to look into the background of John Forster, I discovered that he had no reputation as a historian, because of his tendency to fabricate material and be fiercely partisan. Given the status of Pickwick, I think the hoax can justly be described as the greatest literary hoax in history. If there is a literary equivalent to Piltdown Man, this is it.