Sheer storytelling gusto drives “The Pickwick Papers,” and if Charles Dickens’s first novel sometimes resembles a dinner-party guest who never stops talking, that’s part of its charm. Now, 180 years later, the same engaging discursiveness envelops us in the most successful portions of “Death and Mr. Pickwick,” Stephen Jarvis’s formidably knowledgeable, obsessive riff on all things Pickwick.
His framing device seems initially an excuse for stringing together a parade of entertaining anecdotes: A mysterious Mr. Inbelicate hires someone dubbed Inscriptino to produce a manuscript based on decades of Pickwickian research.
The novel’s first half is loosely centered on the experiences of the real-life illustrator Robert Seymour, who conceived “Pickwick” as a series of pictures linked by short descriptions. Jarvis sends readers on marvelous excursions into English social and cultural life in the early 19th century. A print-shop owner recalls crowds gathered to laugh at James Gillray’s political caricatures posted in the window — and the men who used those crowds to find other men of their sexual proclivities. A meeting in debtor’s prison and a drunken night on the town serve to explain the origins of the monthly serials that pointed the way to “Pickwick”: the misadventures of Dr. Syntax, chronicled in images by Thomas Rowlandson and accompanied by written-to-order verse; and “Life in London,” which married sporting journalist Pierce Egan’s words with George and Robert Cruikshank’s drawings to create “an illustrated work of fiction in parts . . . an historic turning point.”
Seymour, we learn, was inspired by these pioneers — and no stranger to the covert activities of print-shop audiences, though he chooses marriage and respectability after briefly cohabiting with another man in Islington’s Canonbury Tower. Nonconformists of all kinds must be careful in the increasingly straitlaced England of the 1820s. The scatological humor of artists like Rowlandson is no longer acceptable, and Seymour’s political caricatures must endure the scrutiny of authorities who fear that the newly assertive working classes “can be inflamed by a single picture.”
Jarvis paints an energetic portrait of a nation in transition, with new forms of publishing claiming his attention along with stories about sporting clubs, coaching inns, dying clowns, adulterous prime ministers and other historical particulars that Pickwickians will recognize as ingredients in the literary stew that begins to be dished out monthly in 1836.
Those ingredients are gathered principally by Seymour. But we also see a comic performer who inspired Dickens to create Sam Weller. The introduction of that shrewd cockney character in the fourth installment turns “The Pickwick Papers” from a commercial disappointment into an unprecedented success. At this point, though, Jarvis’s colorful picaresque turns into a screed against Dickens, the ambitious writer who made his reputation with a text that was supposed to be mere connective tissue for Seymour’s illustrations. That indictment has some merit. The narrator identifies numerous discrepancies in Dickens’s various statements about the evolution of “Pickwick” to argue that Seymour had a greater impact on the finished project than Dickens wished to acknowledge.
The trouble is, this is supposed to be a novel, and the excruciating detail of the indictment is more appropriate to a scholarly monograph. Jarvis better serves his goal of restoring the progenitor of “Pickwick” to his rightful stature in several overwrought but effective fictional scenes that depict an arrogant Dickens goading a distraught Seymour. Dickens’s close friend John Forster comes off as the odious mastermind of a coverup that denied the artist proper credit. This uneasy mix of factual nit-picking and dramatic reenactment exemplifies Jarvis’s central problem: Having failed to choose a coherent approach to his material, he settles for trying to write two or three different kinds of books simultaneously.
Coherence, however, is hardly the most Dickensian of virtues, and so much of “Death and Mr. Pickwick” gives such pleasure that it would be churlish to leave a list of its faults as the final word. At his best, Jarvis wonderfully recaptures the antic, convivial spirit of “The Pickwick Papers” while illuminating its sources and paying eloquent tribute to the gifted, conflicted man who played an instrumental role in its creation.
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940” and a frequent reviewer for The Washington Post.
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By Stephen Jarvis
Farrar Straus Giroux. 816 pp. $30