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Death and Mr. Pickwick
By Stephen Jarvis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Earlier this fall, I ended up randomly stumbling across an intriguing-looking new novel at my neighborhood library, called Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, which purports to be the "true story" behind the publishing of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers; but of course to appreciate such a novel to its fullest, I realized that I was going to have to read Dickens' original as well, so I picked that up on the same day and have been spending the last several months slowly making my way through the combined 1,600 pages of material. For those who don't know, The Pickwick Papers was Dickens' first book, after first making a splash in his early twenties with a series of short comical articles in the British penny dreadfuls. See, at the time, a hugely popular form of publishing consisted of stories mainly made up of funny illustrations, of which a writer of light verse would be hired to essentially make up lengthy captions afterwards describing what was going on, the series usually centered around a generalized concept that could be extended for as long as the pieces were popular; and this is exactly how Pickwick started out as well, originally the creation of the then-famous illustrator Robert Seymour, concerning the notes, travels and experiments of a "club" of pompous proto-scientists and wannabe-historians, with the 24-year-old Dickens originally hired simply to write a few lines of humorous prose to explain what exactly was going on in the etches, the main reason people were tuning in to begin with. But Dickens had a different idea in mind, writing lengthier and lengthier stories to go with each illustration, eagerly eaten up by what at the time was a population of rapidly rising literates, a sort of perfect storm of publishing innovations and reform in public schooling that created an insatiable public appetite for the first time for written fiction; and when Seymour ended up killing himself just a few chapters into the series, essentially the process of putting them together got reversed, with Dickens now writing the stories in advance and the hired illustrators now in charge of drawing what he was describing, not the other way around, which most historians consider a hugely positive watershed moment in the history of Victorian literature.
And Jarvis's Death and Mr. Pickwick covers this same ground, only in the opposite direction -- in his equally delightful and equally overstuffed novel, Seymour is the hero, picture-stories are to be commended, while Dickens is portrayed as the evil villain who came along and ruined everything. Although if you're going to pick up Jarvis's contemporary novel, the first thing to know is that it's not just about this subject; in fact it is no less than a sweeping look at what daily life was like in London at the dawn of the Victorian Age, and as such gets into such minute detail about such things as British restaurants and Victorian entertainment options that you will undoubtedly go mad from it all, unless you steel yourself in advance for the idea that this is why the novel even exists, not necessarily to push along a fast-moving (or even normal-moving) plot. As such, then, it's a lot of fun to make your way through as long as you have the right attitude and lots of time; although just like with Dickens' original, if you're not prepared for a regular amount of rambling, off-kilter digressions happening literally every other chapter or so, both of these giant books are going to end up driving you really crazy. It gets a limited recommendation from me today for that reason, a fine read for people who are in the mood for it, but a book you should stay far away from if you're not.
Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.0 for fans of Victorian literature