Wednesday 10 August 2016

The Seven Ages of Death and Mr Pickwick

I am thrilled to throw open the salon doors to Stephen Jarvis, author of the marvellous, Death and Mr Pickwick. I heartily recommend the novel, which is an utter delight, and Stephen's post will give a wonderful introduction to his remarkable work!


The Seven Ages of Death and Mr Pickwick

My novel, Death and Mr Pickwick, is now out in paperback. It tells the story behind the creation of Charles Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers - and In my view, The Pickwick Papers has the most fascinating backstory of any work of fiction: it cried out to be turned into a novel that's what I did! 

But what is Death and Mr Pickwick's own backstory? I have broken down the evolution of my novel into seven 'ages'. And here they are.

Griff Rhys Jones
First Age: It all began in 2001 when I was listening to the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. As you probably know, the celebrities who appear on this show select eight pieces of music and one book to take to a hypothetical desert island. On this occasion, the guest was the comedian Griff Rhys Jones, and he chose The Pickwick Papers as his book, which he said was "so full of life". There was something about that phrase which resonated with me.  And so, as I had never read The Pickwick Papers before, I decided to get the novel out of my local library.  In the modern-day preface there was one line referring to the suicide of Pickwick's first illustrator, Robert Seymour, and I was instantly fascinated. Why had this man killed himself? I wanted to know more - and the fact that nothing more was said just made the suicide all the more intriguing.  Also, the preface stated that Pickwick had been a truly huge, global phenomenon - and the idea of this colossal success set against the personal tragedy of a suicide was fascinating. I got a real buzz inside - I just KNEW there was something here that had to be investigated and written about. 
Second Age: My original intention was to write a novel  about Seymour.   He had shot himself with a fowling gun (a sort of nineteenth-century shotgun) after doing a drawing of a dying clown for The Pickwick Papers, and, because he was a professional cartoonist, whose job was to amuse the public,  I wondered whether he saw himself as a dying clown.  I realised also that the book had to be a novel about Seymour, not a biography, because nothing was known about a fateful meeting between Seymour and Dickens: after that meeting, Seymour came home in a state of extreme emotional distress, and he burnt all his correspondence and papers about the Pickwick project. A few days later he lay dead in his garden. His heart was literally torn to pieces by the gunshot. But anyone attempting to write a biography would have to be silent about what happened at that meeting - and such a book would almost certainly seem like it was missing its most crucial element. Only a fiction which was plausible could fill the gap.

Third Age: However, as I read more about the background to The Pickwick Papers, I began to encounter other intriguing characters. For instance, I discovered that Pickwick's dying clown was inspired by the tragedy of a real clown, J S Grimaldi. Then there was the artist R W Buss, who is most famous today for the painting Dickens's Dream - but many years before doing that work, he had been Seymour's replacement as the Pickwick illustrator, and was fired after producing just two pictures, which left him mentally scarred. 

I discovered so many interesting characters tied up with Pickwick, from a wine merchant with a pet vulture, to a Prime Minister put on trial for adultery that I decided to change course.  My objective now was to turn the novel into a fictionalised history of the entire Pickwick phenomenon.  This gave Death and Mr Pickwick an epic range. 
Dickens's Dream
Fourth Age:  But I did not realise just how HUGE the task of researching the book would be, once I changed course. It used to be said that more had been written about The Pickwick Papers than any other novel - and I can believe it. I set myself the task of reading everything ever written about The Pickwick Papers...and I am talking about hundreds of academic papers and books, and countless newspaper articles. In all, it took twelve years to write Death and Mr Pickwick.
Mr Pickwick Addresses the Club by Robert Seymour

Fifth Age:  The book changed course again when I discovered that Dickens had lied about the origins of Pickwick. Contradictions started to emerge in his account of how the novel came into existence, and there was a complete lack of evidence for his statements.  I also looked into the background of Dickens's agent and biographer, John Forster, and discovered firstly that Forster had written some historical works, and secondly that he had no reputation as a historian - he was quite prepared to fabricate evidence and be fiercely partisan. In other words, he was exactly the sort of person to persuade Dickens to lie about the origins of Pickwick. 

Sixth Age: Publication! The hardback was published in mid 2015 by arguably the two most prestigious publishers in the English-speaking world: Random House in the UK, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the UK. The book attracted a lot of acclaim -  in the UK, The Sunday Times declared it to be "Outstanding" while The Daily Telegraph called it "A masterpiece of imagination".  The book also made the Oprah Winfrey list in the USA, and was declared to be "Astounding" by the American book-trade journal Publisher's Weekly.  Important articles about the book appeared in The Atlantic Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, and many other places. The main negative note was struck by the New York Times -  and that review was described by my agent  as 'an abomination'. But overall, reviews were very favourable. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, even declared Death and Mr Pickwick to be his book of the year, as did Lord Bird, the founder of Big Issue magazine. The novel was also nominated for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.  Some people did ask me, after publication, "Do you need to read The Pickwick Papers before reading Death and Mr Pickwick?" The answer is no, not at all. However, if you read Death and Pickwick, you may well be led to read The Pickwick Papers afterwards.  

Two disgraceful responses to the novel came from the Dickensian community. On the Dickens Blog, I was declared to be an inept, hate-driven conspiracy-theorist...and the reviewer completely ignored the evidence of Dickens's lies. In the journal Dickens Quarterly, the reviewer tried to re-define Dickens's lies as non-lies, using academic jargon. These pieces should not be taken seriously. 

Seventh Age: An extraordinary fan community for the book is now building at the facebook page There are now hundreds of posts on the page, which give fresh insights into Death and Mr Pickwick every day. Moreover, these posts are now being turned into an e-flipbook, which is much easier to access than facebook. Nine volumes of the e-flipbook are now online, and a tenth will be added soon. To access the flipbook volumes, go to and click on the 'Further Reading' tab - you will see ideas for Death and Mr Pickwick excursions, historical research, lots of scenes of eating and drinking, and much more!  One of the fans on the page even suggested that perhaps no other novel has such a facebook presence as Death and Mr Pickwick. I am beginning to think he might be right. 

Written content of this post copyright © Stephen Jarvis, 2016.

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