Stephen Jarvis's Death and Mr. Pickwickis not quite like any other novel I've ever read. I'll explain why in a moment.
First, I need to tell you something about the characters and plot. The novel gives a fictionalized account of the life of Robert Seymour, the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers. Written in a rambling and episodic style, like Pickwick itself, Jarvis's book thoroughly examines not just Seymour's life, but also the myriad of influences on his life and work -- the world he grew up in, the artists whose work he saw and the writers whose work inspired his own art, his employers and relatives and friends. In particularly minute detail, he recounts everything in Seymour's life and work (for instance, a habit of drawing plump men, an interest in fishing, a meeting with a particularly gullible person) that might have any relation to anything in Pickwick.
There's a reason for this. Jarvis is trying to make the case that Pickwick really belongs to Seymour and not to Dickens. He gives us long passages with Seymour imagining the story and carefully plotting each detail of his pictures for it -- the fact that an author will be needed to provide words to go with the illustrations is almost an afterthought. And once that author is found -- 24-year-old Charles Dickens, fresh off the success of Sketches by Boz -- he will spoil everything for Seymour.
The New York Times ran a review late last week of Stephen Jarvis's novel on the creation of Pickwick. Reviewer Michael Upchurch writes:
"Jarvis echoes Dickens’s own narrative strategies by packing 'Death and Mr. Pickwick' with numerous digressions, flashbacks and tales within tales (many of them recastings of episodes found in 'The Pickwick Papers'). But Jarvis’s approach to digression is often more suffocatingly mechanical than zestily harebrained. Immediately upon being introduced, his characters, however minor, have their backgrounds explained. Most of these plodding flashbacks bring the central story to a halt."
I'm not yet to the halfway point of Death and Mr. Pickwick, so I'm not ready to write my own review. I will say only that so far, Upchurch's impressions strike me as pretty accurate.
Two hundred years ago today, on May 19, 1815, Catherine Hogarth Dickens was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Thanks to The Buzfuz for the tip!)
Of all I've read about Charles Dickens's wife and all that she went through, my favorite remains Gaynor Arnold's novel Girl in a Blue Dress. Though the story is fictionalized and the names are changed, the book is full of profound emotional and psychological truth, and pays a great tribute to this woman about whom we know so much and yet so little.
And so, in honor of her birthday, here's a passage from that book about a pivotal moment in her life:
. . . Well, only figuratively. (But it makes a good post title, doesn't it?) I'm referring to an article by Frances Wilson in the New Statesmanabout "vampiric writers" -- a vampiric writer being one who "one who sinks his, or her, fangs into the flesh of another writer, and in so doing gives him or her a second life as a fictional figure." Wilson argues that Stephen Jarvis does this to Charles Dickens in his novel Death and Mr. Pickwick, accusing Jarvis of both "demonising" and "dehumanising" Dickens.
Well, I've sent for a review copy of Jarvis's novel, so we shall see . . .
Mr. Pickwick's faithful servant has been getting a bit of media attention lately. In The Paris Review, Nina Martyris writes about how the creation of this character became a turning point in Dickens's life and career, while at the blog SleuthSayers, Stephen Jarvis (author of Death and Mr. Pickwick) argues that Sam was originally illustrator Robert Seymour's idea. (H/T The Buzfuz)
Readers are swept away from the first page of J. C. Briggs's The Murder of Patience Brooke, deep into the streets of foggy London and the quiet, sleeping Urania Cottage. When Patience Brooke, one of the women who has been helped by the home for women established by Charles Dickens, is found brutally murdered, Charles Dickens is sent for at once. Together with his friend Sam Jones, Superintendent of Scotland Yard, Dickens sets out to find the murderer.