This work of ‘fictionalised history’, as the author addressed it on a bleak July evening in a small auditorium, explores the origin and entire history of Charles Dickens’ most beloved piece of work at that time – The Pickwick Papers. Jarvis claimed the work was ‘Harry Potter times ten thousand’ and ‘bigger than the Beatles’, it was unprecedented for such a piece of work to be so universally renowned to the extent ‘even the royal or most powerful weren’t as famous as this’. Of course, such pandemonium circulated around Pickwick, leaving it (especially the Hotels) to be overrun by tourists to say they’ve shook hands with a Mr Pickwick. Some would quip ‘I could give them the dirt of my shoe and they would thank me’.
Pickwickian in its length, the book is composed as a series of episodic pieces concerning the great caricaturist (and original illustrator of The Pickwick Papers) Robert Seymour’s, and every significant figure that crossed his path, lives. Unlike its muse, it has a conspiracy story to tell. Inbelicate and his assistant, Inscriptino / Scripty (the pseudonyms were taken from printer errors in early copies of Pickwick’s first edition) embark on a journey regarding the supposed suicide of Seymour. This quest gives the novel its propulsive momentum all of which culminates in the resolution of the mystery, of which it has much to say about the nature of the media culture Pickwick helped spawn. Ostensibly circulating around the origins of Pickwick, the author has another aim of displaying the mass culture so far described. Nearing the end of 1836, Pickwick transcended its serial format. There was merchandise (e.g. Pickwick cigars, canes, hats), advertisements everywhere and spin-offs in both the physical and literary realms. A virtual world, delivered in monthly episodes, which ran in the presses for nineteen instalments – with the final one issuing 40,000 copies. Pickwick had bridged ‘Literature’ with ‘entertainment’.
Author Stephen Jarvis, a former Telegraph columnist, devoted twelve years on his research and writing drawing upon different editions of the book, contemporary newspapers articles and drawings to detail his Dickensian debut. The talk itself had a strong local emphasis with Jarvis acknowledging the local Pickwick family and speaking at length on Mr Pickwick who ran the Hare and Hound pub, not too far from the Arts Centre, as one with the most extraordinary voice ‘like a combination of Barry White and Mickey Mouse in one person.’ Indeed, we did in fact impart wisdom of our own concerning a Mrs Hancock (to him a housekeeper of Mr Pickwick), as found out it is also a common surname in the Corsham area. The topic of Pickwick Papers is particularly interesting to me (son of the owner of the local newsagents Barnett Brothers) as one who often delivers papers to Pickwick.
Death and Mr Pickwick was published by Jonathon Cape in May earlier this year and can be bought at the Corsham Bookshop for a modest £20.00. ISBN: 9780224099660
Thanks to Stephen Jarvis for his talk and Janet Brakspear for supplying the books. Quotes are from his talk to the Pounds Art Centre, unless stated otherwise.
Jarvis, Stephen. Death and Mr Pickwick, Jonathon Cape, May 2015
Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers, Wordsworth Editions, May 1992
Dames, Nicholas. Was Dickens a Thief? The Atlantic, June 2015