May 18, 2015
Charles Dickens: A pack of lies! (maybe)
by Taylor Sperry
The beloved 19th-century English author Charles Dickens has been accused of adultery and avarice and being “an all-around rotter,” and a new book indicates that he was also possibly a plagiarist.
Death and Mr. Pickwick, Stephen Jarvis’s forthcoming work of “fact-based fiction”—or, as he calls it, “faction” (oh, please, let that not become a term that we use)—suggests that the serialized novel that made Dickens famous, The Pickwick Papers, might have actually been the brainchild of Dickens’s illustrator, Robert Seymour: “It was Seymour, [Jarvis] says, who who invented Mr. Pickwick and his Club of Cockney Sportsmen, and his illustrations were to take primacy over the accompanying text, until Dickens came along with his ‘pack of lies.’”
Seymour had pitched the idea and artwork for “The Laughable Misadventures of a Club of Newly Affluent Cockney Sportsmen” to the publishers Chapman & Hall, who then commissioned Dickens to write 12,000 accompanying words. A meeting was arranged among the publishers, Dickens, and Seymour, but Seymour apparently burned some of the Pickwick images and then committed suicide before the meeting could take place.
It sounds shadier than it probably was. Louisa Price, who curates the Dickens Museum, notes that “Seymour was a troubled man with many demons beating at his door (anxiety, illegitimacy, and more)” and cautions against being too quick to embrace the revisionist accounts of “secondary figures.”
Death and Mr. Pickwick, Jarvis’s whopping 800-page book of “faction,” will be out in June.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.