Sketches of Boz

In the second novel-length third of Stephen Jarvis’s hefty Death and Mr Pickwick, artist and caricaturist Robert Seymour starts in earnest to put ideas together for the Pickwick Papers. Yes, that’s right: here (as maybe in reality) it is the illustrator who comes up with the concept for the book, but being dyslexic and proud he doesn’t want to write it himself. Narrative pictures with brief “letterpress” text added by someone else afterwards is an established form at the time. Charles Dickens finally makes his entrance on the novel’s stage, first as as “Chatham Charlie”, then under his pen name “Boz”, and receives the commission to write the book. He gets the job because a more well-known writer turns it down, and because Boz is believed to be good at keeping to deadlines in a serialised form. Twelve thousand words a month!

The frame story continues to be interesting. Here, fat Mr. Inbelicate continually tries to convince the incredulous narrator that Seymour conceived most of Pickwick, and instructs him to write the novel thus. This of course mirrors the relationship between Seymour and Boz. Mr. Inbelicate has the idea for the book and has collected vast historical materials for it, but for some reason he can’t or won’t write it himself.

As in the first third of the novel, the digressions are many (what on Earth is the gratuitously cruel story of that electro-doctor doing there!?), and so are the minor characters, almost all of whom are male. Reading this fat paper book, which I have serialised for convenience into three volumes using a kitchen knife, I really missed the search function of an e-book. It would have been immensely useful in order to keep track of the many not very memorable participants in the 1830s London publishing scene.

At one point we see Seymour driven almost to suicide after being lampooned in print by a publisher he’s quarrelled with. And we see him moving to a new address with a summer house in the back garden, the very place where we know from real history that he will finally end his life after Pickwick’s initial instalments appear. The first third of the novel has Seymour. This the second third has Seymour + Boz clashing over creative control. The last third will have Boz only, and I expect Seymour’s widow Jane to step to the fore as a more important character (after 540 pp.) to claim her share of the bounty from the best-selling serialised novel. Stay tuned.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the final third on 9 May.

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