The final third of Stephen Jarvis’s upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick continues in the same rather kaleidoscopic fashion as before. The asides and Chinese boxes are innumerable. We never do get an important female character. The frame story is never developed much. In fact, the book only really has Robert Seymour the artist and Charles Dickens the writer, plus innumerable minor characters, and an agenda.
Jarvis’s main points with the novel are that a) Seymour deserves credit as co-creator of Pickwick’s first two or three chapters, b) Dickens deserves blame for dissembling and not sharing any of the Pickwick fortune with Seymour’s widow and children. I’m willing to agree on both points. But I don’t find them very interesting.
a. Dickens was an extremely prolific and creative writer with or without Seymour. If we learned that Pete Best provided important uncredited input on two songs on the first Beatles album, this would not change our opinion of Lennon-McCartney.
b. So Dickens wasn’t all nice. Many geniuses aren’t. Biographers have showed on much less shaky grounds that he mistreated his wife quite badly. In that situation it seems less important how he treated the widow of a man he met only once or twice. Neither Lennon nor McCartney have been great husbands, but they’re revered anyway. Just because you like cheese it doesn’t follow that you should be best friends with a cow.
Towards the end of the book, Jarvis has Dickens worrying that his posthumous reputation might be tarnished if someone found out about his unpaid literary debt to Seymour. This reads like the motivation for the whole novel project. But even if this finely written book becomes a great success, I don’t think the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations will have much to worry about. And nor do I believe that he did worry much.
Summing up I’d say that this brick of a book is so varied that it is rarely boring, but also so meandering that it is rarely particularly gripping.
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 second third on 18 April.