Was Dickens a Thief?

A new novel portrays the young writer of The Pickwick Papers as a conniving founder of modern mass culture.

Owen Freeman

On an April evening in 1836, two collaborators working on what would become one of the most popular novels of the 19th century met in London. The guest was the project’s illustrator, the comic artist Robert Seymour, whose speed and visual wit had made him arguably the most successful caricaturist of the decade. Seymour was famous enough to have persuaded a fledgling publishing firm, Chapman and Hall, to launch The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, a serial of four comic plates per month surrounded by enough suitably relevant text to fill 24 pages. The host was the writer hired to supply that text: an ambitious 24-year-old who had recently transitioned from parliamentary journalism to fictional-sketch writing. His name was Charles Dickens. Accounts of the meeting are murky at best. We know Dickens wanted to discuss his dissatisfaction with a plate for the second installment, a deathbed scene of an alcoholic pantomime actor. The only other certainty is that Seymour returned home that night, completed the plate over the next couple of days, and then killed himself with a shotgun.

The project, known soon thereafter and lastingly as The Pickwick Papers, tottered briefly but continued. Dickens persuaded the publishers to find a replacement for Seymour, and to increase the amount of monthly text and reduce the number of plates. By later that year a cultural phenomenon heretofore unmatched in the history of fiction had emerged. Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr. Pickwick, a sprawling debut novel more anticipated than Dickens’s debut was, builds gradually to a climactic description of the Pickwick craze:

In the afternoon it was common to see men who, by the state of them, had walked dusty miles to lay their hands upon a Pickwick; while in the evening, in every public house and inn the conversation was of the latest number and little else … Mr Pickwick was there, in front of everyone, like a real person, not as a hazy mist of head-hidden words: every man, woman and child had exactly the same image of Mr Pickwick in his or her consciousness. When a dustman talked of Mr Pickwick, a lord could know exactly who was meant because of the pictures. Your Mr Pickwick was my Mr Pickwick, was a universal Mr Pickwick—a being of fiction, a man-created man, was suddenly recognised by all. This was unprecedented in human affairs.

Jarvis’s novel is ostensibly about the origins of Pickwick: the gin-soaked precincts of the London press where it was shaped; the milieu of theatricals, boxing matches, and stagecoach houses from which its shapers took inspiration; and not least, the artists and writers Dickens would surpass. But look more closely, and it becomes clear that Jarvis has another aim: to tell the story of the mass culture that Pickwick created. He has written a novel that reflects upon the world-altering effects of novel-reading.

By late 1836, Pickwick was no longer just a serial novel. It was merchandise (Pickwick cigars, hats, canes, soaps), spin-offs (theatrical performances, bootleg editions, joke books), advertisements (on omnibuses, in newspapers). It was a virtual world—delivered in portable monthly episodes, the fictional action synchronized to match the nonfictional calendar—and it invaded the real one, creating a cross-class, national audience. The press run for its 19th and final installment was 40,000 copies, astonishing for the time. “Literature” is not a big enough category for Pickwick. It defined its own, a new one that we have learned to call “entertainment.”

Death and Mr. Pickwick is Pickwickian in its length and crowded palette, composed as a series of episodic vignettes about Seymour’s life and the lives of every significant figure that crossed his path. But unlike Pickwick, it has a conspiracy story to tell. Jarvis’s novel is framed by the quest of two modern researchers—the elder Inbelicate and his aide, Inscriptino, or Scripty (pseudonyms taken from printer errors in early copies of Pickwick’s first edition)—who have set out to discover why Seymour killed himself. Their search for clues gives the novel its propulsive momentum. The resolution of the mystery, revealed in a vivid unspooling of facts and motives, has a lot to say about the nature of the media culture that Pickwick helped spawn.

In Jarvis’s narrative, mass entertainment is rooted in an act of intellectual theft, because everything important about the Pickwick idea was Seymour’s: the concept of a letterpress-and-image serial that would reach a wide audience; the central character’s famous girth and his excessive credulity; even his name, taken from a famous stagecoach business based in Bath. Inbelicate and Scripty sift through and evaluate historical anecdotes, exhaustively re-creating Seymour’s life and career, to present a convincing prosecutor’s case for the novel’s twist, which is to prove Dickens as much a steely opportunist as a creator.

Take the question of how Dickens came to Pickwick. The received account, set down by Dickens in his three prefaces to the novel, is a kind of annunciation. It’s the sort of moment Dickens liked to stage in his early fiction: a well-placed and sympathetic benefactor, struck by the sunburst of a young man’s talent or inner worth, sees that he isn’t where he belongs, and raises him to his proper position. In this case, the patron was the publisher William Hall, who was so impressed by Dickens that he immediately “deferred to,” in Dickens’s words, the young writer’s views on the future direction of the plot. In later masterpieces such as Great Expectations, Dickens could be savagely critical of the impulse to imagine such a rescue by a benefactor, but it was one of his deepest impulses nonetheless. Can we trust a version of the Pickwick story that depends upon that fairy tale coming true?

Jarvis tells a darker tale, one that owes something to the malignant usurpers of Dickens’s late novels while also making historical sense. Dickens, a young writer without any leverage, badly needed money to marry. Chapman and Hall were, like all publishers, cautious about their investment, and were not about to abruptly undermine Seymour. In order to take over the project, Dickens alternately bullied and quietly disobeyed his collaborator. Jarvis narrates two plausible meetings between the writer and Seymour, carrying us along as Dickens first brusquely critiques Seymour’s presentation of the Pickwick idea, and then clinches his dominance by delivering calculated insults at the climactic meeting. Crippled by self-doubt, Seymour—portrayed as a semi-closeted, vulnerable gay man envisioning a future that would have no need for his kind of art—makes the most dramatic surrender possible.

But as in more-famous scandals, the real crime is the cover-up. Jarvis elaborates on the fact that in the two new prefaces Dickens wrote over the next 30 years, he was increasingly vehement in denying Seymour a role of any significance. By 1867, Dickens was insisting that “Mr. Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word, to be found in this book.” Dickens’s publisher Edward Chapman claimed that Pickwick’s plumpness and poor dress sense were his own idea, based on a former friend of his named John Foster. In Death and Mr. Pickwick, Jarvis invents an alternative scenario: he depicts Dickens’s close friend and adviser (and first biographer) John Forster as a cunning and unrepentant liar who orchestrates these claims. Inbelicate and Scripty have no doubt that “John Foster” was a barely disguised calling card Forster left behind to taunt posterity with his cleverness in erasing Seymour from historical memory and protecting the intellectual property of his celebrated friend. Jarvis’s Forster is the Mephistophelian ally Dickens needed to cement his reputation while keeping his conscience clean.

The story is so dramatically convincing that it is all the more surprising how much of it is historically verifiable: the “John Foster” detail, the tenuousness of Pickwick’s early days, the increasingly heated denials in Dickens’s later accounts of what occurred. Yet you could be forgiven for wondering why this should this matter to anyone but Dickens obsessives. One answer is that Jarvis is not simply recounting a gripping Victorian scandal; he is telling an unsettlingly modern tale. His Dickens may be wildly talented, but he is also a very recognizable type, an “innovator” and a “disruptor”—an identity as psychologically peculiar as “genius” and not wholly distinct from it, yet trailing a very different aura.

Coolly confident, a figure who lusts to break arrangements of all kinds: this Dickens belongs in a pantheon alongside not Balzac and Tolstoy but Jobs and Zuckerberg, a canny interloper ruthlessly making the most of a historical transition point. Jarvis doesn’t raise the comparison explicitly, but it is what primes Inbelicate and Scripty, our contemporaries, to suspect the truth of Dickens’s relation to Pickwick; like ours, their lives are lived in the shadow of such course-changing appropriations. For Jarvis, Seymour’s suicide was the last act of a more intimate and artisanal media world, and it freed Dickens’s ambition to imagine, and then seduce, a mass audience.

It isn’t just a 21st-century sensation to feel bathed in the same pool of images as others, to sense the disconcerting similarity of our minds’ furniture. Jarvis wants to tell the story of how that felt back in 1836, in a world not used to being connected virtually. There’s excitement to the new awareness, along with a real sense of loss as the monoculture of Pickwick, in all its marvelousness, begins to eclipse a reality of messier, more immediate interactions. And Jarvis calls attention to another cost: a new rapaciousness toward intellectual property, one that would—in an irony familiar from more-recent media innovations—lead thieves to anxiously defend intellectual property as such once their theft was over. As Jarvis reminds us, Dickens ended up dedicating Pickwick to Thomas Talfourd, an early crusader for the extension of copyrights.

Pickwick was so good at being comfortingly nostalgic—for coaches and village cricket matches and roguish itinerant actors, a whole mythology of England in 19 monthly installments—that the cultural transformation hardly felt like the seismic shift it actually was. Perhaps Dickens’s greatest talent was to be a relentless modernizer while offering so many reassuring pleasures. Summoning the ghost of Robert Seymour, as Jarvis does here, is a way of remembering what the world looked like—with its discrete universes, its robust physicality—right before so many of us began to be able to read the same thing at the same time and hear the same ambient cultural noise. If today we think of novels as a private refuge from our virtual cohabitation, it’s because we’ve forgotten that it started with a novel.