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.