On 31 March 1836 the publishers Chapman & Hall launched the first issue of a new monthly periodical entitled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Conceived and created by the artist Robert Seymour, it contained four of his illustrations; the words to accompany them were written by a young journalist who used the pen-name Boz.
The story of a sporting-cum-drinking club presided over by fat, loveable Mr Pickwick, assisted by his cockney manservant Sam Weller, The Pickwick Papers soon became a popular sensation, outselling every other book except the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, and read and discussed by the entire population of the British Isles, from the duke’s drawing-room to the lowliest chophouse. The fame of Mr Pickwick soon spread worldwide – making The Pickwick Papers the greatest literary phenomenon in history.
But one does not need to have read a single word of The Pickwick Papers to be enthralled by the story of how this extraordinary novel came to be. The creation and afterlife of The Pickwick Papers is the subject of Stephen Jarvis’s novel, Death and Mr Pickwick.This vast, intricately constructed, indeed Dickensian work is at once the ultimate homage to a much-loved book, tracing its genesis and subsequent history in fascinating detail, and a damning indictment of how an ambitious young writer expropriated another man’s ideas and then engaged in an elaborate cover-up of The Pickwick Papers’ true origin.
Few novels deserve to be called magnificent. Death and Mr Pickwick is one of them.