“Suddenly he sat up. He opened a notebook and wrote down: ‘What if the gullible man not only believed the preposterous stories to be factual – but he travelled in search of similar stories, believing himself to be on a scientific expedition? Suppose he sought such nonsense because he thirsted for “useful knowledge”!’ (p. 204)
Death and Mr. Pickwick is a faction endeavouring to bring up the justice which once has been dismissed in the case of Robert Seymour (1798 -1836), who was the illustrator for the first two serial installments of The Pickwick Papers and also believed to be the originator / mastermind of the Novel rather than Boz himself. Regarding my familiarity with Pickwick Papers, I read that around three years ago and left with very vague memories except the court case of Mrs. Bardell against Pickwick, tales of the Convict’s Return, the Talking Chair, and the hallucination of the drunken clown. However I was intrigued by Death and Mr. Pickwick mostly because it is set in the nineteenth century and has 800-page long which is intended to resemble the ramblings of Dickens’ work. Apart from that, I am always especially interested in books which concern the personal and lesser-known life of Dickens; for example, A Girl in Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold – a novel which focuses on the lamented love and marriage between Catherine Hogarth and Dickens with Catherine’s perspective. Not without mentioning The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin, which is a brilliant biography imparting the life of Ellen Ternan, a gaslight fairy and much-concealed mistress of Dickens.
Night and Morning. Robert Seymour
“The caricature of Seymour is in itself an article and Seymour has shown how insignificant are dashes of our pen compared with the superhuman digs of his iron-veined pencil.” (p. 245) – Gilbert à Beckett
Darnley Mausoleum near Cobham Hall (picture from National Trust)
The author of Death and Mr. Pickwick is a great raconteur. This book is a cornucopia of tales leaning in the Georgian era, which offers brilliant Pickwickian backdrops. There are special mentions of wonderful eccentrics such as Anne Siggs, Bristol Riots, sensational penny-dreadfuls such as the Red Barn Murder and Burke and Hare, the tale of immoral and monstrous killing of Chunee the elephant, and so forth.
engraving – Pray remember the poor debtors having no allowance
As well as that, there are stories of how certain pubs and inns originated across England (e.g. George and Vulture), fascinating accounts of sundry locations among London and other counties: the legend of Prince Bladud, White Hart Inn (Bath), the Golden Cross Inn (London), printing houses operated by Hannah Humprey; last but not least, with Seymour’s eyes, we happened to meet Moses Pickwick, a proprietor of a coaching business operating between Bath and London, who is the modern muse behind the Pickwick Papers. Many are animated into sets of whimsical drawings by Seymour under days’ toil. Not without mentioning Ely Stott, Caroline Norton, Joseph Grimaldi and notable lot of the nineteenth century who incessantly inspired Dickens continuing to write Pickwick. I was very voracious and was indulged in these interesting historical accounts and details while reading the book.
Walking by Steam
Shaving by Steam
“Browne saw that one short-sighted old engraver, who had the decency to return the nod, was at work on the muscles of an arm, meticulously giving it depth by a succession of close lines – the engraver himself may have looked undernourished, but the biceps on the steel was surely fashioned in the gymnasium. Another engraver, a cloth specialist, used the alternation of closely and widely dispersed lines to indicate the way a cloak hung, while yet another specialised in sky, and was just passing the plate to a specialist in trees…whatever their pictorial concern, all held the burin steady, turning the plate this way and that on a small leather cushion, making their hard-won furrows, building up a picture detail by painstaking detail…” (p. 556)
“There was no short cut to mastery of etching, only the long road of practice: the acid ate his cuffs, his throat was sore from fumes, his eyes smarted and his fingertips turned a shade of yellow…During the day, he pinned tissue paper over his window to soften the light and see the lines better in the wax. After sundown, he filled a bowl with water and placed it before his oil lamp to diffuse the illumination. Eventually he would lie down, and close his eyelids. By that time, he could barely see from the strain of concentration and the soreness of his eyes.” (p. 178)
What Death and Mr. Pickwick overwhelms and touches me in between the pages are the steam-driven power and restlessness of those talented bodies with their stubbornness and lifelong attachment to their arduous tasks – James Gillray, Joseph Grimaldi, Robert Seymour, Robert William Buss, as well as Mr. N., who appeared in the later story. To me, “Passion” and “Mission” are the spiritual essence which encompasses the book. It is filled with pleasant and atmospheric aura for readers in experiencing historical figures being inspired and haunted by missions in a lifetime. Some work hard and see the accomplishment and adulation of the day; some toil but only get the disappointment and be incessantly stumbled by the failure and amateur criticisms for the remaining of their lives. Still, their hearts stay on in the work they love, which, in this case, echoes very much with the author of Death and Mr. Pickwick who in his effort spending twelve years’ time researching and gathering materials to compose this book, as well as having found the long-neglected tombstone of Seymour in Islington and let that be restored at the Dickens’s Museum, that to me is an incredible achievement.
“I sometimes think, Mr Seymour,” said Boz, “that artists turn to caricature because in the distraction of laughter views will not notice so readily the weaknesses and deficiencies in draughtsmanship.” (p. 529)
One of the most gripping plots is the disputes between Seymour and Boz. From the drawing of portmanteau to the not-so-much authorised tale approved by Seymour of the clown’s hallucinations retold by Dismal Jemmy, Seymour is triggered by Boz of the bitter argument with Gilbert à Beckett earlier on the subject of the appointed illustrations for Figaro in London hence leading to his fatal suicide which he once attempted twice before. But Death and Mr. Pickwick does not end here. It continues to pick up important dates and events related to people who once connected with Pickwick Papers and how this 19th century masterpiece keeps influencing the twentieth century Britain since the day it was introduced to the world. Yes, some changes go on, old ways and things could be eliminated, but hopefully Pickwickian spirit stays on.
To most characters in Death and Mr. Pickwick, Death is a speechless protest. It is depressing, it is tragic. Perhaps it is also the way to reminisce the soul and the excited mind (some see this mad) each had awaken to pursuit their passions once upon a time in the mortal life.