Death and Mr. Pickwick

“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)

515vomDjgdL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDeath 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.

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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

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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.

Pray remember the poor debtors having no allowance
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.

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Walking by Steam
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Shaving by Steam
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“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.

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Death and Mr Pickwick (2) Murder, Dream, and Execution

1 7 maria martenReaders of Death and Mr Pickwick can devour bits and bobs of nineteenth-century anecdotes. Around page 200 of the Novel, we are briefly introduced Thomas Kelly, the publisher of Paternoster Row, London, and his sensational installments including An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. Many publishing companies had also benefitted greatly from this murder. (Not without mentioning Robert Seymour, of course!)

Talking of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten, aka Red Barn Mystery in Polstead, Suffolk, it was the highly speculative murder case committed by William Corder, and Maria was often victimised in melodramatic and picturesque accounts as an ingenuous and country girl version of Amelia Sedley killed by an impoverished man with worst attributes and suchlike. On the contrary, Maria Marten was two years Corder’s senior and infamous for her lecherous affairs with other countrymen of the area with Corder as an impressionable but sparrow-framed young man. Ironically enough, Corder’s aspiration was to be a gentleman-farmer of letters and longing to reside in the literary circles in London.

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But that’s not it – the psychic portent was at the time seen as a matter of fact and unimaginable around the nineteenth century court case. Ann Marten, the stepmother (much younger than Old Marten) of Maria’s,  recounted her dream of witnessing a corpse (Maria Marten) being buried in the floor of the red barn by William Corder, and demanded the ground to be excavated immediately. Maria’s rotten body was really exhumed at the red barn and produced an arrest warrant against William Corder (who, at that time, had already married an well-educated schoolmistress named Kathleen Moore in London and together they set up a school in Ealing). In 1828, the noose was finally tightened at his neck in Bury St Edmunds and nothing in the least heroically about his death in the eyes of thousands of spectators who attended the execution.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. By George Cruikshank
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. By George Cruikshank

After the execution, Corder’s skull was used in phrenological examination (incidentally, phrenology was pseudoscience that Anne Brontë ridiculed in comparison with physiognomy; and Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded by George Combe, who was Cecilia Siddons’s husband). It was found that the prominent areas which the killer greatly exercised in his lifetime were “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, and imitativeness”; but with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”.

George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (by George Cruikshank)
George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (by George Cruikshank)

James Lea was the police constable who investigated the red barn murder and later another notorious and nerve-shredding case of “Spring-heeled Jack”.

Death and Mr Pickwick (1) Anne Siggs

9780199537242I am awakened by the rich details and vast spectrum of topics covered in Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis a robust catapult of knowledge enrichment. During the reading, I had come across an interesting conversation between Joseph Severn and Robert Seymour at the gates of Hoxton House, discussing passion for portraitures and anecdotes of Mrs. Siddons, a famous Georgian tragedian. After a while, the name of “Anne Siggs” came alive on the paper,

But when I am in the drawing office at Vaughan’s, every morning there is a tall, ugly beggar-woman on crutches who passes by in the street. You always hear her, scraping the ground and calling for alms, and if you look out the window, there she is. Everyone in the area knows her – she is called Anne Siggs. But she has two unusual qualities. First, she is spotlessly clean, which is mystifying. Second, she tells everyone her sister is Mrs. Siddons, and that the actress refuses to acknowledge her own flesh and blood.

This unusual attributes seemed to be all the more intriguing; I wanted to gain more information on this eccentric but scrupulous beggar. She was mentioned in many sources, including The Streets of London: Anecdotes of Their More Celebrated Residents; and Vagabondiana, or Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London, both by John Thomas Smith (1766–1833), an English painter, engraver and antiquarian (inspiration of Henry Mayhew’s later works).

Anne_Siggs,_an_eccentric_crippled_beggar._Engraving,_1804._Wellcome_V0007230Anne Siggs was born in May (year unknown) into a respectable family, whose father Moses Siggs was an industrious breeches-maker in Dorking, Surrey. However, an accident befallen on him resulting in deformity and early death. Anne Siggs was the second eldest. Moses’s expertise in astrology once portended his daughter would constantly encounter “a variety of wretchedness”. Death of Moses Siggs left the family in destitution; Anne was received into several families until she was around 20 years of age. She resided in various areas in London, by Swallow Street for thirty years; Upper John Street and Golden Square around the Piccadilly. Rheumatism begrudged her to get up at nine and wandered around till two. In her life she had been “knocked down, pinched, horsewhipped” and incurred all sorts of maltreatment, which enfeebled her senses and ended up using crutches. Unable to be a seamstress and striped off her personalty, Anne received life allowances from churchwarden due to her religious devotion (she was purported to have written few religious writing in life). Before her indisposition she was measured five feet seven, as tall as her father. Living at the back garret, not only her clothes but apartment was remarkably clean. Anne Siggs was often visited by doves and magpies at home, and kept an owl by herself.

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Mrs. Salmon Waxwork had exhibited a wax figure of Anne Siggs in 1812 on 17 Fleet Street (Prince Henry’s Room) at the door entrance in alternated turns, but not as popular as Mother Shipton, that the hidden treadle at the step would all in a sudden “incensed” Mother Shipton to kick and snap patrons with her broom!