“So dramatically convincing that it is all the more surprising how much of it is historically verifiable . . . [Jarvis] has written a novel that reflects upon the world-altering effects of novel reading.”The Atlantic
Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis is a vast, richly imagined, Dickensian work about the rough-and-tumble world that produced an author who defined an age.
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, featuring the fat and lovable Mr. Pickwick and his cockney manservant, Sam Weller, began as a series of whimsical sketches, the brainchild of the brilliant, erratic, misanthropic illustrator named Robert Seymour. When Seymour’s publishers, after trying to match his magical etchings with a number of writers, settled on a young storyteller using the pen name Boz, as the young Charles Dickens signed his work, The Pickwick Papers went on to become a worldwide phenomenon, and Dickens became, in the eyes of many, the most important writer of his time. The fate of Robert Seymour, Mr. Pickwick’s creator, was a very different storyone untold before now.
Few novels deserve to be called magnificent: Death and Mr. Pickwick is one of them.
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Death and Mr. Pickwick
By Stephen Jarvis
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Wordaholic Ltd.
All rights reserved.
THE FIRE'S RAYS ALONE LIT the parlour's gloom when I took my seat by the hearth. I am sure I betrayed some signs of nervousness to my interviewer, as I cast my eyes over the many shelves and cabinets, whose contents flickered in the firelight: he said that I should feel free to ask about anything on display. I saw a duelling pistol with the sign 'Loaded' underneath, as well as a stuffed rook in a pose of great fright and a stagecoach bugle with a crushed and glinting horn.
'Perhaps you could tell me the significance of some of the items,' said my interviewer. To encourage me to speak, he added: 'I keep that bugle because it makes me wonder how it became that way.' He twisted in his armchair on the opposite side of the hearth, for a better angle upon the shelf where the bugle stood. The firelight flashed upon his spectacles, which were circular. 'I was amused when the last candidate suggested I had sat upon it.'
He was indeed an enormous man, and a bald and sweating one too, and he lifted the spectacles to wipe under the frame. 'And that's justice in former times,' he said, noticing that I was looking above the hearth, where there was a display of antique truncheons arranged in declining size, like pan pipes, from an enormous wooden pole, two and a half feet long, to a short and brutal stub with a thick brass ferrule. 'Perhaps you could tell me some stories about heads they might have cracked,' he said.
Before I could attempt an answer, he started to explain that, if he took me on, I would have to get used to his many quirks – one of which was to keep the fire in the parlour alight all year round, including in the middle of May, the time of this interview – but he was interrupted as the door at the end of the room opened. 'Ah, our drinks,' he said, hearing the handle turn behind him.
A curly-haired maid, who had the least deferential face of any servant I had ever encountered in my life – a face that practically radiated cheek and cheerfulness – brought in a lacquered tray bearing two tankards, and with every click of her heels she proclaimed her independence. Her livery was a blouse of vertical black and white stripes and a tight black skirt. Though my attention was drawn to her, I also glimpsed, when the door opened, a well-lit room at the end of the passage: I saw an easel, and a flip chart bearing writing and dates, as though set up for a lecture, and the heading: 'Where is Chapman's friend?'
'Our guest will be interrogated over supper,' he said to the maid as she set down the drinks. 'What fare can we offer him, Mary?'
'You just say what you want after I decide what you're getting, sir, and everything will be fine.' She winked at me and left.
'I interviewed many a maid before I found her,' he said. 'Just as I have interviewed many before you. So – to the most important question. How well do you know the immortal work?'
'I have read it – I would say – ten times completely, but on many occasions I have read parts, especially when I have been sick in bed.'
A disappointment spread over the fat man's features. 'That's a great shame,' he said, exhaling in a rude and noisy expression of frustration. 'I had been hoping you'd be the one who'd say "by heart".'
* * *
It was rook pie that night. Rook, I discovered, is gamey, but not as strong as pigeon.
'Some old countrymen,' he remarked, as we sat at the table in the small candlelit dining room, 'will tell you that May the thirteenth is the perfect day for your gun, when the young rooks emerge from the nest.'
'I know that,' I said, 'but I also know the rook is protected by law these days.'
He eyed me suspiciously. 'These fowls were found in the road – run over.'
'Then I am afraid that this bird collected some strange pebbles in its crop.'
I reached into my mouth and pulled out the metal pellet I had bitten upon. It was the second. The first I had placed discreetly on my plate when the fat man was in a reverie of chewing, but this second I placed in full view, a tiny black sphere on the white tablecloth. I prodded it forward, so it trundled towards him like a miniature marble, and rolled under his plate. 'Shooting rooks has been outlawed since 1981,' I said. 'I know, because I went out shooting last May, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, the police were tipped off before I reached the rookery. I was released with a caution.'
He put down his knife and fork and leant back in his chair, looking at me with more interest than at any previous moment. I may have been nervous at the start, but I was confident now. And I knew I was hired. I had not been out shooting, I might add, but I did know about the law, and as soon as I bit the pellet, I guessed how to make the job my own.
* * *
In the ten years since that meeting, I have worked my way through the collection of books, papers, pictures, correspondence and notes the fat man had accumulated, over the course of many years, in his substantial house. The house itself he had chosen for its previous occupation, for until the early twentieth century it was used for the production of churchwarden pipes, and was probably one of the last such workshops. One can still lift the corner of a carpet and see, in the grooves between the floorboards, traces of white pipeclay dust.
I was employed to produce the work which I lay before you now. I have edited some parts, written others. The sustained period of sitting and writing has had a physical effect – for time and snacking have swollen my once athletic form. My shirts are larger these days, my belt buckle is no longer visible under my stomach. These effects would undoubtedly make me more respectable, as an author, in the fat man's eyes.
He decided that I would write under the pseudonym 'Inscriptino', a printer's error from early copies of the first edition of 'the immortal work', a corruption of the word 'inscription'. Often, in our late-night conversations by the fire, he would shorten my pseudonym to Scripty. As for himself, he wished to be known as 'Mr Inbelicate', derived from another printer's error, this time for 'indelicate'. He explained, once I was appointed, that my duty was to correct historical errors, until, at some moment in the future, on the very day when my duty was completed, there would be a renaming ceremony, and a chinking of tankards, and we would say as a toast: 'To indelicate' and 'To inscription'.
The renaming was not possible. For Mr Inbelicate died seven years ago. I believe he feared his time was short when he appointed me. 'I shall never be an indelicate old man,' he said, his frail voice emerging from his thin and wasted body, in his bed, towards the end, 'but you must become an inscription.'
Mr Inbelicate bequeathed me his house and monetary assets as well as his maid – and I duly married the latter. Her name is not really Mary, it was the name he had chosen, but it has become her name, for I am so used to it.
Every May, she still serves me rook pie – though it is rook served with one of her winks, and bears a strong resemblance to pigeon.
* * *
IT WAS A COLD SPRING Somerset day, shortly after dawn, when Henry Seymour, accompanied by a muscular, ragged-eared bulldog, closed the door of his cottage and proceeded down the path. He passed patches of parsnips, kale and carrots on his way to a wagon, where the horses were already in harness. At least a dozen chairs of diverse sorts were stacked on the vehicle, as well as tables and other items of furniture.
Seymour lifted the dog on to the driver's seat, then lit his pipe and looked to the cottage once more. At the downstairs window, a trim woman in nightclothes stood between a small boy and a smaller girl, both similarly attired to herself, who had climbed upon the ledge. There were waves. Seymour put his boot upon the footboard and took up the reins – but just then saw a magpie hopping across the road. The bird paused to stare. As was the tradition, he was about to take off his hat to the magpie, and had raised his hand to the brim, when the woman opened the door and asked Seymour to bring back a quarter of cheese from the market. 'I was going to,' he said. He turned back to see the bird fly away, without receiving his due respect.
'I could have done without that,' he said to the dog. He pulled down his hat, as if to protect himself from the bird's omen. The dog suddenly sneezed. 'Oh, you're the one who's cursed,' he said. 'Very grateful to you. But who'll take on the terriers if you're sick?' He flicked the reins, and the horses trotted down the dirt road to Yeovil.
At Yeovil market, Henry Seymour's stall lay between the cheesemonger and a maker of hempen sacks. Here, he folded his arms, and occupied one of the chairs that he had made for sale. Even if the wallet attached to his belt had not bulged, the satisfied expression as he smoked his pipe suggested the state of his finances.
'Now, now,' he whispered to the dog at his feet, who twitched an injured ear. 'Could she be the next? Can we smoke the money out of her purse? What do you think, boy?'
The prospective customer was a middle-aged woman, smartly dressed, but with a badger-like aspect to her face and hair. She carried an edition of Gay's Fables and a well-preserved copy of the Novelist's Magazine, which she had just purchased from the second-hand bookstall – which she displayed, to their advantage, in her basket. Stopping at the cheesemonger, she sampled two cheddar-dice, before purchasing half a pound. Seymour puffed harder, and the cloud of his smoke enveloped the woman, and then she smiled at him, and he smiled back, and she ran her eyes over the furniture, fixing upon a chair upholstered in green morocco.
'Did you upholster this?' she said. Her accent was Somerset, but there was London in it too.
'Every horsehair,' said Seymour.
She sat, and tested the comfort and stood again. 'Would you turn the seat upside down, please?' He did so. She examined the webbing.
'Did you do this as well?'
'I am tempted'. She stroked the leather once more. 'It looks as good as anything made by Seddon's.'
'And who is he?'
'Who is he? You have never heard of Seddon's!' She laughed, looking around with an air of great worldliness. 'Well, I am in the country!' She laughed some more, and away she walked, losing all interest in the furniture, vanishing into the regions devoted to coloured threads, ladies' gloves and belts.
Henry Seymour continued sitting at his stall, mystified. There was also a lull in trade afterwards, with no further interest expressed in his wares, which was unusual. When his pipe went out – which it was never known to have done on a market day before, without being instantly refilled and relit – he said to his dog, 'That's it, boy, we're not going to sell any more today, I just know it.' He packed the unsold furniture on to his cart, and set off. As soon as he hit the road, a hare ran in front of his horses, and he cursed it, saying that it was all he needed. Then he added: 'Damn me, I forgot the cheese. She'll make me suffer, but I ain't going back for it.'
* * *
A few miles from home, he stopped at a roadside inn, half hidden behind ivied oaks. He acknowledged the landlord – a man whose profusion of white eyebrows and staring eyes suggested that he had witnessed some terrible incident in the past, and occasionally recalled it – and after taking the first sip of porter, Seymour said: 'You heard of Seddon's, Bill?'
'Seddon's?' He wrung out a cloth, till it would surely have screamed, had it been alive. 'What's that then?'
'I'm thinking, to do with furniture.'
A handsome bagman at the end of the bar jutted an excellent chin forward. 'Seddon's is furniture – in e-very con-ceiv-able way.' He leant on the bar, with the easy-going manner of one not being watched by his employer, which all successful commercial travellers can draw upon, as a resource. 'Seddon's is the grandest furniture maker in all London. Any sort of furniture, you go to Seddon's.' He drew his beer to his lips, and blew off froth, a little of which dripped down over the edge, towards his index finger, where there was a golden ring with a fox's head.
'So they make upholstered chairs?' said Henry Seymour.
'Anything upholstered. They've even got a department in the basement devoted entirely to upholstering one thing – guess what it is.'
'Coffins. Coffins, I say.'
'How do you know that then?' said the landlord. 'You had a session with a desperate lady in one of 'em?' he added with a coarse laugh.
'I know because there's a friend of a friend of mine that sells them pillowcases. And I do know my friend's wife.' He wiped his fingers, and gave a knowing grin.
'Do you believe,' said Seymour tentatively, 'they would buy furniture made by someone else?'
'You an upholsterer?'
'I'm more than that. Seddon's make any sort of furniture, you say?'
'Then Seddon's are like me.'
'Well you'd better go and tell them that, then! You doing well in the furniture business?'
'Seddon – the man in charge – he's worth a fortune. Lost a bit in a fire, I hear, but didn't stop him. When he passes it all on to his sons, they'll have a lot to thank their father for.'
* * *
That night in the cottage, Henry Seymour sat carving a doll for his daughter, but there was an unsettled look upon his face. He surveyed the room. He had made the table. The chest of drawers was his as well. The press too. He carved and he thought and he suddenly cried out – he had cut himself. That was rare.
He went to the bedroom, moody. The bed was of his own construction. Elizabeth Bishop, the mother of his children, was already asleep, but she stirred, and woke, as he slipped under the blankets.
'Have you ever wanted to go to London to see your sister and her family?' he said.
'You have never asked before,' she replied.
* * *
Nothing more was said of London until Midsummer's Eve, by which time a third child was on the way.
Henry Seymour always upheld the tradition of lighting a midsummer fire in the cottage. When the coal was glowing, and the chopped applewood aflame, he summoned Elizabeth and the two children and they held hands before the fire and said a blessing for the apples of the county crop. They bowed to the fire and separated.
'I love the smell of applewood', said Elizabeth. 'You should use more applewood in your work, Henry.'
'The colours are dark and lovely.'
Then, after a long pause looking into the fire, he said, 'This is our last summer in Somerset.' He turned his head; there was incomprehension in her face, and before she could respond, he added: 'Half the people we grew up with have left. We must too. The thought of another child has made me determined. If he is a boy, he should grow up in London.'
She walked away, and cuddled her daughter before saying, quietly: 'I am perfectly happy here. And so are you.'
'Working on a market stall until I am old.'
'It is good, reliable, you do well. You are a furniture maker. What else would you do?'
'I shall keep making furniture. There is a firm in London called Seddon's. They make furniture. I shall seek work with them in the first place.'
'I've never heard of Seddon's. And I don't want to.'
'If I got taken on by Seddon's, if I learnt the London furniture trade, then one day, who knows where I might end up? Your sister had the right idea.'
'Susanna went to London and I chose to stay. So should you.'
'I will go ahead, and establish myself. Living cheaply, sleeping in the cart if I have to. Once I am established, I will come back for you.'
'You won't come back.'
'What are you saying? Of course I will.'
'What obligations do you have to me? If you are happy to throw up all your connections to where you were born on a whim, you would do the same to me and to our children. How can I trust you now? I do not trust you now.'
He returned to looking at the fire. At last he said: 'You might have won me over, Elizabeth. You could probably have talked me round. But not now. Not after saying that. Our next son will be a Londoner.' He picked up a pitcher of water on the table, and doused the fire.
Excerpted from Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis. Copyright © 2015 Wordaholic Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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