Historia talks to Stephen Jarvis, author of HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown shortlisted novel, Death and Mr Pickwick.
The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Certain aspects of history have always grabbed me. For instance, I am very interested in the historical events which have driven the evolution of the English language. Also, when I was doing journalistic articles, I would sometimes interview unusual clubs and societies who were fascinated by very, very specific fields of history, such as the Wallpaper History Society, or the Society for the History of Dentistry, and I always found that interesting. I also love things which carry some ‘imprint’ of the past. As an example: there is a pub called The Ostrich near Slough, whose landlord committed a series of murders in the 17th century, in a chamber called The Blue Room, and there are still traces of the blue paint left. They are just little flecks of blue, but even so when you look at them you feel a link to the past. The effect is all the more powerful because it is just traces of paint, not a whole painted wall.
How did the initial idea for Death and Mr Pickwick come about?
In the preface to a modern edition of The Pickwick Papers, I came across a single line referring to the suicide of Dickens’s first illustrator, Robert Seymour, while he was working on Pickwick and I was instantly fascinated. The fact that nothing else was said just increased the fascination. I simply KNEW there was something here which should be investigated and written about. Initially, my intention was to write a novel just about Seymour, but as I started doing research, I came across many other intriguing characters who were connected to The Pickwick Papers – from a wine-merchant with a pet vulture to a mad clown in a strait-jacket. So, I decided to change course: Seymour would remain the central character, but I decided to turn the book into a history of the whole Pickwick phenomenon, showing how it interacted with the lives of all these people. And the book changed course again when I discovered that Dickens had lied about the origins of Pickwick – and part of the mission of Death and Mr Pickwick was to expose those lies.
You must have done a huge amount of research: a pleasure or a chore?
The research was a mountain. It used to be said that more had been written about Pickwick than any other work of fiction, and I can believe it. There were pleasures along the way – I sometimes call them “Aha moments” – for instance when I discovered that Dickens’s account of the origin of Pickwick couldn’t possibly be true. But mostly, the research was about intense reading in the British Library. I certainly felt very focused when I did that reading, and I suppose that indicates my capacity for research, but I am not certain I would call it pleasure. It just had to be done.
So are you a Dickens fan? What’s your view of his phenomenal success?
I think The Pickwick Papers is a great book. Indeed, it used to be regarded as Dickens’s masterpiece, and prior to Joyce’s Ulysses was even proclaimed as the greatest piece of prose fiction in the English language. There is simply nothing like Pickwick for its scope, and range of characters. I hope that after reading Death and Mr Pickwick people will go on to read The Pickwick Papers, because it is sadly neglected these days. However, it has to be remembered that Pickwick was really a multi-media work, and the illustrations were hugely important. It was not just Dickens’s creation. And really, that influences my view of his phenomenal success: that success was built on the foundations of Dickens’s involvement with Robert Seymour. Regarding Dickens’ s writing outside Pickwick: I think he created some amazing pieces of prose. The opening of Our Mutual Friend is extraordinary.
You have a background in journalism. What were the challenges of writing a novel in comparison?
Well, I used to specialise in writing articles about unusual leisure activities, including clubs and societies such as the historical ones I mentioned earlier, but also including strange sports such as toe-wrestling and unusual collecting organisations, such as the International Society of Brick Collectors. People might think that this would be a poor preparation for writing a novel, but actually it was a very good preparation. In particular, it taught me to listen out for the single line which would reveal something about a character. With the brick-collectors, for example, I interviewed a husband and wife who had amassed a collection of 5,000 bricks, and the husband very memorably said, “We haven’t got any children – what else can we do?” Also, some of the unusual activities I did taught me the importance of describing details, in order to bring a scene alive. I remember I wrote about the strange sport of flounder-tramping, in which you attempt to catch a fish with your feet, and I needed to do the sport myself, in order to find out about how horrible an experience it was! You wade out into cold, murky water, and sometimes a fish, which you cannot see, will brush against your thighs. It’s repulsive, and makes you shiver. The nasty details enliven an article, and that’s something I applied to Death and Mr Pickwick. So although writing a novel was a much bigger project than my journalistic articles, it wasn’t really a huge change.
What was your path to publication?
I made contact with a literary agent, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, when I started the book, and he was very interested, and his interest did not diminish when the book changed course, and became a fictionalised history of the Pickwick phenomenon, rather than a fictionalised biography of Robert Seymour. When I eventually sent him the completed manuscript, he loved it. He sent it to Dan Franklin, of Jonathan Cape, who also loved it. So the path to publication was actually quite short. However, it couldn’t have been done without Christopher seeing the book’s potential.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Now here’s a bit of advice which I know will prove controversial: watch the TV series Big Brother. I know that Big Brother has been condemned as the worst TV show in the world, but I have heard of other writers watching BB. It teaches you a lot about human nature and the little bits of ‘life’ that are needed to bring a novel alive. The other thing I would say is: details, details, details. I had to write about a clown putting on make-up in Death and Mr Pickwick, and so I needed to do research on how clowns actually put on their faces. You can’t just say “The clown applied rouge to his cheeks.” You need to be much more specific and detailed. And that requires research.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
A book which made a great impression on me, shortly before I started work on Death and Mr Pickwick, was London by Edward Rutherfurd. The idea of capturing the whole history of the city in a single novel was wonderful, and I am sure it influenced my decision to change course, and write about the history of The Pickwick Papers across a stretch of time – because although Death and Mr Pickwick is mostly set in the nineteenth-century, there are scenes from other eras too.
And what are you reading right now?
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Several people, including my agent, have recommended that novel to me, and I am certainly enjoying it. Palliser mentions the Golden Cross Inn in London in The Quincunx, and that made me smile, because the inn appears in Death and Mr Pickwick too.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
Another big historical novel … but many aspects of it are still being worked out, and so I am not quite ready to talk about it yet. However, it is possible that I will use the device of bringing back Scripty, the narrator of Death and Mr Pickwick – he will be given his next project to research, having already done the history of the Pickwick phenomenon.
Stephen Jarvis was born in Romford, Essex in 1958. After dropping out of graduate studies in Economics at Oxford University, he drifted into an office job at British Aerospace. To enliven his weekends, he started doing unusual leisure activities – everything from going on a bed of nails to playing tiddlywinks – and this led to his becoming a freelance journalist, describing his leisure experiences for the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers and magazines, as well as for many radio programmes in the UK and abroad. Two compilation volumes of his articles were published: The Bizarre Leisure Book and The Ultimate Guide to Unusual Leisure. He also co-wrote a guide to kissing, The Kissing Companion, with Elaine Edwards, whom he later married. He and Elaine live in Maidenhead.