Posthumous Papers
April 30, 2013 1:40 PM   Subscribe

The Pickwick Papers, one of the most honored first novels of all time, was conceived as a showcase for the comic etchings of the celebrated illustrator Robert Seymour. His publishers tapped a 24 year old journalist named Charles Dickens (their third choice) to provide the humorous "commentary" linking the pictures, which were to depict the hunting mishaps of a club of cockney sportsmen. Dickens, who knew nothing about hunting, ignored the prospectus and wrote his own way forward. As it became clear that Seymour was ill-equipped to depict the darker turns of Dickens' imagination, illustrator and writer fell into a conflict which ended in horror. posted by Iridic (14 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Poor man. Nice that they've brought out his headstone, but not sure he'd like it ending up in Dickens' garden.
posted by Segundus at 2:00 PM on April 30, 2013

I know, right? It's sort of like me being buried next to my stepmother in the future. Not something I'd be particularly keen on (despite obviously being dead).
posted by Kitteh at 2:08 PM on April 30, 2013

Wait, it is in Dicken's garden? Are they trying to create a haunting?
posted by angrycat at 2:31 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hauntings are hell of good for tourism.
posted by gilrain at 2:39 PM on April 30, 2013

I have come to understand that Dickens was a fairly self righteous prick, this seems to fit right in with that assumption. And, yeah, burying him in Dickens garden is just adding insult to injury.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:44 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Interpolated in the main story are a number of tales told by the character. They are the exact opposite of the main narrative. Each is a portrayal of the world as a place of moral horror, and their contrast with the story of Mr. Pickwick and Sam and their friends intensifies the impression that their world is not just a utopia but a Garden before the Fall."

-Kenneth Rexroth on The Pickwick Papers.
posted by Iridic at 2:54 PM on April 30, 2013

Iridic, that Rexroth piece was so pleasant to read that I felt shortchanged when Google cut it off, as though I had been reading a story rather than a reflection on a story.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:13 PM on April 30, 2013

It sounds like he would have loathed having a memorial in Dickens's museum. It treats him as just an item in the Dickens biography. Even this article discussing his memorial is full of lines absolving Dickens. It doesn't end in a celebration of Seymour: it ends with the line "We welcome the monument as an important addition to our collections – but I don't think one can blame Dickens for his death at all." That's revolting.
posted by painquale at 6:10 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by ocherdraco at 7:15 PM on April 30, 2013

If the novel was originally to be the misadventures of a "cockney sporting club", wouldn't a lot of the humor rest on their class failure? Ie, gentlemen hunting aren't especially hilarious, but proles hunting is comic gold? IIRC my Orwell correctly, in the UK hunting is not - as it was in Russia or is in the US - a sport widely accessible to working class people.

If that's the case, it renders Seymour a little less sympathetic, frankly.
posted by Frowner at 7:51 PM on April 30, 2013

Interesting story, that I hadn’t heard despite reading a couple of books about Dickens. Maybe I need to pay more attention.
posted by bongo_x at 8:06 PM on April 30, 2013

Frowner, I'm not sure I agree with your reading. It's not as if Seymour went to Eton and Oxford. Sources say his father was "a gentleman of Somerset", but became a tradesman and died early, leaving Seymour's mother in poverty and forcing him into an apprenticeship. He chose the path of an artist but was sensitive about his status throughout his career, and it seems worth of note that six years before his suicide, had suffered a nervous breakdown. As they had never met before the infamous sharing of grog, it's not at all clear that Dickens knew he was dealing with someone so unstable.

Returning to the class issue, the whole "incompetent/comic sportsman" trope seems to have been a stock in trade of his, and he was largely responsible for the modern perpetuation of the Biblical term Nimrod for a hunter, probably leading pretty directly to its use in Bugs Bunny. In any case, the mere fact that the hunters were Cockneys isn't to me an indication that they could not have logically been hunters; to the contrary, they were part of the burgeoning merchant class in London who would indeed want such recreation and simultaneously be without the background to make it natural. So, yeah, funny but more in just a fish-out-of-water sense. At the same time, this same emergent literate middle class was the primary market for Dickens.

Brits know, if Americans don't always, that class is not by itself a marker of wealth. I think it more likely that readers were most often laughing at themselves. More along the lines of American redneck comedy acts, if you want to reach for an analogy (made by and for self-described rednecks). I suppose you can also put a nouveau riche cast on it, but really, city vs. country tropes were just a vast, ripe meadow waiting to be ploughed in this era.
posted by dhartung at 1:29 AM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you don't have time to read Pickwick Papers (or other Dickens novels), or just want a refresher, LibriVox recently published a shortened retelling of each of his novels in audio form called Tales from Dickens. It's pretty good for what it is.
posted by stbalbach at 12:07 PM on May 1, 2013

Dickens is usually credited with creating the genre of the serialized illustrated novel. If this was Seymour's idea than maybe Dickens did steal it. But Dickens is credited with innovating other things as well (such as the live performance retelling, precursor to the audiobook), no one doubts his genius. Seymour's genius was apparently to kill himself young so that his genius (or not) remains a mystery.
posted by stbalbach at 12:14 PM on May 1, 2013

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