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Death and Mr Pickwick

death JarvisIn Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, the author convincingly argues that Robert Seymour, the original illustrator for Pickwick Papers, actually had more to do with the creation and naming  of the characters and the initial storyline than he was given credit for by Charles Dickens.  One of my favourite pieces of evidence for this is in the preface which Dickens penned for a new edition of Pickwick in September 1847 (the original book was serialised in 1836-37). Here Dickens wrote: "My views being deferred to, I thought of Mr Pickwick and wrote the first number."

seymour"My views being deferred to" essentially means he over-ruled Seymour's ideas of how the story should proceed.  However it is the phrase "I thought of Mr Pickwick" which is rather ambiguously worded.  To quote from Death and Mr Pickwick: "Its apparent meaning was that he had created Mr Pickwick, but there was a buried meaning, to be called upon in an emergency, that he had 'thought of Mr Pickwick' in the same way as he might have remarked: 'I thought of my mother'. "  In other words, Dickens thought about the character of Pickwick that Seymour had created and drawn; and wrote the first number with that image in his mind - thereby indirectly admitting that he was very much influenced by Seymour.

dickens quarterlySo what is the correct interpretation of Dickens's carefully chosen phrase?  One way of resolving it was put forward in a review of Death and Mr Pickwick in the Dickens Quarterly published in March this year. Adam Abraham, the reviewer, argued that the preface could effectively be ignored (in using it as evidence for, or against Seymour's actual role) as "a preface is a paratext, rather like the elaborate Pickwick prospectus, published on 26 March 1836.’”

I must confess I hadn't come across the term 'paratext' before so had to look up the definition.  Apparently it is a concept in literary interpretation: it is material supplied by editors, printers and publishers which are outside the actual text itself (such as a précis of the book, notes about the author, cover design, end pages, footnotes) and therefore not necessarily endorsed by the author. 

So in other words, it would seem that this particular reviewer's way of assessing what Dickens had written in the preface, was to assume that Dickens hadn't actually written it.  Brilliant!

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