Did Dickens drive a man to suicide?

It’s 180 years since Dickens completed his debut The Pickwick Papers, a comic novel whose hero lives in Clerkenwell. It became hugely popular yet there’s a dark episode involving the suicide of the illustrator. Andre Paine investigates the literary conspiracy theory.

The next time you find yourself in Goswell Road, you’re actually walking through literary history. In 1836, the first instalment of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club featured Samuel Pickwick waking up in Goswell Street (as then was) to begin his adventures. As the serial story progressed over 19 issues, Clerkenwell was a frequent setting.

The series of comic mishaps and boozy episodes involving the travelling members of the Pickwick Club became a publishing phenomenon and made a star of its author – 24-year-old Charles Dickens (pictured above). A year later, the complete book was published and for the next century The Pickwick Papers (as it is better known) was perhaps the most famous novel in the world.

Yet there’s a tragic story behind the much-loved adventures of the Pickwickians – the suicide of original illustrator Robert Seymour. A sinister theory suggests that Dickens drove Seymour to his death and then took credit for the dead man’s ideas. Seymour’s widow received no royalties but claimed her husband was responsible for creating The Pickwick Papers.

The literary conspiracy is at the heart of a recent novel, Death and Mr Pickwick. Author Stephen Jarvis became so obsessed with the case of Seymour, he wrote a fictionalised history of the Pickwick phenomenon. In 2010, he was instrumental in getting the illustrator’s neglected tombstone moved from Islington to the Charles Dickens Museum.

Jarvis’s revisionist account challenges the official explanation that Seymour shot himself in his garden, in April 1836, because he was mentally unstable. He had just completed an illustration of a dying clown – based on the troubled son of Clerkenwell’s famous clown Joseph Grimaldi – for the second issue of The Pickwick Papers.

At the time, Dickens was a young hack writer (known as “Boz”) who was paired with Seymour by the publishers.  From their first meeting at Dickens’s home at Furnival’s Inn, Chancery Lane, it seems the author was already making suggested changes and Seymour soon felt sidelined. Their final argument over a glass of grog may have pushed him over the edge.

“The resulting struggle between artist and writer ultimately led to Seymour raising a gun to his heart,” says Jarvis. While Dickens’s role in Seymour’s suicide is speculation, Jarvis believes he has evidence that proves the illustrator was robbed of his posthumous credit for The Pickwick Papers. The publishers claimed that Seymour’s rough idea for the story was completely altered by Dickens. According to Jarvis, though, Dickens cheated his way to literary immortality by claiming Seymour’s characters as his own.

Dickens experts have cast doubt on the allegations as The Pickwick Papers only became a successful serial after Seymour died and was replaced by the illustrator “Phiz”. But Jarvis claims Seymour had already created cockney character Sam Weller, who first appeared in the fourth issue. The disappearance of key evidence in 1928 – perhaps suppressed by Dickens’s supporters – adds fuel to the conspiracy theory.

Whatever the truth, the book was the first of many great successes for Dickens. Pickwick became a famous literary character and his image was used to promote numerous products. Yet the novel eventually fell out of favour and is now one of Dickens’s less popular works. Jarvis is hopeful of encouraging a revival of the original with his Dickensian pre-history and homage. Death and Mr Pickwick also features plenty of Clerkenwell locations. Seymour lives in Rosoman Street and drank nearby in the London Spa Tavern (now the Coin Laundry restaurant); Joseph Grimaldi, who appears in Jarvis’s novel, lived at 56 Exmouth Market.

Clerkenwell also features in many of the famous Dickens novels – and it all began with his debut. As Jarvis explains: “Though it seems hard to believe today, there was a time when The Pickwick Papers made Goswell Street the most famous street in the world.”