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Dickens: guilty or not guilty?

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

One sunny morning, arriving late for an early viewing at the Charles Dickens Museum, I grabbed a cup of coffee, went into their back garden, and nearly choked. There, in front of me, stood the most unlikely object anybody interested in Dickens would ever imagine crossing path with: a tombstone. Not that of the great writer himself, though, but of Robert Seymour, a once famous but now largely forgotten illustrator.

Robert Seymour's headstone at the Charles Dickens Museum.

Many coffee drinkers probably find the gravestone atmospheric at most and throw a bored glance at the label beside it. Yet, I have to say, the museum avoids any controversy: not the slightest mention of the irony of such a relic being displayed in its back garden. It’s all very politically correct. Some blah blah blah about Seymour being the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers, and that’s it, you can return to your carrot cake.

But readers, did you know that it was Robert Seymour who came up with the original idea for The Pickwick Papers? Did you know that Charles Dickens was hired because he was a cheap and unknown writer, and that he was supposed to provide (note 'supposed') the text accompanying the illustrations? Did you know that Dickens, a man of immense ego, decided to make Seymour’s idea his, modified everything without Seymour’s consent, giving prominence to his work and undermining Seymour’s, and then convinced the publishers to back him before FIRING Seymour. What a lovely man! But what do you expect from someone who ditched his wife for a younger woman (sure, not exactly unusual), forced his said wife out of the house, prevented her from seeing her nine children … and tried to lock her away in an asylum? Dickens even told Seymour that his illustrations were rubbish! Seymour was the most famous illustrator of the time, and was compared to Hogarth, so you may have an opinion about Dickens's assessment.

'Mr. Pickwick addresses the Club', one of Robert Seymour's original illustrations for The Pickwick Papers (1836).

And guess what happened?

A few hours later, Seymour shot himself dead.

What would have happened if the publishers had backed Seymour instead of Dickens?

Would Seymour have killed himself?

Would The Pickwick Papers have been any good?

Would Oliver Twist have even been written?

Seymour, despite being the creator, was not even mentioned as a contributor. Worse still, Dickens made the following statement when The Pickwick Papers was reissued as a book:

'Mr. Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word to be found in this book. Mr. Seymour died when only twenty-four pages of this book were published, and when assuredly not forty-eight were written; All of the input from the artist was in response to the words that had already been written; he took his own life through jealousy, as it was well known that Seymour’s sanity had been questioned.'

But Seymour was dead. Those who are absent are always in the wrong.

A pen-and-ink portrait of Robert Seymour (c. 1836).

Years passed. Robert Seymour fell into oblivion, just like his resting place, whose location itself was forgotten. Seriously, how can a tomb vanish? It’s quite sad, but consider: after a while the people who knew you also disappear, and the tombstone falls down due to disrepair. Gravestones are sometimes moved because they want to dig more graves (if there’s something that never ends, it’s death), or because of construction works like the building of the railways (think the Hardy Tree at Old St Pancras).

A 21st century scholar, a worthy descendant of Indiana Jones, finally found the lost tombstone following a treasure hunt by torchlight through London's crypts and disused cemeteries. But where to display Seymour’s gravestone? Why not in the sanctuary destined for the glory of his nemesis, Charles Dickens? Wasn't that rubbing it in? The museum's back garden is filled with the tombstones of Dickens’s pets, which says a lot.

Want to find out more about Seymour's headstone? Then read our play, The GraveStone.

Don't miss the underrated Charles Dickens Museum and its airy oasis cafe, full of mysterious gravestones, at 48 Doughty Street in the heart of Bloomsbury.

Karen Eeckman for Cradles and Labels

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