Edwin Drood - essay

Can We Solve The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

David Winn

Actually, we have several mysteries, which I group under three main questions:
~ First, does Edwin Drood die? and if he does, is it murder? and if so, who is his killer?
~ Secondly, how would Charles Dickens have completed the novel, had he not died in the middle of its composition? and
~ Thirdly, what significant themes or messages did he intend to present to his readers?

Rochester CastleThe first main question is about the outturn of events in the fictional work. And although these may well excite our interest, still we can hope to discern more important issues. In Bleak House, the murder of the lawyer Tulkinghorn leads to suspicion being thrown on George Rouncewell and also on Lady Dedlock, with various effects on the unfolding of the story – but still, what impresses us about that book? Is it not the fog? and that great institution which the fog symbolizes, the Court of Chancery? and the impoverished suitors caught up in it? and the lawyers feeding off them?

Going on to the second question (which, if resolved, will dispose of the first), we can find various indications of Dickens's intentions. I have referred to the text itself, in the Penguin Classics edition, 1985, wherein, it is important to note, the editors restored text that had been eliminated before original publication in order to fit the predetermined size of the monthly instalments). [Chapter numbers appear here in square brackets, and italicized.] And to Dickens's notes and number plans (appearing here in "double quotation marks," and italicized), which are especially significant because, being working notes for himself, not for publication, they could safely disclose that which in the text itself would be treated indirectly, through allusions. And also to testimony of his colleagues, friends, and family. However, lacking time, and wishing to see how I would manage unaided by the research and theories of others, I did not refer to any of the apparently extensive literature on "The Mystery of" The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

To start with testimony: John Forster, Dickens's friend and biographer, says Dickens spoke of '...a murder of a nephew by his uncle; the originality of which was to consist in the review of the murderer's career by himself at the close, when the temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted... Discovery by the murderer of the utter needlessness of the murder for its object, was to follow hard upon the commission of the deed, but all discovery of the murder was to be baffled till towards the close, when by the means of a gold ring which had resisted the corrosive effects of the lime into which he had thrown the body, not only the person murdered was to be identified but the locality of the crime and the man who committed it... piano - stageRosa was to marry Tartar, and Crisparkle the sister of Landless, who was himself, I think, to have perished in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer.' (These quoted comments, and those appearing below, are taken from Angus Wilson's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition.)

Luke Fildes, the novel's illustrator, quotes Dickens as saying, 'Can you keep a secret? I must have the double necktie. It is necessary for Jasper strangles Edwin Drood with it.'

In Dickens's working notes and number plans there are various phrases that are consistent with John Forster's account:
Chapter 1, "Touch the key note 'When the Wicked Man'----" [a quotation from Ezekiel, and part of the Anglican liturgy].
Chapter 2, "Uncle and Nephew... Murder very far off ... You won't take warning then?"
Chapter 7, "quarrel (Fomented by Jasper) Goblet... Jasper lays his ground".
Chapter 10, "Smoothing the Way ---That is for Jasper's plan" [a subtle touch, because the title ostensibly refers to the hoped-for reconciliation between Edwin and Neville].
Chapter 12, "Lay the ground for the murder, to come out at last".
Chapter 15, "Jasper's failure in the one great object made known by Mr Grewgious".
Chapter 16, "Jasper's artful use of the communication on his recovery."

All this seems straightforward, as far as it goes. The self-tormented Jasper has forerunners, such as Bill Sikes, Fagin, Jonas Chuzzlewit, Carker, Bradley Headstone.

There was, however, a serious complication: Rudolph Lehmann in his autobiography says, 'Henry Wills [Dickens's co-editor of All the Year Round] told me that Dickens, while in the midst of serial publication of Edwin Drood, altered the plot and found himself hopelessly entangled as in a maze of which he could not find the issue.'

Often in Dickens's writings we see his inspiration take flight, and leave behind his craftsman's careful construction, as in Great Expectations, where Magwitch makes his entrance as a bloodthirsty monster, creating an unforgettably gripping opening scene, but making less plausible his later affection towards Pip.

at the pianoAfter Dickens was warned by his doctor to end the reading tours, it was prudent of him to embark on a shorter novel rather than a typically long one - so long as he disciplined his imagination and kept to a plan, because a short book is less forgiving, not more; it is less capable of surviving problems from inspired improvisations. And under the strict regime of serial publication, Dickens could not go back and change earlier chapters. And, tragically, the entanglement referred to by Lehman may have hastened Dickens's death.

We don't know whether Dickens could have completed the remaining intended instalments to his own satisfaction, even if his health had held out. So I don't feel diffident about constructing a theory for the continuation of the novel, even though I may leave some loose ends.

We have to consider the various alternatives according to their probability and plausibility; and our standard is not the real world, but the fictional world of Dickens. As an instance, in Bleak House I find the scene leading to the discovery of Krook's remains utterly compelling and convincing, and fully worthy of its place in a masterpiece; but some literal-minded critics complained at the time that Dickens had resorted to a discredited belief in the possibility of death by Spontaneous Combustion. Dickens publicly defended his action, by citing recorded cases, although he may have had his tongue in his cheek; the only response I think he needed was, Does it work, in the book? because, if so, then it is justified.

I consider, then, that we should judge theories about the book's outcome according to whether they ring true for Dickens, taking into account what we know about the man and his previous writings, but allowing also for his evolving further, for his going in new directions.

last pageI do not believe that Dickens could have intended Jasper to be innocent. Dickens had sometimes misleadingly made his characters appear to go to the bad, the ones that spring to my mind being old Martin Chuzzlewit; and in Our Mutual Friend, Mr Boffin. But these deceptive apparent personality changes do not work very well; and perhaps Dickens came to realize this. In any case, in the half-book that we have there is no such change in Jasper, but rather an alternation between contrasting states, the urbane, respected church musician, and the opium addict. And Dickens gives many signs that the urbanity is a mask: ironic touches, such as the repetitive and cloying 'my dear boy'; hints that Jasper is putting drugs in people's drinks, when he is with Edwin and Neville [8], and later with Durdles [12]; behaviour that seems like the practising of mesmerism (which Dickens himself had experimented with) to influence Rosa [7], and Edwin and Neville [8] (whereas Helena realizes what Jasper is doing, and is confident of being proof against him [7]). The mask, and what it hides, are brought together vividly in Chapter 19 - Shadow on the Sun-Dial: 'If anything could make his words more hideous to her than they are in themselves, it would be the contrast between the violence of his look and delivery, and the composure of his assumed attitude.'

To my mind, Dickens has put too much weight into his portrayal of Jasper as an embodiment of evil in disguise, for him to dismiss it at the end as a deception practised on the reader. Dickens said about the identification of John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend, 'I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest.' And I think his suggestions about Jasper, plus the indications in his working notes, are piled so high that they must carry conviction.

It is significant, I believe, that in the half-book which we have, Dickens never shows us Jasper on the inside. The closest we get to his feelings is seeing the expression of them; for example, several times his whitened lips; and the horrifying scene when Grewgious stretches out his recounting of the amicable termination of Edwin and Rosa's engagement [15]. With all other major characters, we are allowed to experience their feelings on the inside, even if, as with Grewgious and Neville, only rarely. But so long as Dickens is suggesting Jasper's guilt, he cannot let us inside his mind; that will come at the end, in the condemned prisoner's cell.

I think Dick Datchery, with his peculiar and mysterious system of recording and connecting clues, using symbols written in chalk, may be a professional detective (a literary cousin of Inspector Bucket) [22]. He may have been hired by Grewgious (a London lawyer, able to find a detective through his connections), who suspects Jasper, ever since witnessing Jasper's reaction to the news that Edwin and Rosa had broken off their betrothal [15, with a reminder in 22].

Datchery employs Deputy to ferret out information in Cloisterham. Deputy has a 'stony' relationship with Durdles, who has an uncanny talent for finding objects hidden behind stone (or, amazingly, behind stone, then space, then more stone!) [5] Durdles has also had the uncanny experience of hearing the ghost of a shriek [12]. Now, when Dickens introduces into his fictional world something requiring suspension of the reader's disbelief, it is reasonable to suppose that Dickens plans to make use of it, after the lapse of a decent interval in the reasonable expectation that the reader will by then have become less sceptical, more accepting.

Dickens may, on the other hand, have intended Datchery to be Bazzard in disguise, thus making use of Bazzard's connection with the theatre. Datchery, when out walking with Sapsea, is uncertain whether he is wearing a hat; he says he leaves his hat off for coolness; and when, back in his room, he is shaking out his white hair, perhaps it is actually OFF his head - it could be a wig [18]. This role would explain Bazzard's absence from Grewgious's office [20]. The weakness in this theory is that Dickens does not attribute any expertise in detective work to Bazzard; and it would be unbusinesslike to employ an amateur instead of a professional; and Grewgious makes a point of being businesslike and expecting others to be [11]. On the other hand, if Datchery is not Bazzard, why does Bazzard disappear, and what use will be made of Bazzard's connection with the theatre?

Also, if Datchery is wearing a disguise, who is he hiding from? So far as we are told, Bazzard has met only Edwin; while a professional detective from London would not necessarily know anybody in Cloisterham. Perhaps this is part of the entanglement that Dickens ran into? And correspondingly, this is for me an unresolved loose end.

Lieutenant Tartar comes into the story [17] as a suitable suitor for Rosa, having first carved out a career, and then come into a fortune; and having established extremely neat and clean and orderly habits [21], which presumably in Dickens's eyes will provide a steadying influence for the immature Rosa (although I believe such habits would drive many people to distraction; I suspect that for Dickens, perfect tidiness had an emotional appeal; it represented a haven - or heaven - of peace). Tartar is very sunburnt, increasing to THREE the number of major characters with dark faces, the others being the twins Neville and Helena. Datchery, I presume, becomes acquainted with Tartar, who has formed an attachment to Rosa [20, 21], and has an interest in finding the true killer of her ex-fiancé and in clearing Neville's name.

opium denThrough Deputy's work at a cheap lodging-house, Datchery connects with the Princess Puffer, who has eavesdropped on Jasper's repeated reheasals of the murder in her opium den [22]. (Jasper mistakenly thinks he is safe, having listened to the unconscious murmurings of his fellow opium-smokers: 'Unintelligible!' he says [1].)

The Princess may have a connection with Jasper, before the opium-smoking; perhaps she is even an older sister, which would make her also Edwin's aunt - or perhaps she is Edwin's mother, and did not die, but disappeared, in disgrace. (Dickens had a habit of keeping complex family histories up his sleeve, to be revealed at the end as part of the process of bringing the plot to an orderly conclusion.) We can work out that Jasper had at least one older sister, Edwin's mother, since he is unmarried, and, at twenty-six or thereabouts, is a mere half-dozen years older than his nephew Edwin, and they have different surnames. (The Princess was modelled on a real opium-dealer, a woman who looked 80 and was really 26; Dickens describes the Princess as 'haggard,' but does not call her old.) If the Princess were Jasper's sister, then, being prematurely aged in looks, she would have an advantage in recognizing him, without herself risking being identified. (And under the effects of opium, she even looks Chinese [1].)

She has encountered Edwin Drood and, being apparently a fortune-teller, has predicted his doom [14]. (Although she may have pieced together scraps of information, partly from Jasper's mutterings during his opium dreams.) When the film and the shaking come over her, Edwin recognizes the same look that he had seen in his uncle; but perhaps he also unknowingly catches in that moment a family resemblance?

title pageI assume that the Princess sells to Datchery her discovery, from her eavesdropping on Jasper in her opium den, of the planned method of the murder, including the location where the body is to be disposed of (a vault in the graveyard, as indicated by Dickens's notes for Chapter 12). Durdles divines, through his special talents - which were bound to come in handy, sooner or later! - the presence of something extra in one of the vaults, and Datchery & Co discover some remains in a pile of quicklime [see 12], and the ring identifying Drood, which Jasper (who boasted to the jeweller [14] about having an inventory of Edwin's jewellery, namely watch, chain, and shirt-pin) did not know about (because Edwin had decided not to tell Jasper until later), and consequently had not recovered when he removed from the corpse other means of identification.

Then there is some confrontation between Jasper and Neville Landless, who has obtained information from Princess Puffer linking Jasper to the murder. Jasper kills Neville, and then forges a suicide note, purporting to come from Neville, with a confession to the murder of Edwin Drood.

Eventually Datchery, Grewgious & Co set a trap for Jasper. They trick him into returning to the vault, to look for some damning evidence (the ring) and dispose of it; he is unnerved by a vision in the lamplight (my interpretation of the cover designs by Charles Collins and Luke Fildes) which he takes to be Neville returned from the dead (but which is Helena disguised - Neville's twin sister, with a history of dressing as a male [7]). Jasper tries to escape up the steps (also based on the cover designs), but is confronted by another vision of Neville (this one being Tartar, the third dark-faced character, in disguise - he keeps in the shadows, and anyway Jasper is too distraught to see through the deception); Deputy, who hates Jasper, blocks his exit by throwing stones; and finally Crisparkle, the muscular Christian, strikes Jasper down with a well-practised straight left (thus completing his qualifications for taking on the formidable Helena in matrimony); and Jasper confesses.

On top of the complication of Dickens's entanglement in the maze of the altered plot, he did have to resort to adding, deleting, and moving text in order to meet the size targets for the monthly issues, which would have disrupted his plans and created extra stress. His otherwise methodical notes for the novel show no detail other than chapter titles for Chapters 18 to 22, and for Chapter 23 not even a title - it seems as though his method was breaking down, as though he was concentrating his energy on putting down the words on paper from the ideas in his head and was trying to do without the chapter-notes stage. Perhaps the problem was mainly one of size: the rigid schedule of twelve fixed-length monthly instalments had become a slavedriver; either he was approaching the conclusion faster than he intended, and was worrying about how he might spread out the remainder of the writing so as to fill up the second half; or he had too much to say, and too little space.

The third question is about significant themes or messages.

Dickens was haunted by his experiences at the age of twelve when he had suffered a kind of abandonment by his improvident father (who had been arrested for debt and put away in the Marshalsea debtors' prison). The young Dickens, an intellectually curious boy, was removed from his schooling and for some months was put to menial tasks in a blacking factory. When he grew up he used his exceptional talents and energy to earn a large income and construct a respected position in society - and still he was tormented by self-doubt; he worried that what the world saw was a mere hollow facade. Likewise, William Dorrit, providentially liberated from the Marshalsea and made wealthy, tormented himself with imaginings of sneers and slights from his own servants.

I suspect that in The Mystery of Edwin Drood Dickens had a very serious purpose, to explore this self-doubt, and to do this by creating and examining characters who contained contrasts or contradictions.

And I think the key is in the quoted intention for the murderer, in the conclusion of the book, to dwell on the temptations as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted - in a way, a separation from responsibility. Jasper lives two lives: the respected man of the church; and the opium addict, dreaming of murder.

stage & backdropSeveral characters in this novel have double lives of some sort. Dickens describes Miss Twinkleton's 'two distinct and separate phases of being,' so that in the evening after the young ladies have retired she can innocently reminisce about 'The Wells' and 'Foolish Mr Porters' [3]. Dickens's notes say, "Miss Twinkleton and her double existence."

Canon Crisparkle is gentle, urbane, slow to condemn; and he practises boxing. He compliantly accepts his mother's doses of herbs whenever she detects some signs of ailment in him; and it is from this background of home remedies that he compliments Jasper on looking better, and advises Jasper to continue with his own medication - which Crisparkle does not realize is actually opium.

With the twins Neville and Helena Landless, we have double lives in two persons; with the same harsh upbringing, they have reacted differently, and have become different; ironically, the clenched fist that is part of the routine of Crisparkle's boxing exercises becomes objectionable whenever the Canon sees it displayed by Neville in an expression of anger. I think it is Neville's inability to master his anger that is the literary justification for his dying in an attempt to unmask Jasper (the murderer of Neville's careless and unappreciating rival for the love of Rosa) and thus redeeming himself - as Dickens may have seen it. (Neville's death will also neatly dispose of his attachment to Rosa.)

Grewgious sees himself as a 'particularly Angular' person, but he cherishes his old love for Rosa's drowned mother - and Dickens gives him some of the most eloquent and poetic speeches in the book. (I like to think that he ends up with Miss Twinkleton!)

Deputy is one of a collection of youthful delinquents, one not even worth giving a distinctive name to - and Dickens often made a point of showing how naming practices could be used to pin people to particular roles - but Durdles is inspired to see a potential good use for Deputy's stone-throwing habit, and employs the boy as an unconventional escort to see him home. Significantly, I think, Jasper does not accept Durdles' tentative suggestion that there may be some educational value in this strange arrangement; and also significantly, Jasper and Deputy become extremely antagonistic towards each other. Here, I think, Dickens is illuminating Jasper's denial of responsibility for his own murderous intentions, which is at the root of the alienation of Jasper the murderer from Jasper the describer of the murder. Jasper cannot bear to entertain the possibility that a youth as depraved as Deputy might have some good in him, might be redeemable; because that would put Jasper in a worse light, since after all he could decide to make the best of the life and career that he is bored with, or else could try starting fresh in something different. (Deputy's hostility to Jasper is, I think, explainable simply as Jasper's hostility bringing out the worst in Deputy.)

Also, perhaps Deputy is a version of Dickens who was not rescued from the blacking factory.

Another theme is parenthood, not literal parents, but parental-type roles. Parents may be nurturing, helping, guiding; or prejudicial, condemnatory, damaging. And here I believe that Dickens was consciously or unconsciously seeking to resolve his own unsatisfactory relationship with his own parents. We have Miss Twinkleton and Mrs Tisher, in a protective role over their young female students. (In the evenings Miss Twinkleton takes a holiday from her parental responsibilities, to rhapsodise about 'Foolish Mr Porters.')

We have two guardians, Grewgious who is protective in his 'Angular' way over his ward, Rosa (and she sees beyond his Angularity, and calls him 'a good, good man,' and describes his manner as 'so kindly'); and he gives uncomfortably frank advice to her fiancé Edwin, in parallel with the delicately supportive advice he has given earlier to Rosa. And we have the other guardian, Honeythunder the 'philanthropist,' who is for ever finding someone to condemn for something.

Canon Crisparkle, at 35, has a reciprocal parental relationship with his elderly mother, wittily and gently shown, for example, in his pretence that her eyesight is so much superior to his own, that he has to ask her aid in deciphering Honeythunder's letter [6]. He also takes on a parental role towards the hot-blooded Neville, who becomes his house-guest and student, Crisparkle providing moral guidance from the outset, and protection against the later accusations.

Crisparkle's superior at the Cathedral, the Dean, demonstrates a hypocritical abandoning of parental-type reponsibility, when he insinuates to Crisparkle that it is inappropriate to defend and support Neville [16].

Durdles and Deputy have a mutually protective relationship; Durdles provides money; Deputy acts as an escort. The violence of the stone-throwing is bounded by protocols, which Durdles appeals to: 'You never cried Widdy Warning before you begun tonight' [5]. The parent (young Deputy) is supposed to give the child (old Durdles) a chance to behave, before resorting to corporal punishment.

Jasper is in a formal parental-type relationship with his nephew Edwin Drood, as legal guardian, and betrays that responsibility by attempting to seduce Edwin's fiancée Rosa, and by even murdering him after much premeditation.

In the partly autobiographical David Copperfield, Dickens disposes of various characters who have not lived up to requirements: Mr Micawber, who cannot manage money (a version of Dickens's father), is shipped off to Australia (where, incredibly, he prospers as a solid citizen); the disgraced Emily is likewise shipped off to Australia with her ever-forgiving father; and the adorable but incompetent Dora dies, leaving the field clear for the placid and dependable Agnes. Uncomfortably like a good spring-cleaning and general tidying-up. Dickens had got his wife Catherine out of the way, and was pursuing a relationship with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. Perhaps he recognized that his wealth and fame put him at an unfair advantage over the young woman. Would she not have been better off with a man of her own generation? He may often have wondered whether she cared for him for himself, or for his fame and fortune.

studyJasper consistently seems so much older than his stated age of about twenty-six. Is Dickens getting carried away by his exploration of his own feelings? Dickens sounds as though he speaks from his heart when he has Jasper throw at Rosa's feet everything that is supposed to be important to him [19]...

[I wrote this in February 2000, and revised it slightly in March 2011. I thought originally it needed a firm conclusion. Now I am not sure.]

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