Åke Bergvall: The Rhetoric of Mystery in The Mystery of Edwin Drood

First published in Modi operandi


N a mo­men­tous scene early on in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood (1870), Charles Dick­ens has Mr Jasper, lay pre­cen­tor, choir­mas­ter and music teach­er, ac­com­pa­ny his stu­dent Miss Rose­bud on the piano: “It was a con­se­quence of his play­ing the ac­com­pa­ni­ment with­out notes, and of her being a heed­less lit­tle crea­ture very apt to go wrong, that he fol­lowed her lips most at­ten­tive­ly, with his eyes as well as hands; care­ful­ly and soft­ly hint­ing the key-note from time to time.”1 What ini­tial­ly ap­pears a har­mo­nious pas­time, “hint­ing the key-note” quick­ly turns op­pres­sive, pro­duc­ing jar­ring dis­cord:

As Jasper watched the pret­ty lips, and ever and again hint­ed the one note, as though it were a low whis­per from him­self, the voice be­came less steady, until all at once the singer broke into a burst of tears, and shrieked out, with her hands over her eyes: ‘I can’t bear this! I am fright­ened! Take me away!’ (ED, 92)

As an early in­di­ca­tion of Jasper’s ob­ses­sive de­sire for Rose­bud, this pas­sage plays a key part (pun in­tend­ed) in out­lin­ing the plot of the mys­tery, but, equal­ly im­por­tant, it si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly sug­gests the au­thor’s grow­ing un­ease with his own rhetor­i­cal and au­tho­ri­al strate­gies. “Hint­ing the key-note” is too close to Dick­ens’s own de­scrip­tion of his art for com­fort. “Let us strike the key-note, Coke­town, be­fore pur­su­ing our tune,” he had told the read­ers of Hard Times at the start of a chap­ter en­ti­tled “The Key-note,”2 and as late as in his num­ber plans for chap­ter one of Edwin Drood, he re­minds him­self to “Touch the key note.” (ED, 284)

In ad­di­tion, “care­ful­ly and soft­ly hint­ing” the key-note match­es Dick­ens’s ad­vice in an 1859 let­ter to his fel­low crime writ­er Wilkie Collins:

I think the busi­ness of art is to lay all that ground care­ful­ly, not with the care that con­ceals it­self – to show, by a back­ward light, what ev­ery­thing has been work­ing to – but only to sug­gest, until the ful­fill­ment comes. These are the ways of Prov­i­dence, of which ways all art is but a lit­tle im­i­ta­tion.3

As Mr Jasper, in di­a­bol­ic coun­ter­point to the ways of Prov­i­dence, for most of the fin­ished part of Edwin Drood care­ful­ly and by sug­ges­tion di­rects un­sus­pect­ing males to­wards his own sin­is­ter ends (the ladies re­sist him more con­sis­tent­ly), so – the com­par­i­son seems to imply – the nar­ra­tor’s ven­tril­o­quism (eeri­ly sim­i­lar to Jasper hint­ing the key-note “as though it were a low whis­per from him­self” (ED, 92) may have a less than ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect on the read­ers.4 In­deed, they may feel the au­thor’s guid­ance to be quite as op­pres­sive as poor Rose­bud finds Jasper’s ac­com­pa­ni­ment. At the very least, no read­er wants to suf­fer the au­tho­ri­al dis­trust of being treat­ed like “a heed­less lit­tle crea­ture very apt to go wrong.” (ED, 92)

For many read­ers, Hard Times is the Dick­en­sian novel in which this au­tho­ri­al pres­sure is the most clear­ly felt and most often re­sist­ed. The re­al­is­tic novel, like all au­thor­i­ta­tive dis­course, ar­gues Pierre Bour­dieu, is de­liv­ered under “litur­gi­cal con­di­tions”.5 Sel­dom is this as ob­vi­ous as in Hard Times, in which Dick­ens like a preach­er ham­mers home his di­dac­tic and so­cial mes­sage, a mes­sage pre­sent­ed in a se­ries of un­com­pro­mis­ing black and white di­chotomies. In­deed, the novel is based on a par­tic­u­lar text with­in the An­gli­can church year as given in The Book of Com­mon Prayer, and uses a pletho­ra of homilet­ic strate­gies to con­vince and per­suade the read­er.6

When the au­thor some 15 years later be­gins to write Edwin Drood, it is as if that ear­li­er novel is haunt­ing him, not as an ex­am­ple to be em­u­lat­ed but as a strat­e­gy to react against, even to re­ject. On the sur­face the two nov­els have sev­er­al fea­tures in com­mon, not least their en­gage­ment in so­cial is­sues, such as in­dus­tri­al­ism, ed­u­ca­tion, and the em­pire. Hard Times is Dick­ens’s ac­knowl­edged in­dus­tri­al, or con­di­tion-of-Eng­land novel, while Edwin Drood has re­cent­ly been des­ig­nat­ed his “con­di­tion-of-Eng­land-in-the-age-of-em­pire novel”.7 Fur­ther­more, as we shall see, Edwin Drood also fea­tures a guid­ing sub­text from The Book of Com­mon Prayer. An­oth­er sim­i­lar­i­ty is that nei­ther novel starts with a nar­ra­tor. Un­like all other Dick­ens nov­els, in which a first or third per­son nar­ra­tor has the first word, both begin abrupt­ly with the voice of a key pro­tag­o­nist.

But the voic­es we over­hear at the start of the two nov­els also high­light their pro­found dif­fer­ences. In Hard Times we lis­ten to a pub­lic and as­sertive ora­tion, and we soon find out that Mr Grad­grind, school mas­ter and bud­ding politi­cian, is the speak­er:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these lit­tle boys and girls noth­ing but Facts. Facts alone are want­ed in life. Plant noth­ing else, and root out ev­ery­thing else. You can only form the minds of rea­son­ing an­i­mals upon Facts; noth­ing else will ever be of any ser­vice to them. This is the prin­ci­ple on which I bring up my own chil­dren, and this is the prin­ci­ple on which I bring up these chil­dren. Stick to Facts, sir! (HT, 47)

In Edwin Drood the voice we over­hear is per­son­al and ques­tion­ing, and it takes some time and ef­fort to fig­ure out that the in­te­ri­or mono­logue be­longs to Mr Jasper:

An an­cient En­glish Cathe­dral Town? How can the an­cient En­glish Cathe­dral town be here? The well-known grey square tower of its old Cathe­dral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, be­tween the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What IS the spike that in­ter­venes, and who has set it up? Maybe, it is set up by the Sul­tan’s or­ders for the im­pal­ing of a horde of Turk­ish rob­bers, one by one. It is so, for cym­bals clash, and the Sul­tan goes by to his palace in a long pro­ces­sion. Ten thou­sand scim­i­tars flash in the sun­light, and thrice ten thou­sand danc­ing-girls strew flow­ers. Then, fol­low white ele­phants ca­parisoned in count­less gor­geous col­ors, and in­fi­nite in num­ber and at­ten­dants. Still, the Cathe­dral tower rises in the back­ground, where it can­not be, and still no writhing fig­ure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of an old bed­stead that has tum­bled all awry? Some pe­ri­od of drowsy laugh­ter must be de­vot­ed to the con­sid­er­a­tion of this pos­si­bil­i­ty. (ED, 37)

These ini­tial para­graphs con­tain the germ of the nov­els to fol­low: both con­tain an em­bed­ded out­line of the plot,8 but, more im­por­tant for my pre­sent pur­pos­es, both speak of dif­fer­ent au­tho­ri­al and rhetor­i­cal strate­gies. Where the ear­li­er novel im­me­di­ate­ly high­lights one of the gov­ern­ing di­chotomies (“Facts” as against “Fancy”) and in­tro­duces the pri­ma­ry au­tho­ri­al metaphor of the sower (“Plant noth­ing else”) with its parabol­ic con­no­ta­tions, the lat­ter im­me­di­ate­ly es­tab­lish­es what I would term a rhetoric of mys­tery, even mys­ti­fi­ca­tion. The novel opens with a se­ries of tan­ta­liz­ing ques­tions (“How can [...]?”, “What IS [...]?”) that can leave the first­time read­er in a men­tal state not un­like that of the speak­er, “whose scat­tered con­scious­ness has thus fan­tas­ti­cal­ly pieced it­self to­geth­er” (ED, 37), and who thrice ex­claims “un­in­tel­li­gi­ble!” (ED, 39)

The lit­er­ary style at the be­gin­ning of Edwin Drood seems an ex­ten­sion of the opium haze that en­velopes the speak­er, Mr Jasper, and which also fig­ures promi­nent­ly in the il­lus­tra­tion on the cover of the month­ly in­stall­ments of the story, in which opium fumes em­a­nat­ing from smok­ers in the bot­tom left and right cor­ners rise to­wards and en­cir­cle the il­lus­trat­ed high­lights from the novel. The opi­um-in­duced vi­sion that opens the novel is sig­nif­i­cant in terms of plot and char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, but it also seems to re­in­force the au­thor’s con­fes­sion to his friend and bi­og­ra­pher John Forster on 6 Au­gust 1869 that he had “a very cu­ri­ous and new idea for my new story. Not a com­mu­ni­ca­ble idea (or the in­ter­est of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though dif­fi­cult to work.”9 What Dick­ens re­al­ly means with an “idea” that is “very cu­ri­ous” and “strong” but which nev­er­the­less is not “com­mu­ni­ca­ble” is of course de­bat­able, but I be­lieve he pro­vides a clue when he goes on to say that he does not want to risk los­ing the read­ers’ in­ter­est. It is as if he is say­ing that rather than “com­mu­ni­cat­ing” a heavy-hand­ed mes­sage (as in Hard Times) he will this time use a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy, how­ev­er “dif­fi­cult to work”.

This new strat­e­gy, I be­lieve, is ev­i­dent not only in the opium haze of chap­ter one, but also when the story gets down to busi­ness with what looks like a more or­di­nary con­tin­u­a­tion. Chap­ter two be­gins just out­side Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral with an or­nitho­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion that soon slides into metaphor:

Whoso­ev­er has ob­served that se­date and cler­i­cal bird, the rook, may per­haps have no­ticed that when he wings his way home­ward to­wards night­fall, in a se­date and cler­i­cal com­pa­ny, two rooks will sud­den­ly de­tach them­selves from the rest, will re­trace their flight for some dis­tance, and will there poise and linger; con­vey­ing to mere men the fancy that it is of some oc­cult im­por­tance to the body politic, that this art­ful cou­ple should pre­tend to have re­nounced con­nec­tion with it. (ED, 40)

The first thing the read­ers en­counter is the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal-sound­ing word “whoso­ev­er”. It may fit the “cler­i­cal” con­text but the aviary con­tin­u­a­tion makes us un­sure whether it should be read iron­i­cal­ly. This in­ter­pre­ta­tive un­cer­tain­ty be­comes even more prob­lem­at­ic if we re­al­ize that “whoso­ev­er” is used in the Athanasian creed,10 re­cit­ed dur­ing the same Morn­ing Prayer as “the in­toned words, ‘WHEN THE WICKED MAN – ’” (ED, 40) that con­clude chap­ter one. Fur­ther­more, both trun­cat­ed texts from The Book of Com­mon Prayer con­tin­ue with words of sal­va­tion that are point­ed­ly omit­ted in Dick­ens’s text.11 Whether ig­no­rant or not of this con­text, the read­er is in­vit­ed to “fancy”12 the “im­por­tance” of the be­hav­ior of the “cler­i­cal” rooks, a metaphor, how­ev­er, that is im­me­di­ate­ly turned on its head by being meta­mor­phosed into two “ven­er­a­ble per­sons of rook­like as­pect”. (ED, 40) Are the rooks cler­ics or are the cler­ics rooks? Who is im­i­tat­ing whom? And are the rooks ac­tu­al­ly pre­sent in Clois­ter­ham, or are they only fig­ments of the shared imag­i­na­tion of nar­ra­tor and read­er? The sub­sti­tu­tion of the com­par­a­tive poles col­laps­es not only the metaphor but the abil­i­ty of “mere men” to “fancy [...] some oc­cult im­por­tance” (ED, 40) in the ac­tions of ei­ther rooks or cler­ics. As first-time read­ers we seem none the wiser, es­pe­cial­ly if we keep in mind the drug-re­lat­ed con­no­ta­tions of “fancy” from chap­ter one.

Then fol­lows a vague­ly omi­nous de­scrip­tion of (and im­plied com­par­i­son be­tween) the wan­ing of the year and the ru­inous state of Clois­ter­ham, over which a Vir­ginia creep­er “has show­ered its deepred leaves,” while “a win­try shud­der goes [...] through the giant elm trees as they shed a gust of tears. Their fall­en leaves lie strewn thick­ly about.” (ED, 40) Again we are in­vit­ed to make com­par­isons be­tween the nat­u­ral and the human world, re­in­forced this time by a faint but point­ed al­lu­sion to the fall­en an­gels of Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost, who lay “Thick as Au­tum­nal Leaves that strow the Brooks / of Val­lom­brosa” (Book 1, lines 302–303).13 Clois­ter­ham’s fall­en leaves, how­ev­er, “seek sanc­tu­ary with­in the low arched Cathe­dral door,” and are “re­sist­ed” and “cast forth” not by some Mil­ton­ic God but by two men com­ing out of the Cathe­dral, one lock­ing the door with “a good­ly key” and the other flit­ting away with a folio music book. The whole pas­sage seems fraught with “oc­cult im­por­tance,” but of an elu­sive kind that read­ers do not have any “good­ly key” to im­me­di­ate­ly un­lock.

We are fur­ther con­fused by the en­su­ing, un­in­tro­duced con­ver­sa­tion:

‘Mr Jasper was that, Tope?’

‘Yes, Mr Dean.’

‘He has stayed late.’

‘Yes, Mr Dean. I have stayed for him, your Rev­er­ence. He has been took a lit­tle poor­ly.’

‘Say “taken,” Tope – to the Dean,’ the younger rook in­ter­pos­es in a low tone with this touch of cor­rec­tion, as who should say: ‘You may offer bad gram­mar to the laity, or the hum­bler cler­gy, not to the Dean.’ (ED, 40–41)

The chap­ter has so far in­tro­duced two “rook-­like” per­sons, and then two per­sons leav­ing the Cathe­dral. We may be for­giv­en for not in­stant­ly sort­ing out the three per­sons con­vers­ing with each other, and how they re­late to the two ear­li­er cou­ples. Only grad­u­al­ly does it be­come ap­par­ent that the two “rooks” are the Dean and Mr Crisparkle, and that the Mr Jasper they are dis­cussing with Tope, Chief Verg­er and owner of the good­ly key, is the per­son flit­ting away with a music book.

My point is very sim­ple. Where­as Dick­ens in Hard Times treats his read­er like “a lit­tle crea­ture very apt to go wrong,” here he makes the read­ing pro­cess ar­du­ous and with­out clear point­ers, at times al­most de­cep­tive, in order that the read­er may be treat­ed like an adult, i. e., a fully re­spon­si­ble moral agent.

An im­por­tant part of Dick­ens’s strat­e­gy in Edwin Drood is to un­der­cut ini­tial ap­pear­ances and to blur ap­par­ent di­chotomies. The con­ver­sa­tion quot­ed above is a good ex­am­ple of the for­mer. The read­er is here in­tro­duced to Mr Crisparkle, “the younger rook,” who is por­trayed as a pedant prone to out­ward show and the main­tain­ing of so­cial rank. Those well­read in Dick­ens are al­ready pre­dis­posed to sus­pect “ven­er­a­ble per­sons of rook­like as­pect” to be lit­tle more than hum­bugs and cheats. In short, we are en­cour­aged to dis­trust Crisparkle. But of course he turns out to be one of the heroes of the book, if with foibles of his own. An­oth­er ex­am­ple is Mr Grew­gious, who is not so much pre­sent­ed as re­peat­ed­ly pre­sent­ing him­self as a per­fect­ly “An­gu­lar man” de­void of imag­i­na­tion and deep­er emo­tions (e. g. in ED, 141). Again, he is re­vealed to be some­thing more than what is sug­gest­ed by his ini­tial ap­pear­ance: “there was some­thing dreamy (for so lit­er­al a man) in the way in which he now shook his right fore­fin­ger at the live coals in the grate.” (ED, 143)

Mr Grew­gious also ex­em­pli­fies the sec­ond char­ac­ter­is­tic of this novel: the blur­ring or even col­laps­ing of di­chotomies. With Hard Times in mind this be­comes es­pe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant. The ear­li­er novel in­sis­tent­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sep­a­rates peo­ple, places and ideas into du­al­is­tic cat­e­gories, such as fact/fancy, head/heart, art/na­ture, or me­chan­i­cal/nat­u­ral time (where the first item of each di­choto­my to­geth­er con­sti­tute “Mam­mon”, i. e., the “bad” side and the sec­ond “God”, i. e., the “good” side).14 To hold the novel to­geth­er Dick­ens in ad­di­tion uses an­oth­er over­rid­ing ge­o­met­ri­cal di­choto­my. In the first two chap­ters he es­tab­lish­es two poles by pre­sent­ing Mr Grad­grind and his school as “square”, while Sissy Jupe and the Cir­cus are “round”. This di­choto­my is then im­ple­ment­ed through­out the book, with Mr Bound­er­by and Coke­town join­ing the “squares”, and Mr Sleary, Stephen Black­pool and all other “good” char­ac­ters the “rounds”. To en­sure that the read­er does not miss the point, Dick­ens places the novel’s dénoue­ment with­in the cir­cle of the Cir­cus, where a now re­formed (and thus “round”) Mr Grad­grind in vain tries to per­suade Bitzer, model pupil and there­fore arch square, to let Mr Grad­grind’s son Tom off the hook. And the same ge­o­met­ri­cal sym­bol is con­nect­ed to the dying Stephen Black­pool two chap­ters ear­li­er, as he gazes at a star from the bot­tom of an old mine shaft that is sur­round­ed by “a large ring” (HT, 286) of on­look­ers.15

Com­ing to Edwin Drood di­rect­ly from Hard Times, one can­not but reg­is­ter that the Cathe­dral tower with­in the first few lines of the novel is de­scribed as “square”, a de­tail that is then point­ed­ly re­peat­ed to­wards the end of the chap­ter, and again used in chap­ter two as a dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture that seems to im­pli­cate not just the Cathe­dral it­self but all of Clois­ter­ham, which in chap­ter three is de­scribed as “a monotonous, silent city, de­riv­ing an earth­ly fla­vor through­out, from its Cathe­dral crypt.” (ED, 51) And since the “an­cient En­glish Cathe­dral town” (ED, 37; em­pha­sis added) is im­me­di­ate­ly con­trast­ed to opi­um-in­duced ori­en­tal fancy cen­ter­ing on vi­o­lence and sex­u­al­i­ty, we must be for­giv­en for ex­pect­ing clus­ters of op­pos­ing metaphors sim­i­lar to the ones found in the ear­li­er novel: east vs. west, for­eign vs. En­glish, fancy vs. fact, etc. The rhetoric of the novel, how­ev­er, sets up these di­chotomies, only to pull the rug from under the read­er’s pre­con­ceived no­tions by sub­vert­ing them.16

This sub­ver­sion is es­pe­cial­ly note­wor­thy in the case of the bi­na­ry pair square/round. We have al­ready seen the ex­am­ple of the “An­gu­lar” Mr Grew­gious, ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed (much like a Mr Grad­grind) as “an arid, sandy man” (ED, 109) liv­ing in “two ir­reg­u­lar quad­ran­gles, called Sta­ple Inn.” (ED, 133; em­pha­sis added) How­ev­er, de­spite him­self think­ing “the spec­u­la­tions of an An­gu­lar man” to be “prob­a­bly er­ro­neous on so glob­u­lar a topic” as love (ED, 142), Mr Grew­gious nev­er­the­less ends up pre­sent­ing Edwin Drood with the pro­to­typ­i­cal cir­cu­lar em­blem, a mo­men­tous ring that car­ries a his­to­ry of his own buried pas­sion. And un­like Mr Grad­grind, who ad­mon­ish­es his daugh­ter to “never won­der” (HT, 89; also the title of a chap­ter), Mr Grew­gious ends his mus­ings with a se­ries of re­it­er­at­ed “I won­der”. (ED, 146) He is thus re­vealed to pos­sess a “round” char­ac­ter hid­den be­hind an “an­gu­lar” ex­te­ri­or. An ex­am­ple of the op­po­site pro­cess can be found in Mr Hon­eythun­der, pro­fes­sion­al phi­lan­thropist and pub­lic speak­er (fa­vorite bug­bears of Dick­ens’s), whose ini­tial pre­sen­ta­tion abounds in cir­cu­lar ex­pres­sions: “in the cir­cles of the Fancy”, “the rural cir­cuit”, “Rounds”, “magic cir­cle”, “cir­cu­lars”, etc. (ED, 202–203) How­ev­er, as even his oxy­moron­ic name sug­gests, his “cir­cu­lar­i­ty” is al­most im­me­di­ate­ly con­tra­dict­ed by re­peat­ed ref­er­ences to his “squar­ing his arms” and his “plat­form” man­ners (ED, 202–203), once com­bined into the “plat­form fold­ing of his arms”. (ED, 204) At one point Mr Hon­eythun­der is si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly “turn­ing his chair half round [...], and squar­ing his arms.” (ED, 203) Here the two cat­e­gories can­cel each other out com­plete­ly, there­by los­ing their abil­i­ty to dif­fer­en­ti­ate. Un­like Hard Times, this novel does not allow the read­er to slip into any easy as­so­ci­a­tion of char­ac­ter and pre­de­ter­mined ge­o­met­ric cat­e­go­ry.

The break­down of these di­chotomies be­comes crit­i­cal with the main char­ac­ter, Mr Jasper. He strad­dles the bi­na­ries through­out the novel, being as­so­ci­at­ed with both the “square” En­glish Cathe­dral town and the “fancy” of the ori­en­tal opium den. He is no uni­fy­ing con­nec­tion, how­ev­er, but is torn apart by un­re­solved ten­sions. Fur­ther­more, the di­chotomies from Hard Times have for him been trans­formed from “good” and “bad” into all bad. The “square­ness” of Clois­ter­ham is as detri­men­tal to him as Coke­town is to Stephen Black­pool or Louisa Grad­grind, but this has been com­pound­ed by cor­re­spond­ing “cir­cu­lar” evils: he is “a poor monotonous cho­ris­ter and grinder of music” doing his “daily drudg­ing round”. (ED, 48–49) The music that nor­mal­ly func­tions as a metaphor of con­cord has for him be­come a “me­chan­i­cal har­mo­ny” (ED, 264), while the “fancy” that in Hard Times be­comes short­hand for all the novel’s pos­i­tive forces, is in its cir­cu­lar repet­i­tive­ness an opi­um-driv­en curse lead­ing Jasper to­wards mur­der: “I did it [the mur­der], here [the opium den], hun­dreds of thou­sands of times. What do I say? I did it mil­lions and bil­lions of times. I did it so often, and through such vast ex­pans­es of time, that when it was re­al­ly done, it seemed not worth the doing, it was done so soon.” (ED, 269)

The “An­gli­can” sub­texts from The Book of Com­mon Prayer re­ferred to above are made prob­lem­at­ic through Jasper’s predica­ment. In Hard Times, bib­li­cal sub­texts high­light the novel’s moral and po­lit­i­cal mes­sage. The Prayer Book, which fol­lows the rhythm of both the Church year and the nat­u­ral year (es­pe­cial­ly ev­i­dent in the texts about sow­ing and har­vest­ing), goes hand in hand with the novel’s con­trol­ling di­chotomies, in par­tic­u­lar with its en­dorse­ment of cir­cu­lar­i­ty. In Edwin Drood it is pre­cise­ly the dead­en­ing monotony of hav­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the “daily drudg­ing round” of An­gli­can rit­u­al that is the prob­lem. So if Jasper’s chant­ing of the Morn­ing Prayer at the end of chap­ter one re­al­ly is Dick­ens’s in­tend­ed “key-note”, as the au­thor’s num­ber plans seem to in­di­cate, then it is with many-lay­ered irony that we are told that on the day of the pre­sumed mur­der of Edwin Drood “Mr Jasper is in beau­ti­ful voice [...]. He has never sung dif­fi­cult music with such skill and har­mo­ny, as this day’s An­them.” (ED, 180) This in­deed is to “hint the key-note” of the novel so soft­ly as to be al­most in­audi­ble. Nev­er­the­less, as he had done on every morn­ing and evening for most of his adult life, so also this day Jasper must have in­toned “When the wicked man tur­neth away from his wicked­ness that he hath com­mit­ted, and doeth that which is law­ful and right, he shall save his soul alive.”17

In its own way, this verse from the Prayer Book is as im­por­tant to Edwin Drood as the pas­sage on God and Mam­mon to Hard Times. And the verse has a di­rect bear­ing on the issue of Dick­ens’s chang­ing au­tho­ri­al strate­gies. The du­al­ism of the ear­li­er novel has in Edwin Drood been in­ter­nal­ized. Ju­dith Prescott Flynn cor­rect­ly points out that Edwin Drood is the final re­sult of “Dick­ens’s grow­ing aware­ness of evil as in­trin­sic rather than ex­trin­sic to human na­ture.”18 Al­ready in 1906 Kate Pe­rug­i­ni, Dick­ens’s daugh­ter, wrote about how her fa­ther’s final novel re­vealed “his strange in­sight into the trag­ic se­crets of the human heart.”19 Ever since Ed­mund Wil­son’s in­flu­en­tial ar­ti­cle “Dick­ens: The Two Scrooges”20 crit­ics have elab­o­rat­ed on these “trag­ic se­crets” by stress­ing the di­vid­ed na­ture of the novel’s char­ac­ters in gen­er­al and the split per­son­al­i­ty of Jasper in par­tic­u­lar.21 Jasper may be a mur­der­er, but we are not al­lowed the com­fort­able as­sur­ance of sim­ply pin­ning him down, Sher­lock Holmes style, as the per­pe­tra­tor in a who­dunit. David Faulkn­er, fur­ther­more, has shown how Jasper and Crisparkle, the novel’s cul­prit and hero re­spec­tive­ly, func­tion not so much as op­po­sites as dou­bles (as the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween their lus­trous names al­ready in­di­cate),22 i. e., we are not al­lowed to sort them into “good” and “bad” cat­e­gories in any sim­ple or naïve way. In fact, for all the talk of Edwin Drood being one of the first de­tec­tive nov­els, rather than com­par­ing it to the work of Conan Doyle we would be clos­er to the mark dis­cussing it in con­junc­tion with an­oth­er near con­tem­po­rary, that in­ves­ti­ga­tor of the di­vid­ed human psy­che (and ad­mir­er of Dick­ens), Dos­toyevsky.23 For all their dis­sim­i­lar­i­ties, both are ex­plor­ing the predica­ment of liv­ing in a world not de­void of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty but in which old cer­tain­ties and eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish­able cat­e­gories are no longer on hand for ei­ther pro­tag­o­nist or read­er.


1     Charles Dick­ens: The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. Arthur J. Cox (ed.): Har­mondsworth: 1983, 92. Fur­ther ref­er­ences to this edi­tion, ab­bre­vi­at­ed ED, will here­after be given in the text.

2     Charles Dick­ens: Hard Times. David Craig (ed.): Har­mondsworth: 1984, 65. Fur­ther ref­er­ences to this edi­tion, ab­bre­vi­at­ed HT, will here­after be given in the text.

3     As cited in John Beer: “Edwin Drood and the Mys­tery of Apart­ness”. Dick­ens Stud­ies An­nu­al 13 (1984), 143–191 (172).

4     See Beer: “Mys­tery of Apart­ness”, 172 for fur­ther in­stances of how “Jasper’s ac­tions ap­pear like a dark par­o­dy of the nov­el­ist’s art.”

5     Pierre Bour­dieu: Lan­guage and Sym­bol­ic Power. Trans. Gino Ray­mond, Matthew Adam­son. Ox­ford: 1992, 105.

6     The 15th Sun­day after Trin­i­ty to be exact, with its Gospel read­ing on God and Mam­mon taken from the Ser­mon on the Mount (Matthew 6). See my two ar­ti­cles: “The Homilet­ics of Hard Times”. Åke Bergvall, Yvonne Lef­fler, Conny Mithander (eds.): Berättelse i förvan­dling. Karl­stad: 2000, 107–131, and “Re­al­ism and Rhetoric in Charles Dick­ens’s Hard Times”. Danu­ta Fjellestad, Eliz­a­beth Kella (eds.): Re­al­ism and Its Dis­con­tents. Karl­skro­na: 2003, 136–154.

7     Tom Dolin: “Race and the So­cial Plot in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood”. Shear­er West (ed.): The Vic­to­ri­ans and Race. Alder­shot: 1996, 84–100 (85).

8     For the be­gin­ning of Hard Times, see David Lodge: Lan­guage of Fic­tion, 2nd ed. Lon­don: 1984, 147, and my ar­ti­cles in note 6; for the open­ing of Edwin Drood, see Kath­leen Wales: “Dick­ens and In­te­ri­or Mono­logue: The Open­ing of Edwin Drood Re­con­sid­ered”. Lan­guage and Style 17:3 (1984): 234–250. Both nov­els, ac­cord­ing to Har­vey Peter Suck­smith (The Nar­ra­tive Art of Charles Dick­ens. Ox­ford: 1970), be­long to a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of Dick­ens nov­els that have “sat­is­fac­to­ry” open­ings (84). Suck­smith then elab­o­rates on “the sub­tle struc­tural rel­e­vance” of the open­ing of Edwin Drood (85).

9     As cited in Beer: “Mys­tery of Apart­ness”, 144.

10     The al­lu­sion is point­ed out in Wendy S. Ja­cob­son: The Com­pan­ion to “The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood”. Lon­don: 1986, 32.

11     “When the wicked man tur­neth away from his wicked­ness that he hath com­mit­ted, and doeth that which is law­ful and right, he shall save his soul alive,” and “Whoso­ev­er will be saved.”

12     Through its as­so­ci­a­tion with Jasper’s opi­um-in­duced vi­sions in chap­ter one, har­bor­ing a “fancy” be­comes in it­self a ques­tion­able ac­tiv­i­ty in this novel.

13     The Com­plete En­glish Po­et­ry of John Mil­ton. Gar­den City: 1963. The Mil­to­ni­an al­lu­sion is re­it­er­at­ed when Dick­ens de­scribes a floor being “strewn with the au­tum­nal leaves fall­en from the elm trees” at the be­gin­ning of chap­ter 14 (ED, 171), in which the (sup­posed) mur­der of Edwin Drood takes place.

14     This is where the gov­ern­ing text from The Book of Com­mon Prayer (i. e., the Gospel read­ing from Matthew 6) comes in, with its mes­sage of choos­ing be­tween God and Mam­mon. Here we also find the source of the novel’s three book head­ings, “Sow­ing”, “Reap­ing”, and “Gar­ner­ing” (cf. Matthew 6: 26), as well as the chap­ter head­ings “The One Thing Need­ful”, and “An­oth­er Thing Need­ful”.

15     The ring (with its syn­onyms “cir­cle” and “wheel”) is men­tioned five times in the chap­ter, while the fol­low­ing chap­ter (be­fore mov­ing on to the cir­cus) be­gins by re­lat­ing how “the ring formed round the Old Hell Shaft was bro­ken.” (HT, 292) For those of a Jun­gian per­sua­sion, a star seen from the bot­tom of a cir­cu­lar pit would cre­ate an image of the man­dala.

16     Dolin draws the same con­clu­sion in the con­text of race and em­pire: “The Ori­ent has found its way to Eng­land, […] [which is] al­ready pro­found­ly ori­en­tal­ized. Many of the vir­tu­ous char­ac­ters in the novel also par­tic­i­pate in the con­fu­sion of En­glish and un-En­glish, pri­vate and pub­lic, do­mes­tic and im­pe­ri­al.” (“Race and So­cial Plot”, 94–95)

17     i. e., the lines from The Order for Morn­ing Prayer that Dick­ens has Jasper in­tone at the end of chap­ter one.

18     Ju­dith Prescott Flynn: “Fugi­tive and Clois­tered Virtue”. En­glish Stud­ies in Cana­da 9:3 (1983), 312–324 (312).

19     As cited in Joseph H. O’Mealy: “‘Some Stray Sort of Am­bi­tion …’: John Jasper’s Great Ex­pec­ta­tions”. Dick­ens Quar­ter­ly 2:4 (1985), 129–136 (129).

20     First pub­lished in Ed­mund Wil­son: The Wound and the Bow. Boston: 1941.

21     For more re­cent ex­am­ples, see O’Mealy: “Stray Sort of Am­bi­tion”, 130–131, Beer: “Mys­tery of Apart­ness”, 148–149, and Wales: “Dick­ens and In­te­ri­or Mono­logue”, 241–244.

22     See David Faulkn­er: “The Con­fi­dence Man: Em­pire and the De­con­struc­tion of Mus­cu­lar Chris­tian­i­ty in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood”. Don­ald E. Hall (ed.): Mus­cu­lar Chris­tian­i­ty. Cam­bridge: 1994, 175–193 (182–183).

23     Es­pe­cial­ly in­trigu­ing ti­tles in this con­text are The Dou­ble (1846) and of course Crime and Pun­ish­ment (1866). While Crime and Pun­ish­ment was first pub­lished four years be­fore Edwin Drood, Dick­ens could not have read it since an En­glish trans­la­tion did not ap­pear until 1886.