Adam Roberts: Some thoughts on Drood

fol­low­ing on from the dis­cus­sion in class

First published at EN3515 DICKENS Blog

End­ings. Steven Con­nor has writ­ten per­sua­sive­ly on the way no­tions of end­ing, of false-end­ings, con­cealed end­ings and per­me­ate the text. What is in­ter­est­ing for our pur­pos­es is the way the ‘end­ing’, half-way through the text, in­ter­sects the ‘life’ of the novel and leaves us with only a ghost­ly, spir­it-text as con­clu­sion. This in turn de­volves upon two ques­tions: how would Dick­ens have fin­ished Edwin Drood, had he lived? How did Dick­ens fin­ish Edwin Drood, being dead?

The for­mer is the more re­spectable ques­tion, and has ex­er­cised crit­ics ever since 1870. One in­ter­est­ing as­pect of it is the way it elides into a spe­cif­ic eth­i­cal ques­tion that has to do with au­thor­ship. Dick­ens told Forster his in­ten­tions – that Jasper had mur­dered Edwin, and ‘at the close’ would ‘re­view’ the crime ‘as if, not he the cul­prit, but some other man’ were the crim­i­nal. 

The last chap­ters were to be writ­ten in the con­demned cell, to which the wicked­ness, all elab­o­rate­ly elicit­ed from him as if told of an­oth­er, had brought him. [Forster, 365] 

It has been sug­gest­ed that this was a blind, a tale told to throw the dust in Forster’s eyes whilst Dick­ens planned some ut­ter­ly other end­ing. Whether this seems plau­si­ble or not will de­pend upon the in­di­vid­u­al read­er, al­though one fac­tor that has al­ways struck me is that this premise, record­ed in Forster, is ac­tu­al­ly a very good one – why would Dick­ens waste such an in­ge­nious con­cep­tion as a mere beard? In ef­fect, it pos­tu­lates a man haunt­ed by his crime, and pre­sum­ably by his im­pend­ing death, as Fagin is at the end of Oliv­er Twist, ex­cept that the ‘crime’ was com­mit­ted by a dif­fer­ent Jasper than the Jasper who re­views its cir­cum­stances. The de­vice fa­cil­i­tat­ing this is the opium, but he ef­fect is to imag­ine a char­ac­ter haunt­ed by him­self at the novel’s end.

The ques­tion as to whether we be­lieve Forster’s re­port was ini­tial­ly couched as a moral judge­ment upon Dick­ens’s char­ac­ter. Kate Pe­rug­i­ni, Dick­ens’s daugh­ter, wrote en­dors­ing Forster’s ac­count, in the Pall Mall Mag­a­zine 1906: 

He told his plot to Mr Forster, as he had been ac­cus­tomed to tell his plots for years past; and those who knew him must feel it im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that in this, the last year of his life, he should sud­den­ly be­come un­der­hand, and we might say treach­er­ous, to his old friend, by in­vent­ing for his pri­vate ed­i­fi­ca­tion a plot that he had no in­ten­tion of car­ry­ing into ex­e­cu­tion. This is in­cred­i­ble [282]. 

‘Treach­ery’ – as if to sug­gest that Dick­ens would lead a dou­ble life, in how­so­ev­er small a way, aligns him with the un­der­hand­ed­ness of his cre­ation, Jasper. Luke Fields re­port­ed that Dick­ens told him that he must draw in a long neck-tie for the il­lus­tra­tions of Jasper be­cause ‘it is nec­es­sary, for Jasper stran­gles Edwin Drood with it’. Sub­se­quent­ly, in a let­ter to the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment in 1905, he in­sist­ed that doubt­ing this story would be to deny ‘the no­bil­i­ty of char­ac­ter and sin­cer­i­ty of Charles Dick­ens’ and to ac­cuse Dick­ens of being ‘more or less of a hum­bug’ [285].

Here's an­oth­er end­ing: 

Dick­ens awoke early on the fol­low­ing day, Wednes­day 8 June 1870 in ex­cel­lent spir­its. He talked a lit­tle with Georgina [one of his daugh­ters] about his book, and then after break­fast he went straight over to the chalet in order to con­tin­ue to work on it. He came back for lunch, smoked a cigar in the con­ser­va­to­ry and then, un­usu­al­ly for him, re­turned the chalet where he re­mained oc­cu­pied upon the novel which had taken such a hold upon his imag­i­na­tion. The last pages were writ­ten with rel­a­tive ease, marked by fewer emen­da­tions than usual … He wrote the last words to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, ‘and then falls to with an ap­petite’; after which he formed the short spi­ral which gen­er­al­ly marked the end of a chap­ter. He came back to the house an hour be­fore din­ner and seemed “tired, silent, ab­stract­ed”.

While wait­ing for his meal he went into the li­brary and wrote two let­ters. One to [his friend] Charles Kent, in which he ar­ranged to see him in Lon­don the fol­low­ing day: “If I can’t be – why, then I shan’t be.” The other to a cler­gy­man to whom, in re­sponse to some crit­i­cism [that he had quot­ed the Bible ir­rev­er­ent­ly in ch. 10 of ED: ‘like the high­ly pop­u­lar lamb who has so long and un­re­sist­ing­ly been led to the slaugh­ter’] he de­clared that “I have al­ways striv­en in my writ­ings to ex­press ven­er­a­tion for the life and lessons of Our Saviour…”.

Georgina was the only mem­ber of the fam­i­ly with him, and just as they sat down to­geth­er for din­ner, she no­ticed a change both in his colour and his ex­pres­sion. She asked him if he were ill, and he replied “Yes, very ill. I have been very ill for the last hour.” Then he ex­pe­ri­enced some kind of fit against which he tried to strug­gle – he paused for a mo­ment and then began to talk very quick­ly and in­dis­tinct­ly, at some point men­tion­ing Forster. She rose from the chair, alarmed, and told him to ‘come and lie down.”

“Yes,’ he said. “On the ground.”

But as she helped him he slid from her arms and fell heav­i­ly to the floor. He was now un­con­scious. He died the fol­low­ing day with­out re­gain­ing con­scious­ness. [Ack­royd, Dick­ens, 1077]

Dou­bling: ‘As in some cases of drunk­en­ness, and in oth­ers of an­i­mal mag­netism, there are two states of con­scious­ness which never clash, but each of which pur­sues its sep­a­rate course as though tit were con­tin­u­ous in­stead of bro­ken (thus if I hide my watch when I am drunk I must be drunk again be­fore I can re­mem­ber where) …’ [ch. 3]

Mes­merism: Jasper’s look ‘is al­ways con­cen­trat­ed’; in his mes­mer­ic in­ten­si­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion all the power of his body is fo­cused in his eyes: ‘the steadi­ness of face and fig­ure be­comes so mar­vel­lous that his breath­ing seems to have stopped’; when he plays ac­com­pa­ni­ment to Rosa’s singing ‘he fol­lowed her lips most at­ten­tive­ly, with his eyes as well as his hands,’ pro­duc­ing strange music of sub­lim­i­nal sounds that be­come un­bear­able to the girl, for as Jasper stared he ‘ever and again hint­ed the one note, as though it were a low whis­per from him­self…’ So pow­er­ful is this trans­mis­sion of in­flu­ence through the eyes that ‘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!” [ch. 7]. Ex­cept when he is under the in­flu­ence of opium, noth­ing blocks Jasper’s view. Rosa laments that ‘he has made a slave of me with his looks. He has forced me to un­der­stand him with­out his say­ing a word; and he has forced me to keep si­lence with­out ut­ter­ing a threat. When I play, he never moves his eyes from my hands. When I sing he never moves his eyes from my lips. There is no es­cape from this mes­mer­ic power: ‘ “he him­self is in the sounds … I avoid his eyes but he forces me to see them with­out look­ing at them”’ [ch. 7]’ [Fred Ka­plan, Dick­ens and Mes­merism. The Hid­den Springs of Fic­tion, Pince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press 1975), 131-2]

Ori­en­tal­ism and Race: The Land­less­es are ‘much alike, both very dark, and very rich of colour; she of al­most the gipsy type; some­thing un­tamed in both of them’. Mr Crisparkle, lead­ing them through the Cathe­dral close thinks of them ‘as if they were beau­ti­ful bar­bar­ic cap­tives brought from some wild trop­i­cal do­min­ion’ [ch.6]

[Edwin Drood and Neville Land­less argue]: ‘Say here, then,’ re­joins the other, ris­ing in a fury … ‘You are a com­mon fel­low and a com­mon boast­er.’ ‘Pooh pooh,’ said Edwin Drood, equal­ly fu­ri­ous, but more col­lect­ed; ‘how should you know? You may know a black com­mon fel­low or a black com­mon boast­er, when you see him (and no doubt you have a large ac­quain­tance that way); but you are no judge of white men’ This in­sult­ing al­lu­sion to his dark skin in­fu­ri­ates Neville to that vi­o­lent de­gree that he flings the dregs of his wine at Edwin Drood’ [ch.8]

Death and the Goth­ic Mode: Peter Ack­royd thinks Edwin Drood is 'the clos­est Dick­ens came to Goth­ic'. One of the key themes of the novel is cer­tain­ly the co-pres­ence of the liv­ing and the dead: 

‘Old Time heaved a mouldy sigh from tomb and arch and vault; and gloomy shad­ows began to deep­en in cor­ners; and damps began to rise from green patch­es of stone; and jew­els, cast upon the pave­ment of the nave from stained glass by the de­clin­ing sun began to per­ish … in the Cathe­dral, all be­came grey, murky and sepul­chral, and the cracked monotonous mut­ter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth and drowned it in a sea of music’ [ch, 9]

Ask the first hun­dred cit­i­zens of Clois­ter­ham, met at ran­dom in the streets at noon, if they be­lieved in Ghosts, they would tell you no; but put them to choose at night be­tween these eerie Precincts and the thor­ough­fare of shops, and you would find that nine­ty-nine de­clared for the longer round and the more fre­quent­ed way. The cause of this is not to be found in any local su­per­sti­tion that at­tach­es to the Precincts – al­beit a mys­te­ri­ous lady, with a child in her arms and a rope dan­gling from her neck, has been seen flit­ting about by sundry wit­ness­es as in­tan­gi­ble as her­self – but is to be sought in the in­nate shrink­ing of dust with the breath of life in it from dust out of which the breath of life has passed … ‘If the dead do, under any cir­cum­stances, be­come vis­i­ble to the liv­ing …’ [ch, 12]

Ack­royd ar­gues: ‘the min­gling of the liv­ing and the dead is at the cen­tre of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Goth­ic but of course it had also been at the cen­tre of Dick­ens’s own imag­i­na­tion; the open­ing of David Cop­per­field, with the in­fant David’s fear of his fa­ther ris­ing from the graves’ (1054) … and we might add the open­ing of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions too, with Mag­witch leap­ing up from amongst the grave­stones.

22 FEBRUARY 2010