Charles Forsyte: The Decoding of Edwin Drood



C

HARLES DICK­ENS planned to pro­duce ''The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood'' in 12 month­ly parts. The first in­stall­ment ap­peared in his week­ly All the Year Round in April 1870. When he died very sud­den­ly of a stroke on June 8th of the same year, only six num­bers were com­plet­ed.

The set­ting was for him a new and nar­row one - the so­ci­ety of the cathe­dral close of a provin­cial town in the coun­ty of Kent. Dick­ens, with ill health and de­plet­ed en­er­gies, spent a great part of his time in a coun­try house he had ac­quired in that very coun­ty. Nev­er­the­less, the novel opens in an opium den, and, in­deed, in the opium dreams of an ed­u­cat­ed man in a low­down dis­trict of east Lon­don. We soon learn, how­ev­er, that this same man is Jasper, the court­ly, tal­ent­ed, well­bred choir­mas­ter of the cathe­dral. The same man, yes, but ap­par­ent­ly with­out con­scious aware­ness of his other life. This is the read­er's first mys­tery. Then comes the dis­ap­pear­ance of Jasper's ward, Edwin Drood, a young man in his early 20's, after a sup­per at his guardian's and a tipsy quar­rel with an­oth­er young man, Neville Land­less, who has come from Cey­lon to be tu­tored in Latin and Greek by the manly, sports-lov­ing dean of the cathe­dral, Crisparkle. But there is no trace of Edwin's body. Is it mur­der? Is the ob­vi­ous man, Land­less, the vil­lain? Or is it the seem­ing­ly re­spectable, opi­um­tak­ing Jasper, whom we soon learn is pas­sion­ate­ly in love with his ward's be­trothed?

It is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that crit­ics ever since have oc­cu­pied them­selves with sug­gest­ing - or ''prov­ing,'' as so many of them thought - what had been the au­thor's in­tend­ed end­ing. A bib­li­og­ra­phy by B.W. Matz pub­lished in The Dick­en­sian in 1911 notes 82 such at­tempts, and Matz's daugh­ter Winifred added a fur­ther 135 by 1929. In 1930 Howard Duffield of­fered the prin­ci­pal Amer­i­can so­lu­tion, that Jasper was sup­posed to be a mem­ber of the Hindu sect known as the Thugs, who were devo­tees of Kali, the god­dess of de­struc­tion. This the­o­ry was to play a large part in Ed­mund Wil­son's fa­mous essay on Dick­ens in ''The Wound and the Bow'' (1941). In 1964 the well-known En­glish actor and de­vout Dick­en­sian, Felix Aylmer, of­fered the most in­ge­nious and care­ful­ly worked ap­proach of all, as Charles Forsyte says in ''The De­cod­ing of Edwin Drood,'' an Agatha Christie so­lu­tion which turned Dick­ens's book, as we now have it, up­side down. Now we have sug­gest­ed end­ings by two mas­ters of mys­tery fic­tion of­fered us in the same year: Leon Garfield's in­ven­tion of the final chap­ters as Dick­ens might have writ­ten them (to be pub­lished on March 15) and Charles Forsyte's con­clu­sion, draft­ed in a con­tem­po­rary idiom. Such is progress in the pop­u­lar arts, it is clear at once that these are (though dif­fer­ent) the two most con­vinc­ing and en­ter­tain­ing spec­i­mens of all the Drood­i­ana, as these spec­u­la­tions have come in­el­e­gant­ly to be called.

Here, how­ev­er, I should de­clare my bias. For me Charles Dick­ens is one of the five or so great­est nov­el­ists of all time - a unique mix­ture of con­ser­vatism and in­no­va­tion in his craft, of imag­i­na­tive ge­nius and mud­dled think­ing in his view of life, the nov­el­ist whose fic­tion sub­sumed both drama and pop­u­lar the­ater in away that hasn't been suf­fi­cient­ly ex­ploit­ed since. On the whole, how­ev­er, I must say that his Achilles' heel tends to be the end­ing of his books. The weak­est as­pect of the end­ings of many of his nov­els is the be­lief that happy mat­ri­mo­ny can be tacked on to the most com­plex and orig­i­nal sto­ries for the ed­i­fi­ca­tion of his sim­plest read­ers. This in it­self is con­nect­ed with his pri­ma­ry weak­ness, his in­sis­tence upon in­vent­ing pret­ty-pret­ty cutouts rather than liv­ing hero­ines. But it must be said that, rough­ly from ''Bleak House'' on­ward, Dick­ens's hero­ines grow steadi­ly more com­plex, less an­gel­ic and stronger. The two Drood hero­ines, Rosa Bud and He­le­na Land­less, are per­haps the most real of all his women.

An­oth­er, more dra­mat­ic sort of end­ing is the way the pow­ers of evil are de­stroyed in the final pages of his books; but sus­pen­sein­duc­ing though the fates of his adul­ter­ers and mur­der­ers are, there can be lit­tle doubt as to the out­come. It is the com­plex na­ture of Dick­ens's evil men, not their mer­it­ed fate, that makes them the peers of Dos­toyevsky's lost souls. For this rea­son, I have al­ways been irked by the crit­i­cal treat­ment of his last novel as a pure who­dunit. ''End­ings'' were not his strong suit.

Let me say that both of the books under re­view have the good sense to ac­cept the clues of­fered us by Dick­ens's friends and il­lus­tra­tors rather than sub­or­di­nat­ing such ev­i­dence to their own fancy, as most solvers have done; both take full ac­count of the ti­tle-page il­lus­tra­tion by Charles Collins and the emen­da­tions of it by Luke Fildes, and the many clues to the nov­el­ist's ul­ti­mate in­ten­tion that it pro­vides (the issue being whether Jasper's long black scarf is the in­stru­ment of Drood's mur­der, and whether Dick­ens con­fid­ed this de­tail to the il­lus­tra­tors). Nev­er­the­less, both Mr. Forsyte and Mr. Garfield are more de­ter­mined to de­light us by bring­ing Dick­ens's novel alive than to re­mind us that the half of the novel we have of­fers no se­ri­ous clue to the half that was to come. In­so­far as they ac­cept Jasper as the mur­der­er of Drood, they are both set in a sen­si­ble di­rec­tion. In­so­far as they are con­cerned with Jasper as a di­vid­ed per­son­al­i­ty, I am sure that they are right, al­though I think that con­cern with ear­li­er as­pects of Dick­en­sian psy­chol­o­gy - the triple per­son­al­i­ty of Flora Finch­ing and Mr. F.'s aunt in ''Lit­tle Dor­rit,'' Mr. Peck­sniff warm­ing his hands benev­o­lent­ly as though they were an­oth­er's, Mrs. Gamp's in­ven­tion of Mrs. Har­ris -would have been much bet­ter clues to Dick­ens's be­lief in the di­vid­ed self than ex­ter­nal clues like Dick­ens's in­ter­est in jug­gling or mes­merism.

Mr. Forsyte's prin­ci­pal dif­fer­ence from Mr. Garfield - his be­lief that tak­ing opium is Jasper's es­cape from his psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly di­vid­ed per­son­al­i­ty rather than its cause - is prob­a­bly right. But I am not sure that it helps the novel's de­vel­op­ment. One of Mr. Forsyte's most in­ter­est­ing in­fer­ences from this is his de­ci­sion to end the book by hav­ing Jasper com­mit sui­cide in the prison cell when he can­not pro­cure opium to es­cape his mur­der­er self; and Mr. Forsyte jus­ti­fies this by a bril­liant piece of word anal­y­sis of a por­tion of the text as we have it. Yet Dick­ens's ob­ses­sion with pub­lic hang­ing, the other side of the coin to his ob­ses­sion with mur­der, is so pro­nounced that Mr. Garfield's pub­lic ex­e­cu­tion scene re­sults in a far finer cli­max than Mr. Forsyte's sui­cide scene.

In short, I must de­clare that Mr. Garfield's au­dac­i­ty in pre­sent­ing his ver­sion of the last half of the novel in a pas­tiche of Dick­ens, fol­low­ing on di­rect­ly from the au­then­tic text of the first half, pays off won­der­ful­ly. The lan­guage is near­ly al­ways be­liev­able as being that of Dick­ens him­self. On oc­ca­sion the con­tents go wrong, as when the young ladies at Miss Twin­kle­ton's Acade­my, re­call­ing their sum­mer va­ca­tion abroad, think of ''the dark-eyed wait­ers'' they have met: Dick­ens might have al­lowed a de­gree of ju­ve­nile amorous­ness to young ladies in his later nov­els, but that one of their mem­o­ries should have been of ''dark-eyed wait­ers'' is sure­ly im­per­mis­si­ble, not so much on sex­u­al grounds as on those of class dis­tinc­tion.

But ex­cel­lent though Mr. Ed­ward Blishen's short in­tro­duc­to­ry his­to­ry to Mr. Garfield's text is, it is not a sub­sti­tute for Mr. Forsyte's bril­liant anal­y­sis of the Drood prob­lems. On the other hand, I do ob­ject to Mr. Forsyte's sug­ges­tion that Dick­ens was ''en­gaged in writ­ing the first great psy­cho­log­i­cal crime story in our lit­er­a­ture'' as being un­wor­thy of a lover of Dick­ens.

How­ev­er, let us hope that these two ex­cel­lent books will con­vert many mys­tery read­ers into read­ers of Dick­ens and, by their suc­cess, deter other mys­tery writ­ers from try­ing their hand at fur­ther so­lu­tions to the mys­tery of Edwin Drood.

Angus Wilson