Felix Aylmer: The Drood Case

Review: K. J. Field­ing, Uni­ver­si­ty of Ed­in­burgh


HERE are two ways of look­ing at Edwin Drood. On the one hand there are those who read it as a puz­zle to be solved; on the other, there are those to whom it is Dick­ens's last novel, which hap­pened to be un­fin­ished, and which might be though to be ei­ther the cli­max of his ca­reer or mere­ly the ges­ture "of a man al­ready three quar­ters dead." Most of the writ­ers about Drood come in the first cat­e­go­ry; most of the read­ers, even though they may not re­al­ize it, come in the sec­ond. Clear­ly it is "a mys­tery" and "not a his­to­ry," as Dick­ens told his sis­ter-in-law. But there are two mys­ter­ies to be solved. One is how the plot would have de­vel­oped if the book had been fin­ished. The other is how the novel would have fit­ted into the pat­tern of Dick­ens's whole de­vel­op­ment. Sir Felix Aylmer's The Drood Case (Ru­pert Hart-Davis: 35s.) gives a fas­ci­nat­ing anal­y­sis of the plot; it is un­sat­is­fy­ing as an ac­count of the novel. It of­fers a bril­liant, hy­po­thet­i­cal out­line of how the tale might have been writ­ten, but is bound to leave the great­est doubt whether such a tale could ever have been writ­ten by Dick­ens.

The main ob­jec­tion to most the­o­ries about Drood is that we must first be con­vinced that even a writ­er who de­vel­oped as much as Dick­ens did could have writ­ten the book pro­posed by such the­o­rists, a point Aylmer, as oth­ers be­fore him, gen­er­al­ly disre­gards. A read­ing of The Drood Case fol­lowed by a re-read­ing of Edwin Drood makes it im­pos­si­ble to ac­cept that the cre­ator of such a char­ac­ter as Bof­fin, the "miser­ly" Gold­en Dust­man, could have meant to de­ceive his read­ers with a rel­a­tive­ly in­no­cent Jasper, the Music Mas­ter. It is not that it was not in Dick­ens, as a man or writ­er, to be so clever, tricky, and am­bigu­ous, but that the spe­cial re­la­tion­ship be­tween Dick­ens and his read­ers was such that he could never have mis­led them in the way Aylmer sup­pos­es.

The strength of the anal­y­sis in The Drood Case lies in its bril­liant gath­er­ing to­geth­er of the clues scat­tered through the novel about the Drood fam­i­ly's past and its con­nec­tion with Egypt. In see­ing that Dick­ens was cer­tain­ly ready to de­vel­op this part of the story, that the plot was prob­a­bly based on what he might have learnt from E. W. Lane's Mod­ern Egyp­tians, and that Drood was in all like­li­hood a tale of re­venge linked with the story of an inter­marriage and the apos­ta­cy of a bride from the Rus­sian faith, Aylmer de­serves the great­est ad­mi­ra­tion and ap­plause for present­ing us with more than just one more the­o­ry to be reck­oned with. Along with en­joy­ing his zest, his throw­ing up of clues, and his live­li­ness of mind, we rec­og­nize that he of­fers a rea­soned and plau­si­ble ac­count which could only have been reached with pa­tience, un­der­stand­ing, and imag­i­na­tion. And yet it is im­pos­si­ble to agree with much of it, even though it can hard­ly be worth disput­ing small points in a short re­view. The Drood-game re­quires strict at­ten­tion, the de­vo­tion of years of close study, and an abil­i­ty to split hairs and by­pass cul-de-sacs. But can one, for ex­am­ple, con­ceive of Edwin Drood as ready to plunge into a river on Box­ing-day in order to leave his watch caught in the weir where it can be seen, or even that he could have thrown a watch and tic-pin into the river where they must sink in order that some­one who hap­pens by could dive into the icy river and dis­cov­er them (see p. 139)? Else­where it is im­pos­si­ble to ac­cept a good deal of the in­con­sec­u­tive rea­son­ing which may be im­ma­te­ri­al to the main drift but which makes up a fair part of the book, such as where (pp. 25-27) Aylmer ar­gues as fol­lows: Be­cause Dick­ens's friend, Macready, kept a diary which Dick­ens may have seen, and be­cause Macready (in Aylmer's view) is not sin­cere in all he writes, and be­cause there is a par­al­lel be­tween pas­sages in the diary about Macready and his fears for his in­fant son who he thought was dying and some pas­sages in Drood about Jasper and his nephew Edwin — then, al­though "the resem­blance may be ac­ci­den­tal," if sin­cer­i­ty is rec­og­nized in one, the sin­cer­i­ty of Jasper's af­fec­tion for Edwin must be rec­og­nized in the other. So much is spelled out for us. But as Aylmer thinks Macready in­sin­cere, it also fol­lows (al­though he does not say so) that it could be "con­trari­wise." Not only is there no re­sem­blance and no con­nec­tion, but there is no ar­gu­ment here: it is just padding. In an­oth­er place Aylmer states that "there is ev­i­dence that Dick­ens orig­i­nal­ly in­tend­ed to bring Jasper and Rosa to­geth­er in the end." If we ask, what ev­i­dence, we are told that Jasper may be thought to be Dick­ens and Rosa Bud to be (in a sense) Ellen Ter­nan (see p. 169). There are other ex­am­ples of this sort of thing, but as obvi­ous faults of an en­thu­si­ast they are bet­ter ig­nored.

It would be doing the book a dis­ser­vice not to pil­lo­ry its weak­nesses be­cause in spite of them it is an ex­cit­ing at­tempt to solve a mys­tery no one has yet suc­ceed­ed in solv­ing, the work of a keen and in­de­pen­dent mind which has not only dis­cov­ered sev­er­al mat­ters of im­por­tance about The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood but has pre­sent­ed them in a provoca­tive and ex­treme­ly read­able way.