George H. Ford: Dickens's Notebook and "Edwin Drood"


he note­book which Charles Dick­ens began keep­ing in I855 hard­ly com­pares in in­ter­est with the note­books of Henry James. Dick­ens was ex­treme­ly tele­graph­ic and elu­sive in mak­ing his en­tries, and there is none of James's "O mon bon" airs. (A sug­ges­tive com­par­i­son be­tween James's and Dick­ens's note­books can be made from the lists of names each writ­er kept for fu­ture use in nov­els. Typ­i­cal of James are such names as "Meli­na Pever­el, Milling­ton, Chail­ff, Bed­bor­ough, High­more, Dda­coombe, East­mead, Gereth, Des­bor­ough Um­ber­leigh, Mme de Rim­ming­ton." Typ­i­cal of Dick­ens are: "Stephen Mar­quick, Miri­am De­nial, Ver­i­ty Hawk­yard, Sally Gim­blet, Spes­sifer, Pick­les John­son, Wop­sle, Whelp­ing­ton Pleas­ant") The vol­ume has lit­tle even of what Bage­hot called Dick­ens's "fawn­ing fond­ness over de­tails; its stream­lin­ing is in­di­cat­ed by Forster's la­bel­ing it a Mem­o­ran­dum Book rather than a note­book. There is a fas­ci­na­tion, nev­er­the­less, in see­ing how sit­u­a­tions took shape in Dick­ens's nov­els after he had record­ed a few jot­tings in this note­book. To iso­late but one ex­am­ple: in Septem­ber, I857, while act­ing the part of Richard War­dour in "The Frozen Deep", Dick­ens was in­spired by an idea he was to use al­most two years later as the core of "A Tale of Two Cities". Dur­ing his recita­tion of the speech of the hero­ical­ly dying War­dour (who sac­ri­ficed his life for the sake of oth­ers), the tears of the au­di­ence in­spired Dick­ens to fore­see the pos­si­bil­i­ties of Syd­ney Car­tons role. As he re­marked in a let­ter af­ter­wards: "New ideas for a story have come into my head as I lay on the ground, with sur­pris­ing force and bril­liance. Last night, being quiet here, I noted them down in a lit­tle book I keep."

The note­book en­tries seem­ing­ly al­lud­ed to con­sist of a list of pos­si­ble tides for the novel such as "Mem­o­ry Car­ton" to­geth­er with a sen­tence giv­ing its basic sit­u­a­tion: "How as to a story in two pe­ri­ods with a lapse of time be­tween, like a French drama?" An­oth­er entry con­sists of bare jot­tings for the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Car­ton and Stryver : "The drunk­en? — dis­si­pat­ed? — What? — Lion and his JACK­ALL and Primer, steal­ing down to him at un­wont­ed hours." In I859, Dick­ens ap­par­ent­ly re­turned to these jot­tings and con­struct­ed his tale. This pro­ce­dure was like­wise em­ployed, but more ex­ten­sive­ly, when he was writ­ing "Lit­tle Dor­rit", "Our Mu­tu­al Friend", and some of his later short sto­ries. "Great Ex­pec­ta­tions" seems to be the only one of his later com­plet­ed nov­els for which he did not con­sult his note­book ex­cept for nam­ing the char­ac­ters. In a short ar­ti­cle, there is in­suf­fi­cient space to demon­strate fully Dick­ens's use of his note­book in these later nov­els, but at­ten­tion can be fo­cused with prof­it upon one ob­vi­ous ques­tion: did he em­ploy the same pro­ce­dure when he was writ­ing "Edwin Drood"? In dis­cussing this ques­tion, I hope that what emerges may be of in­ter­est to non-Drood­i­ans (a clas­si­fi­ca­tion which in­cludes the pre­sent writ­er) as well as to the sleuths, for the dis­cus­sion demon­strates that our pre­vail­ing no­tions about the Dick­ens note­book are in­ex­act, and that the text it­self, as it ap­pears in the None­such edi­tion, is high­ly in­ad­e­quate. Part of the in­ad­e­qua­cy of the text can be at­tribut­ed to Forster. In pre­sent­ing the note­book in his bi­og­ra­phy of Dick­ens, Forster sup­pressed sev­er­al en­tries. He also lumped to­geth­er the en­tries he wished to dis­cuss and thus ig­nored the order Dick­ens had fol­lowed in his manuscript. A few cor­rec­tions to Forsters ver­sion were made, many years later, by Mrs. J. Comyns Carr in her "Rem­i­nis­cences" (the manuscript hav­ing passed into her pos­ses­sion), but it was not until 1938 that what ap­peared to be the whole Mem­o­ran­dum Book was pub­lished as a unit. This ver­sion, pub­lished by the None­such Press, is a strange item of schol­ar­ship. The ed­i­tor does not trou­ble to ex­plain that the text he is pre­sent­ing was made up not by con­sult­ing Dick­ens's manuscript but by sim­ply reprint­ing Forster's en­tries, in the same order, with­out Forster's run­ning com­men­tary. But even if ex­pla­na­tion about the manuscript is lack­ing, what is more strange is that the None­such ed­i­tor omit­ted three of the best en­tries that Forster had print­ed, in­clud­ing one re­lat­ing to "Edwin Drood" (al­though Forster was not aware of the re­la­tion­ship). The None­such ed­i­tor also omit­ted the cor­rec­tions pub­lished by Mrs. Carr.

The only ex­plana­to­ry note in­clud­ed in the None­such ver­sion is Forster's state­ment that Dick­ens did not con­sult his note­book when writ­ing "Edwin Drood". "Ex­cept in one very doubt­ful in­stance," as­sert­ed Forster, Dick­ens did not use the note­book after writ­ing "Our Mu­tu­al Friend". This "doubt­ful in­stance" was the final entry in the note­book, a mys­te­ri­ous ref­er­ence to the Sapsea se­quence: " 'Then I'll give up snuff'. Bro­bity. — An alarm­ing sac­ri­fice. Mr. Bro­bity's snuff-box. The Pawn­bro­ker's ac­count of it.' " There is oth­er­wise noth­ing to re­call "Drood", says Forster, and the note­book there­fore com­pris­es "that in­ter­val of ten years in his life [1855-1865]."

Hes­keth Pear­son and other later bi­og­ra­phers have ac­cept­ed Forster's judg­ment here, but it is a mis­tak­en judg­ment. The very first entry from the note­book print­ed by Forster was put to use in "Drood". It is a speech by a maid at Tavi­s­tock House:

The gas-fit­ter says, sir, that he can't alter the fit­ting of the gas in your bed-room with­out tak­ing up al­most the ole of your bed-room floor, and pulling your room to pieces. He says, of course you can have it done if you wish, and he'll do it for you and make a good job of it, but he would have to de­stroy your room first, and go en­tire­ly under the jistes.

In "Drood", when Grew­gious is in­spect­ing Mrs. Bil­lickin's fur­nished lodg­ings, the land­la­dy re­peats this speech, slight­ly adapt­ed to her own minc­ing rhythms:

"I do not tell you that your bed­room floors is firm, for firm they are not. The gas fit­ter him­self al­lowed, that to make a firm job, he must go right under your pistes, and it were not worth the out­lay as a year­ly ten­ant so to do. The pip­ing is car­ried above your pistes, and it is best that it should be made known to you."

A less strik­ing ex­am­ple of Dick­ens's hav­ing con­sult­ed the note­book for "Drood" is Mr. Grew­gious speech to Rosa about his never hav­ing been young. " 'I was the only off­spring of par­ents far ad­vanced in life, and I be­lieve I was born ad­vanced in life my­self,' Grew­gious ex­plains. 'Young ways,' he adds, 'were never my ways.' " In the note­book, Dick­ens has the bare­bones for such a speech: "The old child. That is to say, born of par­ents ad­vanced in life, and ob­serv­ing the par­ents of other chil­dren to be young. Tak­ing an old tone ac­cord­ing­ly."

An­oth­er note­book entry (hith­er­to un­pub­lished) which may pos­si­bly have con­tribut­ed a de­tail for "Drood" is the fol­low­ing: "Char­ac­ters. The New­found­land-Dog man, and teaz­ing capri­cious woman." This puz­zling mem­o­ran­dum was prob­a­bly writ­ten after Dick­ens had ob­served a man who, in ap­pear­ance, re­sem­bled such a huge dog. In any event, the first pic­ture he gives of Datch­ery, in chap­ter XVIII of the novel, makes this com­par­i­son: 

This gen­tle­man's white head was un­usu­al­ly large, and his shock of white hair was un­usu­al­ly thick and ample. "I sup­pose, wait­er," he said, shak­ing his shock of hair, as a New­found­land dog might shake his be­fore sit­ting down to din­ner, "that a fair lodg­ing … might be found … eh?"

In ad­di­tion, as Forster him­self ad­mit­ted, Dick­ens cer­tain­ly con­suit­ed his list of names in the note­book for "Drood", and ex­tract­ed the names Sapsea, Peartree, and Kim­ber.

It seems safe to con­clude that Forster was wrong and that Dick­ens was cer­tain­ly draw­ing from his note­book in the course of writ­ing "Edwin Drood". The bor­row­ings in­di­cat­ed so far, how­ev­er, were of a dif­fer­ent kind from those for "A Tale of Two Cities". They are all ex­am­ples of in­ci­den­tal em­bel­lish­ment rather than of lead­ing idea or sit­u­a­tion. Ac­tu­al­ly, Dick­ens did, at first, con­sult his note­book for the lead­ing idea as well. In July 1869, he wrote in a let­ter to Forster:

What should you think of the idea of a story be­gin­ning in this way? — Two peo­ple, boy and girl, or very young, going apart from one an­oth­er, pledged to be mar­ried after many years — at the end of the book. The in­ter­est to arise out of the trac­ing of their sep­a­rate ways, and the im­pos­si­bil­i­ty of telling what will be done with that im­pend­ing fates.

Ex­am­i­na­tion of the manuscript of the note­book proves that Dick­ens was using the same words here that ap­pear in his note­book, but Forster for some rea­son, per­haps a per­verse one, did not print the entry.

Forster ob­serves that this lead­ing idea "left its trace" on "Drood" in the story of Rosa and Edwin, but that it was "laid aside," as a lead­ing idea, be­fore Dick­ens began writ­ing the novel in earnest." Per­haps Dick­ens felt that the sit­u­a­tion was too close­ly com­pa­ra­ble to one he had al­ready used in "Our Mu­tu­al Friend", and so he made it sub­or­di­nate to the mur­der story. In any event, by Au­gust, 1869, he had re­vised his plan and had de­vel­oped a new lead­ing idea which he out­lined mys­te­ri­ous­ly to Forster by let­ter. Was this idea, also, drawn from the note­book? The sug­ges­tion has, in fact, been made by Mr. H. B. Smith that the "prin­ci­pal dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion" in "Drood" was based on the fol­low­ing note­book entry:

There is a case in the State Tri­als, where a cer­tain of­fi­cer made love to a (sup­posed) miser's daugh­ter, and ul­ti­mate­ly in­duced her to give her fa­ther slow poi­son. … Her fa­ther dis­cov­ered it … for­gave her. … She af­ter­wards poi­soned him again … and suc­cess­ful­ly. Where­upon it ap­peared that the old man had no money at all, and had lived on a small an­nu­ity which died with him, though al­ways feign­ing to be rich. He had loved his daugh­ter with great af­fect­ing.

This Balza­cian mem­o­ran­dum may ac­count, says Mr. Smith, for the scene "in which Jasper falls in a fit on learn­ing that he has … wast­ed a per­fect­ly good mur­der and gained noth­ing by it." The sug­ges­tion is not very con­vinc­ing. As Mrs. Carr noted, Dick­ens had ex­ploit­ed this sit­u­a­tion many years ear­li­er in "Mar­tin Chuz­zle­wit". Per­haps a more ar­dent Drood­i­an may find a more sig­nif­i­cant clue by puz­zling over Dick­ens's strange en­tries (even in the None­such ver­sion), for there is ample ev­i­dence to show that Dick­ens was thumb­ing through his note­book in 1869 and I870, just as he had done when writ­ing "Lit­tle Dor­rit", "A Tale of Two Cities", and "Our Mu­tu­al Friend".