Hyungji Park: “Going to wake up Egypt”: Exhibiting Empire in “Edwin Drood”

A Reading by Kieran Hutchings

For Hyungji Park the open­ing of the Suez Canal in 1869 is a cru­cial, mon­u­men­tal mo­ment in Egyp­tian his­to­ry, it is also in her eyes a sig­nif­i­cant con­tex­tu­al fac­tor af­fect­ing Dick­ens’ com­po­si­tion of Edwin Drood. At the cen­tre of Park’s ar­gu­ment is the no­tion that Dick­ens’ struc­ture and in­tend­ed res­o­lu­tion for the novel is pred­i­cat­ed im­plic­it­ly upon a re­la­tion­ship to Em­pire, specif­i­cal­ly Britain’s ever in­creas­ing in­flu­ence over Egypt.

Park ar­gues that there is the­atri­cal­i­ty with­in Edwin Drood which is not as preva­lent with­in other Dick­en­sian works and that this the­atri­cal­i­ty leads to a ‘greater than usual Dick­en­sian stereo­typ­ing’ with re­gards to his char­ac­ters. Whilst this may in fact be an over­state­ment it is nonethe­less in­ter­est­ing that Park links this the­atri­cal­i­ty to an ever in­creas­ing Vic­to­ri­an fas­ci­na­tion with Egypt and its sig­nif­i­cance with­in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pop­u­lar cul­ture. Park sees a link be­tween Dick­ens’ ‘pan­tomime con­ven­tions’ and the Vic­to­ri­an com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of Egypt in that they are both sig­nif­i­cant parts of Vic­to­ri­an pop­u­lar cul­ture, their fas­ci­na­tion with Egypt per­me­at­ing all facets of life. It is this pop­u­lar cul­ture which Park be­lieves in turn has per­me­at­ed Edwin Drood and im­plic­it­ly links the plot of the novel to Em­pire and to Egypt.

For Park how­ev­er, no­tions of Em­pire and Egypt are ex­hib­it­ed in re­la­tion­ship to the do­mes­tic sphere, more specif­i­cal­ly in re­la­tion­ship to the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage. Park views the res­o­lu­tion of Rosa’s mar­riage as cen­tral to the out­come of the plot and it is the ‘can­di­dates’ suit­abil­i­ty or like­li­hood for mar­riage which Park states is in­ex­orably linked with their as­so­ci­a­tion to Em­pire. She iden­ti­fies Jasper, Neville, Tar­tar and Edwin as the four most like­ly can­di­dates for Rosa’s hand in mar­riage. How­ev­er she is quick to dis­miss the first two due to the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions their as­so­ci­a­tions with em­pire har­bour; Jasper for his opium ad­dic­tion and Neville for his ‘Mix­ture of Ori­en­tal blood.’ Tar­tar is also dis­missed as a can­di­date for mar­riage, de­spite his role in the navy, due to his be­long­ing to ‘that leisured wealthy class which Dick­ens crit­i­cis­es for its idle­ness’. This pro­cess of elim­i­na­tion leaves only Edwin is the re­main­ing can­di­date for mar­riage. Park then em­barks upon a close read­ing of the role-play­ing scene be­tween Rosa and Edwin which she utilis­es as ev­i­dence for her the­o­ry as to the end­ing of the novel.

Park high­lights in this par­tic­u­lar scene each char­ac­ters con­tra­dic­to­ry at­ti­tude to­wards Em­pire and to the East, they ‘sub­scribe to a sep­a­ra­tion of spheres in Vic­to­ri­an ex­pec­ta­tions about Em­pire: en­gi­neer­ing for him, sweets for her.’ It is Edwin’s de­sire to go be­come an en­gi­neer in Egypt which Park takes as a pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for his dis­ap­pear­ance sug­gest­ing that he is to re­turn at the end of the novel hav­ing un­der­gone some form of bil­dungsro­man or mat­u­ra­tion pro­cess in the mode of ear­li­er Dick­en­sian fig­ures such as Allan Wood­court or Wal­ter Gay. It is Edwin’s de­sire for self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion in the colonies and Dick­ens’ affin­i­ty for such a work ethic which Park takes as fur­ther ev­i­dence for her end­ing of the novel stat­ing that ‘It is the mid­dle-class Edwin Drood who faces a work­ing ca­reer in the colonies, who de­serves the great­est at­ten­tion as Rosa’s pos­si­ble hus­band.’

Cen­tral to this ar­gu­ment is Park’s be­lief that Dick­ens part­ly based Edwin’s char­ac­ter upon two sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures of the day, made fa­mous by their as­so­ci­a­tions with Egypt, Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Bel­zoni a feted ar­chae­ol­o­gist work­ing for the British mu­se­um and the chief ar­chi­tect of the Suez Canal Fer­di­nand de Lesseps. Each one dis­play­ing the abil­i­ty for self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion Dick­ens him­self ex­hib­it­ed and revered so much and which Park be­lieves Dick­ens in­tend­ed for Edwin’s bil­dungsro­man they ‘serve as ex­am­ples for Edwin’s going “en­gi­neer­ing into the East”’ . What these two fig­ures rep­re­sent is the link be­tween Vic­to­ri­an pop­u­lar cul­ture, Em­pire and Edwin Drood which Park be­lieves is cru­cial to the com­po­si­tion of the novel and her the­sis as to its pos­si­ble end­ing. Rosa’s al­lu­sion to Bel­zoni pro­vid­ing us with a tan­gi­ble con­tex­tu­al fac­tor with which we may read into the novel.

How­ev­er, whilst Park rais­es many in­ter­est­ing points her ar­gu­ment is far from flaw­less, for in­stance many of Park’s state­ments such as ‘Many of Edwin Drood’s char­ac­ters are ready stock car­i­ca­tures who re­sem­ble play­ers in a pup­pet show or pan­tomime’ are rather pre­sump­tive given that the novel, how­ev­er short it is in­tend­ed to be, is in­com­plete. Fur­ther­more this ini­tial link be­tween pan­tomime and Em­pire, how­ev­er in­ter­est­ing the dis­cus­sion it leads into, is a ten­u­ous one and seems to be large­ly based upon an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion. Also, there does ap­pear to be some slight an­tag­o­nism be­tween Park’s read­ing of Edwin Drood as being filled with one di­men­sion­al char­ac­ters, and her the­o­ry as to Dick­ens’ in­ten­tion for Edwin’s story arc to be one of bil­dungsro­man, such seem­ing­ly di­ver­gent read­ings do not sit well to­geth­er with­in the same essay. Nonethe­less I find Park’s ar­gu­ment for Edwin Drood’s pos­si­ble end­ing high­ly com­pelling, en­tire­ly plau­si­ble and cer­tain­ly in keep­ing with what Dick­ens has writ­ten be­fore. I es­pe­cial­ly en­joyed her close read­ing of the role-play­ing scene be­tween Edwin and Rosa and thought that her pin­point­ing of Bel­zoni and Lesseps as con­tex­tu­al in­flu­ences upon Dick­ens il­lu­mi­nat­ing and in­sight­ful. Over­all I would thor­ough­ly rec­om­mend this essay as de­spite its flaws, it is a gen­uine­ly thought pro­vok­ing piece.

Original at EN3515 DICKENS blog