Joachim Frenk: Unending Dickens: Droodian Absences

Published in Neo-Victorian Studies 4:2 (2011)

As often noted, Dick­ens’s nov­els are filled with a mul­ti­tude of Vic­to­ri­an ma­te­ri­al ob­jects; neo-Vic­to­ri­an spin-offs of Dick­ens’s work not only have to come to terms with his rep­re­sen­ta­tion of these ob­jects but also those that per­sist as ab­sences or traces. This essay deals with the ways the ab­sence of the epony­mous char­ac­ter in Dick­ens’s last novel The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood (1870) is pre­sent­ed, and con­sid­ers how two re­cent neo-Vic­to­ri­an Dick­ens spin-offs, Dan Sim­mons’s Drood (2009) and Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dick­ens (2009), seek to come to terms with Dick­ens’s last frag­ment. Both Edwin Drood and the au­thor him­self, who died be­fore he could fin­ish the manuscript, are con­spic­u­ous­ly ab­sent from Edwin Drood, and these two ab­sences have given rise to end­less spec­u­la­tions and crit­i­cal de­bates about the text’s pos­si­ble and in­tend­ed end­ings. Both neo-Vic­to­ri­an spin-offs ad­dress the Drood de­bate and its ab­sences, and cater to the cul­tur­al de­sire to res­ur­rect the dead Dick­ens while fin­ish­ing (off) his novel — which is of course im­pos­si­ble to begin with. In doing so, they also ad­dress con­tem­po­rary de­bates and con­cerns in their striv­ing to offer ac­cept­able and/or mar­ketable end­ings.

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HE Vic­to­ri­ans were liv­ing in a ma­te­ri­al world full of new and cu­ri­ous things, and they pro­duced tex­tu­al worlds in order to come to terms with this plen­i­tude. How­ev­er, it is clear that for many, the ma­te­ri­al and tex­tu­al wor(l)ds were not leg­i­ble in a sat­is­fac­to­ry way (see Cun­ning­ham 1994: 4-80). The in­creas­ing­ly mass-pro­duced Vic­to­ri­an things, on spec­tac­u­lar dis­play, say, at the Crys­tal Palace in 1851, were, on the one hand, tri­umphant­ly cel­e­brat­ed and viewed with cul­tur­al dis­com­fort on the other. Both re­spons­es are ev­i­dent in the lit­er­a­ture of the time (see Mers­mann 2001). In many in­stances, the ma­te­ri­al in­tri­ca­cies in the tex­tu­al ma­noeu­vres of Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture, it­self a com­mod­i­ty on an in­creas­ing­ly mass-ori­ent­ed mar­ket, pre­dat­ed the in­sights of re­cent The­o­ry (with a cap­i­tal ‘T’). Kurt Tet­zeli re­minds us of the Vic­to­ri­ans’ the­o­ret­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion be­fore The­o­ry:

Being fas­ci­nat­ed and at­tract­ed by the ma­te­ri­al al­lure of things and being driv­en to as­sem­ble them, the rare as well as the com­mon, the pre­cious as well as the or­di­nary, the ex­ot­ic as well as the home­ly [… the Vic­to­ri­ans] sup­ple­ment­ed their fas­ci­na­tion and com­pul­sion with a thor­ough scep­ti­cism, an in­ci­sive crit­i­cism. It did not need a Karl Marx or a Sig­mund Freud to tell a Dick­ens, Thack­er­ay, Eliot or James about the mo­tives, ap­pear­ances or ef­fects of reifi­ca­tion and ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion, idol­iza­tion and fetishiza­tion. (Tet­zeli von Rosador 2001: 116-117)

How­ev­er, in Um­ber­to Eco’s his­tor­i­cal fic­tion The Name of the Rose (1980), Broth­er William of Baskerville, a me­dieval Vic­to­ri­an, hints that “signs and the signs of things are used only when we are lack­ing things” (Eco 1996: 28). It is there­fore ev­i­dent that, no mat­ter how ma­te­ri­al­ly so­phis­ti­cat­ed the Vic­to­ri­ans were, their un­ease with their ma­te­ri­al cul­ture is sub­stan­ti­at­ed by their sig­ni­fy­ing ac­tiv­i­ties — or, some­times, the con­spic­u­ous lack­ing of these. With this in mind, we can add an­oth­er term to Tet­zeli’s list of things the ob­ject-ob­sessed Vic­to­ri­ans knew about well be­fore twen­ti­eth- and twen­ty­first-cen­tu­ry The­o­ry: ab­sences — ma­te­ri­al ob­jects under era­sure, spec­ta­cles of the void. Vis­i­ble and pal­pa­ble as they were, in Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture ma­te­ri­al ob­jects went miss­ing in a num­ber of ways. There are, for in­stance, the ab­sences which are a con­sti­tu­tive fea­ture of the emerg­ing crime novel: pieces of ev­i­dence, some­times the corpse of the vic­tim, and of course, the ab­sence and enig­ma of the per­pe­tra­tor that keeps the genre going. And, more than a hun­dred years be­fore the death of the au­thor was an­nounced, the au­thor’s ab­sence in Dick­ens’s last novel gave rise to in­tri­cate cul­tur­al ne­go­ti­a­tions.

It has been ob­served that “Dick­ens’s nov­els are nec­es­sary read­ing for the his­to­ri­an of things, which are often bril­liant­ly — and po­et­i­cal­ly — de­scribed” (Brig­gs 1990: 19). In­deed, Dick­ens’s ma­te­ri­al minu­ti­ae, the re­alia of all areas of the Vic­to­ri­an world and its views, are hall­marks of his fan­tas­ti­cal­ly re­al­is­tic style. The ab­sences in­scribed into Dick­ens’s texts, sub­trac­tions, as it were, from fic­tion­al worlds teem­ing with minute­ly noted ma­te­ri­al ob­jects, have proven in­trigu­ing over the last one and a half cen­turies — to read­ers, to crit­ics and, more re­cent­ly, to the writ­ers of neoVic­to­ri­an or, more specif­i­cal­ly, neo-Dick­en­sian nov­els. There­fore, if it does not want to treat the Vic­to­ri­an age as a mere card­board prop, neo-Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture has to come to terms with both the ma­te­ri­al plen­i­tude of Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­a­ture and its other, the cir­cum­scribed ab­sences, which in the focus of this essay are Dick­en­sian ab­sences. How, then, do Dick­ens spin-offs of the new mil­len­ni­um in­ter­tex­tu­al­ly re­vise the ab­sent pres­ence of the inim­itable’s texts and of the age that neo-Vic­to­ri­an­ism is di­alec­ti­cal­ly bound to?

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