John Thacker: Antichrist in the Cathedral

This new study of Edwin Drood analyses the book's intended themes rather than its plot mechanism and shows that Dickens, in placing his last violent killer in the environment of a cathedral, was making a final attempt to promulgate his own version of religious faith and at the same time indicate his profound dissatisfaction with the Established Church of his time.

Cover Picture

It will have been noted that the theories and comments advanced in this study take no account of the vignette at the foot of the monthly cover of Edwin Drood as first published in 1870, which appears to depict a confrontation of some sort and which several distinguished commentators, including the editor of the Clarendon Edition, have seen as representing a specific part of Dickens's plot, which he must have had in mind from the outset. As I have myself indicated (on p. 118) that monthly cover designs have at least some significance, the presence of this little picture demands a comment. If the two figures in the drawing are Drood and Jasper, as I believe, there seems no likely scenario short of supernatural intervention in which such a scene could take place in the second half of the book, given the interpretation of the plot I have offered, for Drood is dead.

But there is an alternative explanation of this vignette, which if accepted will show it as having been intended (when outlined by Dickens to the original artist Charles Collins) not as a confrontation but as a symbolic representation of a key episode in the novel. I wrote the following paper in 1985. The theory it outlines appeared in a very much abridged form as a letter to the Editor, the Dickensian (August 1986), No. 410.

The central vignette at the foot of the monthly cover gives a strong and unmistakable impression that it has been designed to represent a projected scene from the novel. Most commentators have acquiesced in this theory; Dr. Cardwell in her introduction to the Clarendon edition (1972) says:

The main conclusion one can draw about this illustration, from its prominent position, its depiction of a specific, not a general or sym-bolic, situation, and the close resemblance between the two artists' sketches, is that it formed an extremely important part of Dickens's plot from the outset, (p. 242)

Charles Forsyte, writing later (1980) in The Decoding of Edwin Drood, says:

The key episode is the dramatic scene at the bottom of the monthly cover, where a man holding a lantern is staring at a second figure standing upright in the darkness, wearing a hat and coat. Collins's original sketch for the cover is more useful than Fildes's final version, (p. 219)

Everything indeed in the final version appears to support the contention that it represents an integrated scene: the lantern at the centre illuminating the whole; the crossed key and spade above, each leading the eye directly to one of the figures and thus linking them; the opened door indicating a single room containing both figures; the curtains on each side giving the impression of a theatre set; the opium smoke rolled back (also from each side) to reveal the scene and to emphasize its full dramatic effect. One would think that Fildes had been at pains to indicate that his picture represents a scene from the novel. He would have taken such pains either at the instigation of the author's desire that the original Collins sketch should be so modified and amplified, or on his own interpretation of the meaning and purpose of that sketch. Whichever of these is the truth, it must be stated immediately that the final published version would have received Dickens's approval.

But that question, which is the truth, is an interesting one which can lead to a radical reappraisal of this much discussed vignette. I shall accept here what appears to me the common-sense view, that these two figures are those of Jasper and Drood. No purpose can be served by attempting to refute any of the dozen or so theories which have been put forward to explain their juxtaposition. The figure wearing the hat has been identified as Edwin Drood returned from the dead, as a figure created by Jasper's imagination or conscience, as Helena Landless in Datchery or other disguise, or what not, and so on. But all these theories have this in common: they start from the assumption that this little picture is an integrated whole, a scene-a scene, moreover, which must have been in Dickens's mind before the first number was published with its green cover in place. If this is so, Fildes's embellishments of the original Collins sketch not only had the author's approval but were probably made at his suggestion, he having clearly in his mind the confrontation scene as shown in the picture. But that scene must have been planned to take place in the sixth number or later, for it obviously does not occur in the fragment we have. Therefore, if Drood is murdered in the fourth number, this figure is either his ghost or somebody in disguise, appearing probably towards the end of the book. It is a possibility. Before beginning A Tale of Two Cities he must have had in mind the final scaffold scene with Carton, and before beginning Great Expectations he must have planned the confrontation of Pip with the Convict, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through. But to have shown key episodes such as these, however equivocally, in an illustration carried from the first number onward would have risked disclosing his intentions and would have tied him to a devel-opment which, however firmly intended on setting out, might have needed modification as time went by. I submit, therefore, that bearing in mind past practice in the design of these monthly covers and the amount of information given in them as to the author's intentions, the supposition (that the illustration indicated a development of the story) is an unlikely one to say the least, and I am going to deduce with some confidence that whatever Dickens thought of this picture he had no fear that it would give away the secret of his plot.

This seems rather to tell against the theory that the scene represents an actual confrontation; it seems to me most unlikely that Dickens would, in his instructions to the artist, deviate in such a marked manner from the usual custom of picturing symbolic, rather than actual, designs for the front cover. The substitution by Fildes of civilians for Collins's policemen on the right hand side of the design is a good example of this. It was the only unequivocal drawing in the design. Police with handcuffs and truncheons at the ready are unquestionably in pursuit of a criminal; civilians in the same attitudes may be in pursuit of anything from a lost penny to abstract justice. It seems at least possible that Dickens, whatever he may have said to Collins at the outset, realized that those police helmets committed him too rigidly to a path of development which it might not be convenient to follow as the novel grew. And so with the lower vignette: if indeed he had in mind such a confrontation scene as is here depicted and which in the words of Dr. Cardwell 'formed an extremely important part of [his] plot from the outset', I do not believe that he would have allowed, let alone encouraged, Fildes to elaborate on and em-phasize it to the extent here shown.

We must look, therefore, at the second possibility, that the design as we have it is the result of Fildes's original reaction to Collins's sketch. I am going to suggest that that reaction was a slightly mistaken one, in that the design as drawn by Collins on the author's instructions was not intended to convey a dramatic confrontation scene at all, but was conceived by Dickens as a symbolic representation of a key event in the novel, which was to take place after only three numbers had been published and immediately before the murder. But before outlining the reasons for this theory (admittedly negative and impossible of proof), I would ask for two facts to be held in mind: the first, that every one of the picture's details I have called attention to in the second paragraph above, which do so much to give the impression of an integrated scene, are details added by Fildes to Charles Collins's original sketch, this sketch having been made under direct instruction from Dickens; the second, that almost everyone from April 1870 on has seen the Fildes picture first and the Collins sketch (if at all) afterwards and has therefore received a strong first impression of a dramatic scene at the foot of the cover—an impression extremely difficult to remove, for the Collins, seen afterwards, does indeed seem to be a pale shadow of the author's intentions, if the author's intentions were a confrontation in the crypt or a tomb or any similar place. It must again be stated however that whether the final version represented accurately Dickens's first intentions or not, it would have received his approval before publication.

Collins's pencil sketch for the whole cover appears on page 243 of the Clarendon edition, and can also be seen side by side with Fildes's finished drawing between pages 14 and 15 of The Drood Case (Aylmer). The essential detail for my purpose (the lower vignette), as drawn by both artists, is reproduced on the dust-jacket of this volume. The original sketch by Collins has at some stage been divided into sixteen panels as a draughtsman's aid, and the two figures occupying the central pair of panels at the foot (Jasper and Drood) are in fact in separate rectangles. The rectangles themselves mean nothing at all—they may well have been added by Fildes as assistance in copying the sketch (see the Dickensian (1987), No. 412)—but their presence suggested to me the possibility that these two figures might after all have been seen originally by Dickens as representing separate (though closely related) actions. If one concentrates, therefore, on Collins and tries to eliminate from the mind all previous impressions created by Fildes's additions and embellishments, it will be seen immediately that the Drood figure can be said to be performing an action which does take place in the book: he is feeling in the breast of his coat for the ring which he never gives to Rosa. In the Collins sketch he could be merely fiddling with the button; but Fildes has con-firmed what one feels must have been the author's intention and has inserted the hand quite clearly into the coat. This episode occurs in the opening chapter of No. IV, just before the murder, and its importance is heavily underlined by the author: 'His right hand was in his breast, seeking the ring; but he checked it, as he thought: "If I am to take it back, why should I tell her of it?" ' (Ch. XIII, p. 116). And again:

And now, Edwin Drood's right hand closed again upon the ring in its little case, and again was checked by the consideration: 'It is certain, now, that I am to give it back to him; then why should I tell her of it?' . . .

. . . Among the mighty store of wonderful chains that are forever forging, day and night, in the vast iron-works of time and circumstance, there was one chain forged in the moment of that small conclusion, riveted to the foundations of heaven and earth, and gifted with invincible force to hold and drag. (Ch. Xm, p. 118)

If Forster's evidence be accepted, this episode was in Dickens's mind in some form or other at the time the cover was designed and before the first number was published. The figure in the adjacent panel (we are dealing with the Collins sketch only at the moment) is merely that of Jasper entering a dark place with a lantern and gives nothing whatever away. Only one detail links the two figures together (the rays of Jasper's lantern would overlap in any case) and that is, that Drood unquestionably contemplates Jasper. I submit that it is by no means so certain that Jasper looks at or is aware of the presence of, Drood. But this one link, obvious to Fildes as to everybody else, gave him I suggest the immediate impression of two figures meeting in one room in mutual recognition of each other, and led him to emphasize the single and integrated nature of the scene.

But it is possible that he was mistaken. Still considering Collins rather than Fildes, let us suppose for a moment that Dickens, in giving his directions to the artist, had rather more in mind than the representation of a simple dramatic scene. Again on the evidence of Forster (see p. 20) we know that

... all discovery of the murderer was to be baffled till towards the close, when by means of a gold ring which had resisted the corrosive effects of the lime into which he had thrown the body, not only the person murdered was to be identified but the locality of the crime and the man who committed it.

If the Drood figure represents the ring episode in No. IV (and without any doubt this action of Drood's did indeed form 'an extremely important part of Dickens's plot from the outset'), it is clear from the above that its effect upon the unconscious Jasper (ignorant of the ring's existence) was to bring him to ultimate justice. The plot machinery of the ring however operates after Drood's death. He is, as it were, deus ex machina post mortem, and it seems most likely that the ghost-like solemnity and stillness with which he is drawn were requested by Dickens as part of a definite purpose. This purpose, I now suggest, was to show, in symbolic terms and without in the least giving away the plot, Edwin Drood's ultimate triumph over Jasper's evil plans by the act of retaining the ring on his body.

If the figure of Jasper in the Collins sketch is looked at closely and in separation from that of Drood, it will be seen that it is, as stated above, merely that of a man entering a dark room (or closing the door behind him) and holding a lantern.

He certainly appears to me, particularly in the enlarged version on the jacket of Aylmer's book, to be looking straight ahead, with a somewhat grim expression of face; but it is of course impossible to be certain of the artist's intentions. I am suggesting that this is Jasper going about his murderous business at some stage or other of its development—at which stage is irrelevant to the purpose—in complete ignorance of the fact that Drood has unwittingly undermined his arrange-ments and contemplates him from the other side of the grave, not in bodily form or as a Shakespearean 'Ghost', but as a symbolic representation of the metaphor from Our Mutual Friend:

And this is another spell against which the shedder of blood for ever strives in vain. There are fifty doors by which discovery may enter. With infinite pains and cunning, he double locks and bars forty-nine of them, and cannot see the fiftieth standing wide open. (Our Mutual Friend, Bk. IV, Ch. VII)

Obviously the whole of my argument depends upon whether Jasper is seen as being conscious of the Drood figure or not. If he is, it fails. If he is not, the symbolic intention in the pair of figures is established—and it is far more likely that Dickens intended a symbolic sketch rather than the detailed representation of a scene which must have been only nebulously present in his imagination at the time of the publication of the first number. It seems to me also that certain features of the Collins sketch can be said to encourage the latter view. The Drood figure has a rather peculiar expression of face—a hint of a superior smile, perhaps, or at any rate of one who is in possession of information the other lacks. He is going through an action which he performed in his lifetime and which is to have a profound effect on the action now being performed by Jasper in his. The light from Jasper's lantern does not appear to illuminate him directly; he seems to stand above and beyond it. The Jasper figure is full of earthy energy; Drood is all calm stillness. The half-crouching, eager posture of Jasper puts him on a lower level than Drood. Any amateur or professional theatre director looking at this sketch would see at once that Jasper, although he has the action at the front, is being 'upstaged' by Drood. I should think that Dickens was well pleased with this picture.

Then Fildes takes over and makes certain alterations to the whole cover: no moustache, a younger face and heavily increased black background for Edwin Drood; civilians for policemen; spade, key and dinner-bundle with various other little touches for polishing; and a lower central vignette very much more concentrated, in which the two figures, Jasper and Drood, appear to be staring at each other and in which the Jasper lantern seems to be directly illuminating the Drood figure; the curtains; the opium smoke; the general apparatus of a stage set, giving rise to the opinion, which has been held ever since, that the whole vignette represents an episode from the novel. Some of these alterations were doubtless requested by Dickens; but it seems a perfectly valid supposition that others, particularly those I have indicated in the Jasper/Drood vignette, were the independent work of Fildes and arose naturally out of his interpretation of Collins's original sketch. Whatever Collins thought of the 'improvements' is not known—at least to me—and it should be noted that in his letter to Daly of May 1871, quoted in the Clarendon edition (pp. 238-39), he refers to everything in the cover design except the lower panels, about which he is completely silent. We have no means of knowing what was Dickens's reaction to this vignette in its completed form. But if he did realize that his first intentions had been altered, there was no reason why he should say anything. He may even have rec-ognized it as a piece of misdirection; he was after all a conjurer himself.