Lauriat Lane, Jr.: The Mystery of Edwin Drood in Contexts

The In­ter­na­tion­al Fic­tion Re­view 16.1 (1989)


HE RANGE of ma­te­ri­al in Wendy S. Ja­cob­son's The Com­pan­ion to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood[1] helps es­tab­lish the many con­texts with­in which this book, any book, can be read. It does not, of course, fully set the terms of such con­tex­tu­al read­ing, the vexed is­sues of the "new" his­tori­cism,[2] but it does pro­vide much of the raw ma­te­ri­al, many of the start­ing points. The se­ries ed­i­tors' gen­er­al pref­ace gives the ex­pect­ed scope of "fac­tu­al rather than crit­i­cal" anno­tation: con­tem­po­rary and to­po­graph­i­cal ac­tu­al­i­ty; lit­er­ary al­lu­sions, sources, and in­flu­ences; bi­o­graph­i­cal ori­gins and re­sem­blances; il­lus­tra­tions; signifi­cant vari­ant read­ings. For Dick­ens's The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood these take such ob­vi­ous forms as: Vic­to­ri­an ori­en­tal­ism; the ac­tu­al Rochester; echoes of Shake­speare (es­pe­cial­ly Mac­beth), the Bible, and both se­ri­ous and pop­u­lar 19th-cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture; Dick­ens's mis­tress Ellen Law­less Ter­nan; the signifi­cance of the cover de­sign for the roles of var­i­ous char­ac­ters in the un­fin­ished story's out­come; the re­la­tion of the month­ly plans, con­ve­nient­ly pro­vid­ed, to the month­ly parts; and so on. Reread­ing The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood with the Com­pan­ion at hand, one would be hard put to find many fac­tu­al ques­tions left unan­swered; the com­pil­er has, how­ev­er, let her­self move on to crit­i­cal annota­tion just often enough to make us wish for much more crit­i­cal com­men­tary, es­pecially on such oc­ca­sions as the "cor­rec­tion," fac­tu­al­ly de­fen­si­ble but crit­i­cal­ly doubt­ful, of the open­ing lines from "Cathe­dral tower" to "Cathe­dral town."[3]

The note on Lieu­tenant Tar­tar's name shows the Com­pan­ion's over­all strengths: "'Tar' is the slang term for a sailor. 'Tar­tar' is both an old cant name for a strolling vagabond and the term ap­plied to a mil­i­tary valet (Tar­tar was the school fag of Crisparkle). 'To catch a Tar­tar' means to tack­le one who unex­pectedly proves too formidable: per­haps this is what Tar­tar was in­tend­ed to be for Jasper. Dick­ens might also have had in mind the Tar­tar frigate il­lus­trat­ed on the crock­ery be­long­ing to Cap­tain Cut­tle in DS 4 (the pas­sage is quot­ed in the notes to chap­ter 22, p. 167," (149). The note nods only in not as­so­ci­at­ing "Tar­tar" with Genghis Khan and the many man­i­fes­ta­tions else­where in the notes of the novel's per­va­sive ori­en­tal­ism. One prob­lem: with­out con­sid­er­able help from Card­well's edi­tion the Com­panion is con­fused or at best, con­fus­ing, on cer­tain pas­sages Dick­ens delet­ed from the proofs of the orig­i­nal Num­ber V. The Com­pan­ion com­ments on three of these "dele­tions" but does not say that they were re­stored, prob­a­bly by Forster, be­fore first pub­li­ca­tion and re­tained in later edi­tions, and it even iden­tifies one as "re­stored by Card­well (1972)" (153). More­over, it de­scribes Forster as "re­in­stat­ing delet­ed pas­sages from the pre­vi­ous chap­ter to make up a short new chap­ter" (163), a state­ment which, if taken lit­er­al­ly by an un­wary com­mon read­er of the novel and the Com­pan­ion, would of course be non­sense. The re- ex­pand­ed chap­ter was ac­tu­al­ly di­vid­ed into chap­ter 20 of Num­ber V and chap­ter 21 of Num­ber VI, as shown suc­cinct­ly and pre­cise­ly by Card­well's edi­tion (xxix, xxxv, 147), and as Ja­cob­son may have in­tend­ed, but failed, to indi- <...>

The se­lect bib­li­og­ra­phy could be even more help­ful. Per­haps as a re­sult of the gen­er­al pol­i­cy of the se­ries, it is not so much a bib­li­og­ra­phy to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood as one to this Com­pan­ion, ap­par­ent­ly list­ing all, but only, the ma­te­ri­al be­hind the Com­pan­ion's an­no­ta­tions. Thus it in­cludes items inciden­tal to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood and omits oth­ers that would help our full un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Grant­ing the need for some se­lec­tion among Drood­i­ana, it could be done more log­i­cal­ly.

One of the many con­texts of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood iden­ti­fied in Ja­cobsons in­tro­duc­tion, run­ning through the notes, and col­lect­ed in the excel­lent index is the work of Wilkie Collins, es­pe­cial­ly The Moon­stone.. Jerome Meck­i­er's Hid­den Ri­val­ries* ex­plores the dy­nam­ics of this and other such lit­erary con­texts for se­lect­ed Vic­to­ri­an nov­el­ists, above all Dick­ens. As represen­tative "ri­val­ries" Meck­i­er con­sid­ers Dick­ens-Eliot (Bleak House, Felix Holt, Mid­dle­march), Dick­ens-Trol­lope (The War­den), Dick­ens-Gaskell (Hard Times, North and South), and above all, Dick­ens-Collins (Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, The Woman in White, Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, The Moon­stone, The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood). Com­par­ing and con­trast­ing the au­thors in their works, he dis­cov­ers hid­den ri­val­ries based, for the most part, on the ev­i­dence of his broad, com­par­a­tive read­ings of the plots, char­ac­ters, and con­cerns of the works them­selves, ev­i­dence often sug­ges­tive of some re­la­tion­ship be­tween these works, some con­text they share. Such ri­val­ries are re­in­forced, when pos­sible, by di­rect au­tho­ri­al state­ment and the facts of pub­li­ca­tion his­to­ry. Not only are they in­ter­est­ing in their own right, but "when­ev­er one lo­cates a hid­den ri­val­ry—re­vi­sions of an­oth­er nov­el­ist's themes, char­ac­ters, or sit­u­a­tions—a re­curring Vic­to­ri­an anx­i­ety is cer­tain to emerge" (215-16), com­mon con­cerns sur­veyed in Meck­i­er's con­clud­ing chap­ter.

How well does all this work, for ex­am­ple, for The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, put in the con­text main­ly of the Dick­ens-Collins ri­val­ry, with side looks to Vic­torian ri­vals and for­ward to Steven­son and Con­rad? More specif­i­cal­ly, "The Moon­stone and The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood de­mand dou­ble vi­sion from the mod­ern reval­u­a­tor be­cause Dick­ens and Collins tend­ed to dis­cuss their ri­val­ry fig­u­ra­tive­ly in these nov­els while also pur­su­ing suprema­cy through in­ge­nious mod­i­fi­ca­tions of each other's key themes and char­ac­ters" (196). Long associ­ated with Collins (and with his broth­er, Charles, Dick­ens's son-in-law, who drew the month­ly cover be­fore giv­ing way as il­lus­tra­tor to Luke Fildes), The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood is es­pe­cial­ly open to Meck­i­er's the­sis and il­lus­trates its strengths and weak­ness­es. As hyp­ocrite, dou­ble, gen­tle­man-mon­ster, se­cret shar­er, Dick­ens's John Jasper is com­pared very fully with fig­ures from Mary Shel­ley's "sci­en­tist" and mon­ster to Steven­son's and Stok­er's, from Collins's many "vil­lains" to Eliot's trag­ic Bul­strode. Pro­posed com­ple­tions of the novel are test­ed against the de­mands of hid­den ri­val­ry, es­pe­cial­ly the "re­view" and re­con­struc­tion of the mur­der at the end. Dick­ens's ori­en­tal­ism is com­pared, ob­vi­ous­ly, with that of Collins's The Moon­stone . Jasper is also con­sid­ered as "Dick­ens's means of dis­cred­it­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the ideal man that were of­fered for pub­lic ap­proval by his ri­vals among less sen­sa­tion­al re­al­ists" (187), just as Clois­ter­ham con­trasts with the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ties of Trol­lope and Eliot. And The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood shows how, in the con­text of their con­tem­po­raries, "Dick­ens and Collins could not help con­spir­ing as they com­peted" (198), in their "re­sponse to the sup­pos­ed­ly more psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ists among their mu­tu­al ri­vals" (199). And yet, for all my ad­mi­ra­tion for The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood—or per­haps be­cause of it—and even grant­ing the thor­ough­ness of Meck­i­er's ar­gu­ments and their many in­sights, I find these ri­val­ries, and their re­sults, less per­sua­sive, less in­ter­est­ing, more dis­tract­ing even, than Meck­i­er ob­vi­ous­ly feels I should. Not con­tent to adopt an­oth­er way to take Vic­to­ri­an nov­els, an­oth­er con­text, he also ar­gues al­most ob­ses­sive­ly a way Vic­to­ri­an nov­el­ists came to make such nov­els. Al­though deny­ing—with Meck­i­er—the death of the au­thor, I neverthe­less find his ap­proach too blunt­ly in­ten­tion­al­ist: a rhetor­i­cal con­ve­nience run awk­ward­ly wild. For Meck­i­er every man­i­fes­ta­tion in a work has its ob­vi­ous mo­tive in the maker, a mo­tive as­sumed, as­sert­ed, and re­assert­ed as its own evi­dence, as in the fol­low­ing typ­i­cal pas­sage: "George Eliot de­cid­ed it was neces­sary to ar­tic­u­late again her ear­li­er ob­jec­tions to Dick­ens's re­al­ism while in­vent­ing Bul­strode to re­vise Jasper, there­by re­mov­ing this re­cent­ly in­stalled ob­sta­cle to her evo­lu­tion­ary phi­los­o­phy of so­cial change. She dis­cov­ered that she could graft her re­join­der onto a re­work­ing of prior par­o­dy .. . Mid­dle­march re­it­er­ates George Eliot's own point of view in the course of a reprise of the par­ody of Bleak House in Felix Holt. For the mod­ern reval­u­a­tor of hid­den rival­ries be­tween Vic­to­ri­an nov­els, this con­sti­tutes a dou­ble dose or dou­ble vi­sion" (201-02). But whether we can, or should, think of mid-Vic­to­ri­an fic­tion so au­tho- ri­al­ly, so ag­o­nis­ti­cal­ly, or let our­selves write about it so awk­ward­ly, re­mains for me a prob­lem through­out Hid­den Ri­val­ries.

1. Wendy S. Ja­cob­son, The Com­pan­ion to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. (Lon­don: Allan & Unwin, 1986); 209 pp.

2. David Simp­son, "Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism and the Re­turn to 'His­to­ry,'" Crit­i­cal In­quiry 14 (Sum­mer 1988): 721-47.

3. Charles Dick­ens, The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood , ed. Mar­garet Card­well (Ox­ford: The Claren­don Press, 1972) 1.

4. Jerome Meck­i­er, Hid­den Ri­val­ries (Lex­ing­ton: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Ken­tucky, 1987); 310 pp. 24