Lauriat Lane, Jr.: The Mystery of Edwin Drood De/Re/Encoded

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S prose fic­tion, Leon Garfield's The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood and "Charles Forsyte"'s The De­cod­ing of Edwin Drood are at the least harm­less lit­er­ary enter­tainments. Each book com­pletes in fic­tion Dick­ens's final, un­com­plet­ed prose ro­mance. Dick­ens's The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, how­ev­er, be­cause it is all Dick­ens, is al­ready "com­plete" in one sense be­yond any other com­ple­tion, and ours for the read­ing. Yet, if not Dick­ens's Edwin Drood, such com­ple­tions can nev­er­the­less form part of our think­ing about that work, as ex­plic­it or im­plic­it com­men­tary (Forsyte has a long crit­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion and a brief ap­pendix). More­over, they raise gen­er­al crit­i­cal is­sues.

Edwin Drood is as pro­found­ly en­gross­ing and mov­ing in its own way as is any of Dick­ens's other, fin­ished later fic­tion. It also rais­es with melo­dra­mat­ic ob­vi­ous­ness ques­tions of the power of "in­ten­tion" and "codes" or "con­ven­tions" to fix the iden­ti­ty, above all the struc­tures, of any text and to dic­tate or at least di­rect our re­sponse to such an iden­ti­ty, such struc­tures. These ques­tions once took — and often still take — older, sim­pler, less new-fan­gled forms: What did Dick­ens in­tend? Or: What does The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood say? Old or new, how­ev­er, and even though a rel­a­tive­ly short re­view such as this can only sug­gest the lines of in­quiry they pro­ject, they are still the im­por­tant ques­tions: ". . . what are the codes and con­ven­tions — whether aes­thet­ic or cul­tur­al — to which ac­tu­al read­ers refer in try­ing to make sense of texts and to which ac­tu­al au­thors refer in fa­cil­i­tat­ing or com­pli­cat­ing, or per­haps even frus­trat­ing, the read­er's sense- mak­ing ac­tiv­i­ty?" Such ques­tions could even, if we wished, call for "a kind of at­ten­tion which one might call struc­tural­ist: a de­sire to iso­late codes, to name the var­i­ous lan­guages with and along which the text plays, to go be­yond man­i­fest con­tent to a se­ries of forms and then to make these forms, or op­po­si­tions or modes of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, the bur­den of the text."

How, then, do Forsythe and Garfield think about Edwin Drood? What ques­tions about it do they an­swer? Let me take up these mat­ters by way of one more ques­tion: Ex­act­ly what kind of mys­tery, in the fullest sense, is The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood?' As any dic­tio­nary re­minds us, a mys­tery can be at least one or more of the fol­low­ing: an idea or aware­ness, often re­li­gious; a cult; a rite; a type of drama; and a type of pop­u­lar prose fic­tion. Else­where I hope to show more fully how Edwin Drood in­volves all of these. But for now, how do they apply to Garfield's and Forsyte's ver­sions of Dick­ens's story?

For Forsyte, or for the pur­pos­es of Forsyte's par­tic­u­lar "de­cod­ing," Edwin Drood is a mys­tery story above all. This as­sump­tion even de­ter­mined how Forsyte's book was pub­lished. It takes the for­mat of Scrib­n­er's mys­tery nov­els and even ad­ver­tis­es on its dust jack­et such able con­tem­po­rary prac­ti­tion­ers as P.D. James, Robert Barnard, and Sheila Radley, rather than, say, writ­ings by Poe, or Dos­to­evsky, or even Gra­ham Greene — all, I would argue, more ap­pro­pri­ate com­pa­ny for Dick­ens's Edwin Drood, and mine. Forsyte is quite clear about this. He be­gins his in­tro­duc­tion, "A Per­son­al In­ves­ti­ga­tion," as fol­lows: "The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood is the most suc­cess­ful mys­tery story ever writ­ten" (p. 13); and he con­cludes it with a quo­ta­tion from Robert Louis Steven­son only too ap­pro­pri­ate for Forsyte's as­sump­tions: ". . . and who else can car­pen­ter in Eng­land, now that Wilkie Collins is played out?" (p. 106). In his "search for clues to the so­lu­tion" (p. 50), Forsyte ex­am­ines the well-known ex­ter­nal ev­i­dence of the in­ten­tions of what Booth would call Dick­ens "the writ­er" (p. 268), in­ten­tions of the sort that Drood­i­ans have picked over for al­most a hun­dred years, and reach­es the same ten­ta­tive, sen­si­ble con­clu­sions about the un­fin­ished text's hermeneu­tic code as have other re­spon­si­ble crit­ics. Yet even here Forsyte's in­sis­tence on nat­u­ral­iz­ing Edwin Drood, al­most whol­ly by means of the con­ven­tion­al genre of the mys­tery story,® leads him, as it has many oth­ers, to the cu­ri­ous be­lief that a great artist such as Dick­ens, after the thir­ty-five tri­umphant years of what Booth calls "the ca­reer writ­er" (p. 270), should sud­den­ly in­tend to be­come Wilkie Collins, and write ac­cord­ing­ly.

It was to be ex­pect­ed that Forsyte should pay spe­cial heed to Edwin Drood's hermeneu­tic code: "The de­tec­tive story con­sti­tutes an ex­ac­er­ba­tion of the meta- hermeneu­tic di­men­sion and, on one level at least, any text giv­ing par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance to de­cod­ing in terms of a hermeneu­tic code pre­sents it­self as a de­tec­tive story." But such ex­ac­er­ba­tion, such spe­cial heed, has im­pli­ca­tions which Forsyte un­abashed­ly pro­claims. To de­code hermeneu­ti­cal­ly as clear­ly as pos­si­ble, his com­ple­tion will "not try to im­i­tate the Inim­itable, but rather to find a style that would be ac­cept­able to read­ers today" (p. 106). More­over, he will not give us a full sec­ond half of Edwin Drood for "a mod­ern con­tin­u­a­tion at such Vic­to­ri­an length would be ex­ces­sive" (p. 106). Worst of all for any se­ri­ous re­sponse to the chal­lenge of the work, "The mean­ing of this novel I must leave to the schol­ars and crit­ics. My con­cern is with the mys­tery story . . . the first great psycho­logical crime story in our lit­er­a­ture" (p. 222).

Sub­ject­ed to these lim­i­ta­tions, and even grant­ing his ad­mis­sion that Dick­ens at least wrote a psy­cho­log­i­cal "crime story," Forsyte's Part Two, "The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood Com­plet­ed," could only be, and is, lit­tle more than a sce­nario for the sec­ond half of the work. Per­haps, to be fair, it in­tends no more. As a re­sult, it is false to all but the most sum­ma­ry ver­sion of au­tho­ri­al in­ten­tion, how­ev­er de­fined. And it makes no real at­tempt to carry on the full tex­ture of lan­guage, image, al­lu­sion, char­ac­ter, sym­bol, and even di­rect com­ment that en­codes Dick­ens's own text fully for our de­cod­ing.

In ad­di­tion to the con­ven­tion of genre, there is an­oth­er con­ven­tion, also noted by Culler, which any lit­er­ary com­ple­tion can and should, very sub­tly, in­volve: ". . . par­o­dy it­self, which serves as a pow­er­ful de­vice of nat­u­ral­iza­tion" (p. 152). But apart from the ob­vi­ous Dick­en­sian in­ten­tion­al au­thor­i­ty of names, "facts," and cer­tain broad clues that can­not be de­nied, Forsyte, un­like Garfield, does not, to quote Culler again, "cap­ture some­thing of the spir­it of the orig­i­nal as well as im­i­tate its for­mal de­vices and pro­duce through slight vari­a­tion — usu­al­ly of lex­i­cal items — a dis­tance be­tween the vraisem­blance of the orig­i­nal and its own" (pp. 152-53). The dis­tance be­tween Forsyte and Dick­ens is sim­ple dis­crep­an­cy rather than any of the sev­er­al pos­si­ble forms of par­o­d­ic crit­i­cal re­sponse. Such par­o­d­ic ges­tures can range from un­qual­i­fied love through va­ri­eties of sever­i­ty and com­pre­hen­sion to the point where par­o­dy, even the self-par­o­dy that tints Dick­ens's half of Edwin Drood, grows into one form of what Culler calls "sit­u­a­tion­al irony ... a mode of ex­is­ten­tial re­cu­per­a­tion" (p. 154). But there is lit­tle in Forsyte's com­ple­tion to in­vite us to such com­plex re­spons­es.

Forsyte's fail­ure to com­pre­hend Edwin Drood fully is also shown by his ten­den­cy to add ma­te­ri­al rather than de­vel­op that al­ready pre­sent. To put it an­oth­er way, his com­ple­tion, like much of his in­tro­duc­tion, car­ries on and com­pli­cates the proairet­ic code of ac­tions and the hermeneu­tic code of ques­tions, often through ex­tend­ed, in­di­rect nar­ra­tive sum­maries by var­i­ous char­ac­ters, but slights the semic, sym­bol­ic, and cul­tur­al codes in a way the first half of Edwin Drood, with its den­si­ty of struc­ture and sig­nif­i­cance, never did. One par­tial ex­cep­tion: Forsyte's brief at­tempt to con­vey the at­mo­sphere of Clois­ter­ham and its Cathe­dral cul­ture. On the whole, how­ev­er, we are shown what hap­pens but not, in the fullest sense, how or why. Hence such over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions as: "for mur­der­ers are not sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters to Dick­ens" (p. 83). In his in­tro­duc­tion Forsyte had made a long, very thor­ough anal­y­sis of Edwin Drood's mul­ti­far­i­ous "du­al­i­ties" (pp. 82-105). How­ev­er, apart from some im­agery of black and white and some bib­li­cal al­lu­sion, these du­al­i­ties are not en­cod­ed into his com­ple­tion other than pro-airet­i­cal­ly and hermeneu­ti­cal­ly. The story, as com­plet­ed by For­syte, even ends with Mr. Grew­gious's re­it­er­at­ed tes­ti­mo­ni­al to the "promis­ing fu­ture" of Baz­zard in par­tic­u­lar and "the Pri­vate De­tec­tive" (p. 218) in gen­er­al.

One spe­cial code or con­ven­tion shared by Dick­ens and his read­ers was that of the month­ly parts, as ev­i­denced by the sur­viv­ing num­ber plans and by the phys­i­cal for­mat in which such se­ri­al­iza­tion reached the read­er. Later edi­tions, in­clud­ing the most re­cent, do not usu­al­ly em­pha­size or, in many cases, even in­di­cate such di­vi­sions. It would be un­fair, I sup­pose, to ex­pect com­ple­tions of Edwin Drood to be so planned or so pre­sent­ed, even though some read­ers feel they can trace the orig­i­nal struc­ture of the month­ly parts coun­ter­point­ed against the many other struc­tural pat­terns in Dick­ens's own, now un­di­vid­ed, texts. But part pub­li­ca­tion called forth a com­mit­ment not only to struc­ture but also to scope and sub­stance. The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood was to ap­pear in twelve month­ly parts, as is well known; Dick­ens died after writ­ing al­most six. Hence any com­ple­tion of the story — and our think­ing about the whole story — must, if true to the in­ten­tion de­clared by the month­ly parts, be of a text twice as long, twice as full, as that Dick­ens left us. By this con­ven­tion, Forsyte's com­ple­tion is only a third as long as it should be and even less full. Garfield's com­ple­tion, on the other hand, is two-thirds the promised length and as­pires to, even at times ap­proach­es, Dick­ensian full­ness.

Garfield and Forsyte agree on the basic issue of the lit­er­al story, as by now do most com­men­ta­tors, but dif­fer on many sig­nif­i­cant par­tic­u­lars. For ex­am­ple, both have Neville killed by Jasper: but Forsyte at the top of the Cathe­dral tower dur­ing Jasper's final con­found­ing, Garfield in Lon­don some time be­fore. Forsyte rein­tro­duces the opium woman at the very end as the W. S. Gilber­tian for­mer nurse of Rosa and her moth­er and makes her the di­rect agent of Jasper's self- dis­cov­ery as the mur­der­er; Garfield makes her a would-be black­mail­er, part of the web of forces of light and dark that grad­u­al­ly tight­en around Jasper dur­ing the sec­ond half of the story. Forsyte has Sapsea com­i­cal­ly seek the hand of the Dean's un­named daugh­ter; Garfield, on the other hand, has Sapsea iron­i­cal­ly seek the hand of Rosa Bud through Jasper him­self. Forsyte uses Datch­ery sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle and re­veals him, al­most by the way, to have been Baz­zard in dis­guise; Garfield de­vel­ops Datch­ery as a new char­ac­ter in­volved in in­ter­est­ing ways with char­ac­ters and codes we had al­ready en­coun­tered in the first half. Forsyte at­tributes Jasper's di­vid­ed iden­ti­ty chiefly to the un­usu­al cir­cum­stances of his birth and child­hood; Garfield leaves it a "mys­tery of in­iq­ui­ty," sound­ed by the text's full res­o­nances — moral, psy­cho­log­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, the­o­log­i­cal, cul­tur­al. Forsyte has Jasper hanged in his cell dur­ing the night, by his other self; Garfield has him hanged rit­u­al­ly at the ap­point­ed time by the pub­lic ex­e­cu­tion­er, Crisparkle with him to the end.

Garfield's Edwin Drood, like Forsyte's and even Dick­ens's, is a mys­tery story in the pop­u­lar sense. But like Dick­ens's and un­like Forsyte's, it is also a "mys­tery" in other, more pro­found sens­es. It achieves this by car­ry­ing on Dick­en­sian in­ten­tions as fully as pos­si­ble; with­in a text en­cod­ed, so far as pos­si­ble, as fully as that of the first half, the work of Dick­ens. Put more sim­ply, for these and other rea­sons Garfield's text bears reread­ing more than Forsyte's, al­most as much as Dick­ens's.

One way Dick­ens in­ten­si­fied and com­pli­cat­ed the "mys­tery" of his story was by Shakespere­an al­lu­sion and echo, es­pe­cial­ly from Mac­beth: al­lu­sion and echo that call to mind pat­terns of an­cient myth and rit­u­al, sac­ri­fice and re­demp­tion, good and evil. Such pat­terns are coded sym­bol­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, and even sem­i­cal­ly in Dick­ens's Edwin Drood in ways that have not yet been fully ap­pre­hend­ed, though some read­ers have sensed them. In his com­ple­tion, Garfield con­tin­ues this pat­tern of echo and al­lu­sion to an al­most par­o­d­ic de­gree — his Datch­ery plays, among other parts, that of the Porter — but with no loss of struc­tur­ing power.

An­oth­er of the mys­ter­ies of Edwin Drood is the force of its per­va­sive Orien­talism of fact, al­lu­sion, and anal­o­gy. On the one hand, the East is the source of Chris­tian myth, es­pe­cial­ly in its most an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous forms. On the other hand, the Ori­ent, from Suez to Sin­ga­pore, haunt­ed the com­mer­cial, cul­tur­al, and erot­ic imag­i­na­tions of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eu­rope. How is this ma­te­ri­al, which Garfield con­tin­ues fully, en­cod­ed into the text? How does it help to struc­ture the mys­tery, in the more ob­vi­ous sense, into its more com­plex forms? In Dick­ens's fic­tion, es­pe­cial­ly the later works, the East is a mys­te­ri­ous di­rec­tion out of which come mys­te­ri­ous forces and char­ac­ters who have been af­fect­ed in mys­te­ri­ous ways. Nowhere is this more so than in Edwin Drood.

Re­li­gious mys­tery also en­ters our re­sponse to Edwin Drood through the gener­ic con­ven­tions of lit­er­ary Goth­icism. Jasper, like M. G. Lewis's hero, is di­vid­ed, as Jasper him­self says, be­tween sa­cred and pro­fane, spir­it and flesh.

Like the vic­tims of a Goth­ic tale of ter­ror, the in­hab­i­tants of The Nun's House are all ob­jects of erot­ic male de­sire, hon­or­able or oth­er­wise. But Goth­icism is hut part of Clois­ter­ham's and its Cathe­dral's total past. This past, fully coded into a com­plex am­bigu­ous set­ting for the vi­o­lent ac­tion of the story, be­comes there­by an equal­ly com­plex am­bigu­ous com­ment on Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land's re­li­gious and, in the largest sense, cul­tur­al ori­gins and on the in­flu­ence of those ori­gins on its con­tem­po­rary ethos. To take just one ex­am­ple of such com­plex cod­ings, why should the sac­ri­fi­cial vic­tim, Edwin Drood, who was going out "to wake up Egypt," have as his first name that of an early Northum­bri­an king con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty but later over­thrown and killed by the still pagan Mer­cians and as his last name one that com­bines Druid, a pre-Chris­tian priest­hood, with Rood, the An­glo-Sax­on Cross? One last mys­tery: to what sources, sa­cred or pro­fane, good or evil, do we at­tribute the power of music in Edwin Drood at once to re­veal and to con­ceal? It is the strength of Leon Garfield's com­ple­tion that it in­vites us to go on think­ing about Charles Dick­ens's un­com­plet­ed The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood in ways like these.