Lottie Niemiec: Who Killed Edwin Drood?

First published at EN3515 DICKENS Blog

Who­dun­nit? Not Jasper.

As a re­sult of Dick­ens’ un­time­ly demise al­most ex­act­ly in the mid­dle of writ­ing The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, the dis­ap­pear­ance of Edwin Drood will re­main for­ev­er, in­deed, a mys­tery. From the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, spec­u­la­tion has sug­gest­ed, and with ample enough ev­i­dence, that John Jasper mur­dered his nephew in order to se­cure a fu­ture for him­self and Rosa Bud, Drood’s wife-to-be. Crit­ics and read­ers alike have sug­gest­ed that Jasper’s cu­ri­ous re­ac­tion upon learn­ing of Rosa and Drood’s sep­a­ra­tion in­di­cates that he re­alised the mur­der was un­nec­es­sary. Fur­ther ev­i­dence sup­ports the the­o­ry that in­deed it was Jasper that, pre­sum­ably, mur­dered Drood. His mono­ma­ni­a­cal ob­ses­sion with Rosa, his un­re­al­is­tic and dis­turb­ing pro­fessed love for his nephew, set with­in a land­scape of opium ad­dic­tion and dou­ble selves would ap­pear to be clinch­ing proof for Jasper’s vi­o­lent­ly crim­i­nal psy­che. How­ev­er, sure­ly we can­not ac­cept such a re­duc­tive ex­pla­na­tion from one of Britain’s most pro­lif­ic au­thors? To re­lease the an­swer only halfway through cre­ation, in­deed im­ply­ing the an­swer from the very be­gin­ning — is it plau­si­ble that Jasper, the vi­o­lent, ob­ses­sive, dev­il­ish, ob­vi­ous ma­ni­ac could be the an­swer to all our ques­tions? Sure­ly not.

I shall sug­gest an al­ter­na­tive the­o­ry, one that takes into con­sid­er­a­tion some of the great themes of Dick­ens’ work: dop­pel­gangers, child­hood bit­ter­ness, twist­ed psy­ches and, ul­ti­mate­ly, ex­treme plot twists. Into the rel­a­tive­ly quiet cathe­dral town of Clois­ter­ham ar­rive two out­siders, He­le­na and Neville Land­less. Chil­dren or­phaned while young and, we learn, bru­tal­ly treat­ed as they were grow­ing up, re­sult­ed in a meek, fem­i­nine, yet qui­et­ly in­de­pen­dent He­le­na and a pas­sion­ate, vi­o­lent­ly driv­en Neville; twins that seem al­most to read each other’s thoughts, and yet so dif­fer­ent in tem­per­a­ment from each other. Doubt­less many crit­ics have sug­gest­ed Neville was the mur­der­er — an­oth­er ob­vi­ous choice — but I shall sug­gest in­stead that his sis­ter is not only the more ca­pa­ble, but also the more ra­tio­nal­ly plau­si­ble.

Over­shad­owed by a broth­er that speaks for her, one that ad­mits to hav­ing to ‘sup­press a dead­ly and bit­ter ha­tred’ that has made him ‘se­cret and re­venge­ful’, is it not pos­si­ble that He­le­na her­self could sup­press a sim­i­lar emo­tion? Neville con­tin­ues to say: ‘In a last word of ref­er­ence to my sis­ter, sir (we are twin chil­dren), you ought to know, to her hon­our, that noth­ing in our mis­ery ever sub­dued her, though it often cowed me. When we ray away from it (we ran away four times in six years, to be soon brought back and cru­el­ly pun­ished), the flight was al­ways of her plan­ning and lead­ing. Each time she dressed as a boy, and showed the dar­ing of a man. I take it we were seven years old when we first de­camped; but I re­mem­ber, when I lost the pock­etknife with which she was to have cut her hair short, how des­per­ate­ly she tried to tear it out, or bite it off.’

In­ter­est­ing­ly, Neville re­it­er­ates the fact that they are twins, even though Crisparkle is aware of the fact; it im­press­es upon us once more that they are con­nect­ed not only through blood and, Neville claims, men­tal­ly, but also vis­i­bly. For such a quiet woman, it is sur­pris­ing that she has a strong, an­i­mal­is­tic urge to tear and bite at her hair when she feels trapped in her fe­male form. This in­di­cates the strong anger of a hys­ter­i­cal woman, a fe­roc­i­ty that nei­ther Neville or Jasper show or are ca­pa­ble of. She is the one to in­sti­gate run­ning away every time, show­ing a high­ly in­de­pen­dent and mas­cu­line streak, one that is pre­pared to put into ac­tion what she de­sires, as op­posed to a broth­er that, cu­ri­ous­ly, fol­lows her. If she suc­ceed­ed in cut­ting her hair short, she would phys­i­cal­ly look no dif­fer­ent from her broth­er, mak­ing them, as it were, true dou­bles. He­le­na may be the real, dark side of Neville’s psy­che, even while ap­pear­ances re­main to the con­trary. Just as there are two Flintwich’s in Lit­tle Dor­rit, strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar men in A Tale of Two Cities, dou­bling and mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty in Our Mu­tu­al Friend and even dou­ble nar­ra­tives in Bleak House; so in Edwin Drood does this re­cur­ring theme ap­pear.

He­le­na, a re­pressed ver­sion of her broth­er, stands very much as the Hyde to a Jekyll, a mon­ster to a Franken­stein: out­ward­ly so de­mure, yet in­ward­ly burn­ing with rage and re­pressed anger. Mov­ing from Our Mu­tu­al Friend, in which Dick­ens de­picts Bradley Head­stone as the archetype of re­pres­sion boil­ing over into mur­der­ous vi­o­lence, patho­log­i­cal­ly in­sane as a re­sult of his ob­ses­sion with Lizzie Hexam (al­though this can be deeply ques­tioned), Dick­ens’ gives us now the op­po­site: a woman seem­ing­ly in­no­cent, but the other, dark­er half of her pas­sion­ate broth­er.

The ques­tion of mo­tive re­mains, which again is re­vealed when the novel’s other themes are taken into con­sid­er­a­tion, themes such as colo­nial­ism, the out­sider and mar­riage. When He­le­na ar­rives in Clois­ter­ham she is con­front­ed with a pret­ty, white fe­male whose en­gage­ment to a nice, white gen­tle­man seems all too cosy. Al­ready dis­turbed from a child­hood of bru­tal­i­ty, the ha­tred with which she might per­ceive Rosa’s rel­a­tive­ly easy life, planned out for her stage by stage, would be in­tense. He­le­na’s ‘sun­burnt’ skin la­bels her the other, and what vengeance would be greater than rid­ding a woman of hap­pi­ness while feign­ing to be­friend her? Once the deed is done, she could quite eas­i­ly es­cape to Lon­don — which, sur­pris­ing­ly enough, she does. An over­shad­ow­ing broth­er would be sus­pect­ed of the mur­der be­cause he fits the stereo­type per­fect­ly; there is every piece of ev­i­dence against him that one could need to con­vince a jury of his guilt. It is all too con­ve­nient. He­le­na would not only have passed on her in­her­ent un­hap­pi­ness to an­oth­er woman, but she would her­self be free to live life as she pleased, not hav­ing to fol­low her broth­er ev­ery­where and per­form through him. Ad­di­tion­al­ly, she may have mur­dered Drood from anger, since by of­fend­ing Neville, he of­fends her through him.

Since Bleak House, Dick­ens’ had set about de­pict­ing fe­males as any­thing from in­no­cent and self-sac­ri­fic­ing to naïve and money grab­bing — but not mur­der­ers. Lizzie Hexam is the very pic­ture of virtue; Bella Wil­fur may be mer­ce­nary, but she even­tu­al­ly be­comes the per­fect Vic­to­ri­an angel in the house. Not since Hort­ense had Dick­ens used a woman to paint a bloody, vi­o­lent pic­ture. This ful­fills Dick­ens’ last great theme — that of the shock­ing plot twist, the un­ex­pect­ed over­throw­ing of what we have been lead to be­lieve. With six in­stall­ments still to be writ­ten and pub­lished, any read­er at the time would have lost in­ter­est if Jasper had in­deed been the mur­der­er, hav­ing fig­ured out the plot far ahead of time.

Futher­more, and fi­nal­ly, The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood is fast-paced, vi­o­lent, sex­u­al and drug in­fest­ed, much like the Sen­sa­tion nov­els at the time. Much de­sired, these nov­els sold ex­treme­ly well, and Dick­ens’ good friend Wilkie Collins could ar­guably be the first au­thor to aug­ment the Sen­sa­tion novel as fol­low­ing on from the Goth­ic with his novel The Woman in White. In this, a woman that is beau­ti­ful from be­hind turns out to be ugly from the front – ‘The woman was ugly!’ — high­ly con­tro­ver­sial at the time, while an­oth­er has been driv­en mad by an evil se­duc­er. In Lady Au­d­ley’s Se­cret, a woman turns out to be the mur­der­er (al­though in the end, not) of a man by push­ing him down a well. In The Moon­stone a woman com­mits sui­cide by let­ting quick­sand suck her down (re­mind­ing us of the quick­lime in Edwin Drood that would have quick­ly de­voured a body), and in East Lynne a woman com­mits adul­tery, leav­ing her chil­dren and hus­band for a wicked mur­der­er. From this we can clear­ly see that what was sell­ing well were the fright­en­ing, yet pop­u­lar, sto­ries of fe­male hys­te­ria, of strange, un­can­ny events and mur­der­ers. In this ‘Mad­wom­an in the Attic’ cli­mate, it is very pos­si­ble that in lead­ing us to be­lieve Jasper killed Edwin Drood, we have been en­tire­ly led away from the fact that He­le­na is more ca­pa­ble of cold-blood­ed mur­der.

5 FEBRUARY 2010