Ray Dubberke: Dickens, Drood and Detectives

Chapter V
Datchery Discovered

As most Dickensians know, the character of Inspector Bucket was based on a real-life Scotland Yard detective named Charles Frederick Field, whom Dickens met, along with a group of other detective police officers, shortly before he wrote Bleak House. Accounts of his meetings with these detectives appeared in several articles in Dickens's magazine Household Words, and are available in the book Reprinted Pieces.

While Inspector Field was unquestionably the officer who made the most marked impression on Dickens, the author—in his article "The Detective Police"—enthusiastically expressed his admiration for the entire group: "They are, one and all, respectable-looking men; of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence; with nothing lounging or slinking in their manners; with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed; and generally presenting in their faces, traces more or less marked of habitually leading lives of strong mental excitement."

Like Field, another detective makes several appearances in the articles. This was Sergeant Stephen Thornton, renamed Dornton by Dickens in Household Words. In "The Detective Police" the author gives us this description of Thornton/ Dornton:

Sergeant Dornton about fifty years of age, with a ruddy face and a high sunburnt forehead, has the air of one who has been a Sergeant in the Army—he might have sat to Wilkie for the Soldier in the Reading of the Will. He is famous for steadily pursuing the inductive process, and, from small beginnings, working on from clue to clue until he bags his man.

As you have already guessed, "Dornton" is my candidate for the original from whom Dick Datchery was derived. He is the right age; he has Datchery's military air; and his English, unlike that of his brother officers, is middle-class. In "The Adventures of a Carpet Bag" he displays a sense of humor akin to Datchery's; and in "The Sofa" a degree of compassion perhaps rare in members of his profession, when he tells the young man whom he has just arrested for theft, "I regret, for the sake of yourself and your friends, that you should have done what you have; but this case is complete."

There is even a hint that "the soldierly-looking man" has a larger-than-average head. In "The Sofa" Sergeant Dornton says of himself, "My face . . . was pale at that time, my health not being good; and looked as long as a horse's." A long head might well have become a large one when Dornton recovered his health and put on some weight.

Illustrating this chapter is a detail from Sir David Wilkie's Reading the Will. It reproduces a print in The Wilkie Gallery1 a collection of etchings based on the artist's works, and is thus the version with which Dickens and his readers were familiar. The original painting, commissioned in 1819 by the King of Bavaria, hangs to this day in Munich, Germany, and so was inaccessible to Dickens's contemporary audience. While the relative size of the soldier's head and body is difficult to discern in either rendering, Allan Cunningham in his Life of Sir David Wilkie (1843)2 described the young widow's admirer as "a brawny officer"—surely an adjective Dickens might have bestowed on one of his weighty men.

Remember Datchery's shock of white hair? Sergeant Dornton's "high forehead" leads me to believe that Datchery is wearing a wig. There are obvious reasons for a professional detective to adopt such a disguise: it allows a successful, perhaps even famous sleuth to avoid recognition, and (by adding a few years to his age) makes possible his cover as a retired diplomat. Nevertheless, I won't insist upon the wig.3 Since an author in his omnipotence can accomplish the otherwise miraculous, Dickens in transforming Dornton into Datchery may have decided to grow a flowing head of hair on the detective's sunburnt dome.

At this point, someone may protest that the Household Words articles were written some twenty years before Edwin Drood. How could Dickens be expected to remember Dornton so well after all those years? As it happens, he didn't have to—for the author in 1867 or 1868 carefully corrected the articles in Reprinted Pieces for their inclusion in his collected works. Further evidence that these articles were fresh in Dickens's mind appears in the name of Datchery's young assistant, Deputy. In the article "On Duty with Inspector Field," the inspector tells Dickens "that the man who takes care of the beds and lodgers" in these "low lodging-houses . . . for travellers" is always called Deputy. The boy Deputy repeats this explanation in Edwin Drood (Chapter 5): "All us man-servants at Travellers' Lodgings is named Deputy." By giving the detective's helper this name, Dickens points to his Household Words articles and through them to Datchery's identity.

Dick Datchery's own name also furnishes food for thought, just as Dickens converted Thornton to Dornton, so Datchery is probably his variation on the common English surname Thatcher. To wit: Thornton, Dornton; Thatcher, Datchery. Perhaps the name Thornton suggested the similar name Thatcher; or perhaps the name of another officer mentioned in "The Detective Police" brought the word to Dickens's mind. A thatcher is someone who thatches straw; and one of the detectives who met with Dickens was Sergeant Frederick Shaw—whom the writer christened "Sergeant Straw"!4

As for the given name Dick, there are several reasons why Dickens may have chosen this particular nickname; for now I'll mention just one. For some years prior to his retirement in 1863, Stephen Thornton was one of two ranking inspectors at the Detective Department, Scotland Yard; the other was Jonathan Whicher (who appears as Sergeant Witchem in "The Detective Police"). In The Moonstone (1868), Dickens's friendly rival Wilkie Collins modeled his detective character Sergeant Richard Cuff upon Inspector Whicher. (Perhaps "Whicher" even inspired "Richard.") Since Collins employed Whicher, it may have amused Dickens to base his character on Thornton, and to give him the same first name!

Even the Opium Woman elicits what may be a smidgen of evidence when she asks Datchery, "Whisper. What's his name, deary?" and he replies, "Surname Jasper, Christian name John. Mr. John Jasper" (ED, Chapter 23). Certainly a distinctive way to state a person's name—reminiscent of an entry on a police blotter.

Of greater significance is the title of Bazzard's play, "The Thorn of Anxiety," which he and Grewgious hope will come out at last. Probably this "dreadfully appropriate name" conceals another clue: the secret of Datchery's identity can be construed as a thorn of anxiety, to Dickens as well as his readers, and this Thorn(ton) was surely meant to come out at last.

One item of negative evidence may be worth considering here. In the completed portion of the novel, there is absolutely no police involvement in the disappearance of Edwin Drood. We know there are policemen in Cloisterham, because at the beginning of Chapter 19 Dickens mentions "the Cloisterham police meanwhile looking askant from their beats with suspicion" at some dusty wayfarers. We also know that Charles Collins's preliminary sketch for the cover of the serialized novel showed three police constables on the right-hand side above the male opium smoker, but the final illustration for the cover wrapper substitutes two civilians for the three officers. Why were the policemen replaced?

If Dickens planned all along to bring in a police specialist from London, he had no need to involve the local constabulary in his mystery. And this omission is historically justifiable, because there would have been only "preventive" police but no detectives on duty in "Cloisterham" at the time the story is set. Based on internal evidence (such as the remark in Chapter 6 that "In those days there was no railway in Cloisterham"), Percy Carden has cogently postulated the date of Drood's disappearance as December 24, 1842.5 In August of that same year, the Detective Department was founded at Scotland Yard. At that time the eight officers selected to staff it constituted the only publicly employed detective force in all of England, the famous Bow Street "Runners" having been disbanded in 1839 by Act of Parliament. No doubt Dickens knew that small towns like Cloisterham had no police detectives of their own in 1842; perhaps he even placed the disappearance in that year to prevent a premature investigation and to allow his detective to come from London incognito.

And just possibly Dickens was also aware that one of the eight founding members of the original Detective Department was a sergeant named Stephen Thornton—so the soldierly-looking man was available to go to Cloisterham in June 18436. But he went as a brand-new character, not as Thornton or Dornton; for Stephen Thornton bears the same relationship to Dick Datchery as Charles Frederick Field does to Inspector Bucket, the real person being merely the starting point for the Dickensian persona.

Thus we have, like "Dornton" himself, worked on from clue to clue until we bagged our man. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of my association of Dick Datchery with the eminent Scotland Yard detective Stephen Thornton is that there is nothing silly about it. To identify Datchery as Drood, Helena, Grewgious, Bazzard, or even Tartar is to make him a kind of white-wigged freak. Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist of his age for a reason—he had an uncanny instinct for pleasing his readers. I find it inconceivable that he would disappoint them in his choice of a detective hero for his last book.

1. Sir David Wilkie, The Wilkie Gallery (London: J, S. Virtue & Co., 1848-1850), facing page 40. For a photograph of Wilkie's original painting, see Hans Karlinger, München und die Kunst des 19.Jahrhunderts (Munich: Lama-Verlag, 1966), page 195, plate 75.
2. Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie (London: lohn Murray, 1843), Vol. II, page 24.
3. I can't insist upon the wig because five Dickens characters besides Dick Datchery share the same combination of white or gray hair and black eyebrows, and none of them appears to be wearing a wig: Mr. Wickfield in David Copperfield (Chapter 15); Matthew Pocket in Great Expectations (Chapter 23); Brooker in Nicholas Nickleby (Chapter 44); Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (Book I, Chapter 6); and Jack Governor in the short story "The Haunted House."
4. Jack Lindsay maintains that Datchery owes his surname to smuggler Miles Datchet of Lady Rosina Bulwer-Lytton's novel Cheveley (1839), a vitriolic attack on her estranged husband, Dickens's friend and fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Jack Lindsay, Charles Dickens [London: Andrew Dakers Ltd., 1950], page 408). Vet it's not likely that when Dickens started Edwin Drood, thirty years after Cheveley's publication, he would have remembered a minor character like Datchet, and even less likely that he would have dredged up a reminder of his friend's disastrous marriage—for Bulwer-Lytton was still alive in 1870.
5. Percy T. Carden, The Murder of Edwin Drood (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920), page 120. Reprinted in this volume as Exhibit D.
6. For the establishment of the Detective Department and some incidents from Stephen Thornton's career, see Belton Cobb, The First Detectives and Critical Years at the Yard (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1957 and 1956 respectively).