Edward Wagenknecht: Charles Into Edwin?


FA­MOUS En­glish nov­el­ist, re­cent­ly dead, used to de­scribe devo­tees of games and puz­zles as men­tal per­verts who pre­ferred play­ing with their minds to using them upon some con­struc­tive pur­suit. Doubt­less this harsh judg­ment might also be made to take in those who de­vote their in­tel­lec­tu­al en­er­gies to in­sol­u­ble lit­er­ary rid­dles like "The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood." On this basis many book­ish peo­ple are going to find it very hard to be saved.

Richard M. Baker pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing re­view of pre­vi­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions and of­fers in­ter­est­ing new con­jec­tures. He is con­vinced that Drood was mur­dered by Jasper. Datch­ery is not, there­fore, in his eyes a mas­querad­ing Edwin; nei­ther is he He­le­na Land­less nor Baz­zard nor Tar­tar nor yet a new char­ac­ter. Rather, he is Hiram Grew­gious. Mr. Baker finds the be­gin­nings of the Drood story in Dick­ens's own sketch "A Con­fes­sion in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Sec­ond" (in "Mas­ter Humphrey's Clock"), and he dis­cuss­es it also in con­nec­tion with both Emily Jolly's (not Percy Fitzger­ald's) "An Ex­pe­ri­ence," which Dick­ens print­ed in All the Year Round, and Robert Lyt­ton's se­ri­al "The Dis­ap­pear­ance of John Ack­land." He be­lieves that Jasper was ul­ti­mate­ly to con­fess his crime under hyp­not­ic in­flu­ence and that the con­fes­sion was to be drawn from him by He­le­na Land­less, dis­guised in her broth­er's clothes. This, he thinks, was the "very cu­ri­ous and new idea" of which Dick­ens wrote to Forster.

Being my­self quite un­com­mit­ted to any Drood­i­an hy­poth­e­sis I am like the heretic who reads all schools of con­tro­ver­sial di­vin­i­ty with equal plea­sure and rel­ish. So long as he con­fines him­self to pure­ly lit­er­ary mat­ters Mr. Baker shows in­ge­nu­ity and com­mon sense. I find him equal­ly en­ter­tain­ing whether he is de­mol­ish­ing the airy struc­tures of oth­ers or rais­ing his own. Even his nai've and con­fi­den­tial way of talk­ing about him­self —of how he made his "dis­cov­er­ies" and how he felt about it all —adds to the fun.

But when he at­tempts am­bi­tious­ly to make a schol­ar of him­self and to "in­ter­pret" "Edwin Drood" for the light it sheds on the soul of Dick­ens he comes a ter­ri­ble crop­per. What­ev­er may be the value of Freudi­an meth­ods as ap­plied by trained in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the psy­chi­atric sphere, all com­pe­tent judges are agreed that some of the worst writ­ing of our time is being done by lit­ter­a­teurs who catch what they vague­ly sup­pose to be Freudi­an no­tions out of the air and forth­with pro­ceed to apply them to the study of lit­er­a­ture. Mr. Baker elects to go off the deep end with the as­sump­tion that Dick­ens iden­ti­fied him­self with Jasper and there­upon pro­ceed­ed to make his last novel a form of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy! Mur­der sep­a­rates Jasper from his kind; Dick­ens be­came a lone wolf when he threw over his wife for Ellen Ter­nan!

I am get­ting a lit­tle tired of de­vot­ing half of what I write about Dick­ens to ex­plain­ing to writ­ers who can't read that the nov­el­ist's fa­mous "li­ai­son" with Ellen Ter­nan is the­o­ry, not es­tab­lished fact, and that who­ev­er states it as fact is guilty of an of­fense against both schol­ar­ship and morals. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, the mat­ter is too com­pli­cat­ed to de­scribe here. I went into it first in a long let­ter pub­lished in SRL Jan­uary 25, 1941. Later, in an ar­ti­cle called "Dick­ens and the Scan­dal­mon­gers," in Col­lege En­glish, April 1950,

I sub­ject­ed all the ev­i­dence then avail­able to a care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion. There are a few minor er­rors in that ar­ti­cle, but none of them has been point­ed out by the peo­ple who have promised to over­whelm me with fresh "ev­i­dence." Nei­ther has the "ev­i­dence" it­self ap­peared. All we get is re­newed as­ser­tion and even in­fer­ence with­out ev­i­dence as in Mr. Baker's text and in Brad­ford Booth's in­tro­duc­tion to it.

I am al­ways ready to be con­vinced — but not on the Hitler prin­ci­ple that if you say it often enough it be­comes true.

Ed­ward Wa­genknecht, pro­fes­sor of En­glish at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, is the au­thor of "The Man Charles Dick­ens."