Steven Connor: Drood and the Dust of Delight


A talk given at Dick­ens Day, Birk­beck Col­lege, 13 Oc­to­ber 2007.

Ref­er­ences are to the Ev­ery­man edi­tion of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, ed. Steven Con­nor (Lon­don: Dent, 1996). 

Against the Grain

The light I may have to throw on The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood will not help in any way to­wards a so­lu­tion of the mys­tery. I have no new wit­ness­es to call, sus­pects to in­dict, or per­pe­tra­tors to de­nounce. I will nei­ther seek nor be able to reil­lu­mine the light that failed. This will be be­cause my con­cern will not be be with light, or even, de­spite my title, all that much with de­light as with the light, but with light­ness, with n’avoir-pas-dupois.

For, as so often in re­cent years, I have found my­self read­ing The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood with an eye less to char­ac­ters and events as to the el­e­ments of which they are made, by which I mean, in some­thing like a lit­er­al sense, their phys­i­cal com­po­si­tion and that of the world in which they move. There is some­thing un­doubt­ed­ly re­duc­tive in in­sist­ing on train­ing so bony a light on the spread­ing human scene en­act­ed in a novel, as though one were to watch a per­for­mance of Ham­let through a pair of X-ray spec­ta­cles. But if this is so, then I think it is a re­duc­tive­ness to which Dick­ens him­self is oc­ca­sion­al­ly strong­ly drawn in his last novel. I would like to re­peat and am­pli­fy here a pro­pos­al that I find I first made in the in­tro­duc­tion to an edi­tion of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood that I wrote in 1996, that this is Dick­ens’s dusti­est novel, the one in which he is most drawn to pro­cess­es of grind­ing, abra­sion, pestling and pul­veri­sa­tion which re­sult in the pro­duc­tion of var­i­ous grades of fine­ly-sieved, gran­u­lar sub­stances. Among the dif­fer­ent grades of sub­stances named or im­plied in the novel (and let us not for­get that ‘grad­ing’ it­self in­cludes as one of its mean­ings the grind­ing or grat­ing that pro­duces such states of mat­ter) are pow­der, grit, sand, ash and lime. Tot­ters-up of hills of beans and danc­ing an­gels may be won over by the statis­tics which show that Drood does in­deed have an un­usu­al­ly high fre­quen­cy of words de­not­ing such sub­stances, when com­pared with other nov­els. Only four nov­els (Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Tale of Two Cities and Our Mu­tu­al Friend, if you must know) have more ap­pear­ances of the words ‘dust’ or ‘dusty’. When one con­sid­ers how lit­tle there is of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, it is clear that it is in fact the most con­cen­trat­ed­ly dusty of all Dick­ens’s nov­els; there are just over three times as many men­tions of dust in Our Mu­tu­al Friend, for in­stance (43 as op­posed to 12), but it is four times as long. And no other Dick­ens novel has so many ref­er­ences to grit or grit­ti­ness. The epit­o­me of this is Dur­dles, who is per­ma­nent­ly ‘cov­ered from head to foot with old mor­tar, lime, and stone grit’ (122).

If I am read­ing the novel against the grain, then I can at least call to my de­fence the fact that this is pre­cise­ly the pro­cess which seems to pre­oc­cu­py Dick­ens. Jasper com­plains that ‘the cramped monotony of my life grinds me away by the grain’ (15). Later on, Jasper will apply this op­er­a­tion to Neville – in­tend­ing to ‘to wear his daily life out grain by grain’ (Dick­ens 1996, 225). Baz­zard’s lowly po­si­tion as manser­vant ‘rubs against the grain’ (214), ac­cord­ing to Grew­gious, who re­marks of him­self ‘I am a hard man in the grain’ (Dick­ens 1996, 113) - though, as we know, in this novel, the hard­er they come, the finer they grind. Grew­gious him­self has been in­tro­duced to us as ‘an arid, sandy man, who, if he had been put into a grind­ing-mill, looked as if he would have ground im­me­di­ate­ly into high-grade snuff’ (Dick­ens 1996, 79). Grind­ing, milling, ero­sion and abra­sion are ev­ery­where in this novel. Jasper de­scribes him­self as ‘a poor monotonous cho­ris­ter and grinder of music’ (Dick­ens 1996, 16). Luke Hon­eythun­der’s pugilis­tic phi­lan­thropy in­cludes the prepa­ra­tion of ‘a moral lit­tle Mill some­where on the rural cir­cuit’ (175). Bil­lickin cat­ti­ly re­grets that she does not ‘pos­sess the Mill I have heard of, in which old sin­gle ladies could be ground up young’ (237). Al­lied to the gran­u­lar con­di­tion, if per­haps in a slight­ly moister reg­is­ter, is ‘the gelati­nous state, in which there was no flavour or so­lid­i­ty, and very lit­tle re­sis­tance’ (54), into which Mrs Crisparkle is pum­melled by the or­a­tor­i­cal on­slaughts of Luke Hon­eythun­der.

I claim Dur­dles as a re­cruit to my necro­scop­ic cause. At one end of his ca­reer, Dick­ens has Sam Weller scorn­ful­ly mock the pos­si­bil­i­ty of see­ing through walls, being pos­sessed only of a pair of eyes, rather than ‘a pair o' patent dou­ble mil­lion mag­ni­fyin' gas mi­cro­scopes of hex­tra power’. But here, at the far end of his ca­reer, Dick­ens pro­vides Dur­dles with a mode of ex­tra-sen­so­ry, or at least in­fra­mu­ral per­cep­tion that seems even bet­ter than X-ray: 

‘I take my ham­mer, and I tap.’ (Here he strikes the pave­ment, and the at­ten­tive Deputy skir­mish­es at a rather wider range, as sup­pos­ing that his head may be in req­ui­si­tion.) ‘I tap, tap, tap. Solid! I go on tap­ping. Solid still! Tap again. Hol­loa! Hol­low! Tap again, per­se­ver­ing. Solid in hol­low! Tap, tap, tap, to try it bet­ter. Solid in hol­low; and in­side solid, hol­low again! There you are! Old ’un crum­bled away in stone cof­fin, in vault!’ (43)

Dur­dles’s acute ear for re­ver­ber­a­tion al­lows him to di­vine, not just cav­i­ties with­in the solid wall, but rather what may be called a chord of dis­so­lu­tion formed by the gra­di­ent run­ning from solid to in­sub­stan­tial. At the core of this ge­ol­o­gy is not va­can­cy, but the grati­nate re­mains of what has crum­bled away. A mo­ment later, Dur­dles re­minds us how much of such dis­so­lu­tion may lie be­hind solid ap­pear­ance:

‘Six foot in­side that wall is Mrs Sapsea.’
‘Not re­al­ly Mrs Sapsea?’
‘Say Mrs Sapsea. Her wall's thick­er, but say Mrs. Sapsea. Dur­dles taps, that wall rep­re­sent­ed by that ham­mer, and says, after good sound­ing: “Some­thing be­twixt us!” Sure enough, some rub­bish has been left in that same six-foot space by Dur­dles’s men!’ (43)

At times, this novel gives us not so much Dick­ens the anatomist, as Dick­ens the atom­ist, in­ter­est­ed in the ul­ti­mate, in­di­vis­i­ble, in­dif­fer­ent states of mat­ter of which ev­ery­thing is com­posed. Like Dem­ocri­tus, the orig­i­na­tor of the atom­ist hy­poth­e­sis, sure­ly the great­est feat of sci­en­tif­ic de­duc­tion ever achieved, Dick­ens seems at times to ac­cord with the Dem­ocritean axiom ‘There are atoms, and the spaces be­tween them. All the rest is opin­ion.’ Dem­ocri­tus is said to have vis­it­ed Athens when Plato and Aris­to­tle were both in res­i­dence, cook­ing up the hal­lu­cino­genic doc­trines about the ma­te­ri­al world that would keep Eu­rope colour­ful­ly asleep for 2000 years, but left with­out mak­ing him­self known.

Like Dur­dles, Dick­ens seems pe­cu­liar­ly sen­si­tive in this novel to the ten­den­cy of things to re­vert to their par­tic­u­late con­di­tions, and to the strik­ing con­trast be­tween that which is, as Mr Sapsea claims he is, ‘sound, sir, at the core’ (118), and that which is rid­dled, sift­ed, or crum­bled. The atom­ist per­spec­tive re­quires both a mi­cro­scop­ic re­duc­tion in scale and a prodi­gious­ly macro­scop­ic es­ca­la­tion of num­ber. Such a per­spec­tive is per­haps in ev­i­dence in Jasper’s re­call­ing to the Princess Puffer of his pre-en­act­ments of the crime: ‘I did it here hun­dreds of thou­sands of times. What do I say? I did it mil­lions and bil­lions of times’ (245). We can find this ten­den­cy to mul­ti­plica­tive di­vi­sion in the ac­count of the mea­gre Twelfth Cake on dis­play in the green­gro­cer’s door­way – ‘such a very poor lit­tle Twelfth Cake, that one would rather call it a Twen­ty-fourth Cake, or a Forty-eighth Cake’ (143).

Some­times, the morselised con­di­tion is achieved by more vi­o­lent, less slow­ly ero­sive means. Dur­dles’s ac­count of the pro­cess of de­com­po­si­tion em­pha­sis­es its sud­den­ness: 

‘Dur­dles come upon the old chap,’ in ref­er­ence to a buried mag­nate of an­cient time and high de­gree, ‘by strik­ing right into the cof­fin with his pick. The old chap gave Dur­dles a look with his open eyes, as much as to say, “Is your name Dur­dles? Why, my man, I've been wait­ing for you a devil of a time!” And then he turned to pow­der.’ (36)

The bois­ter­ous wind that blows into Clois­ter­ham on the night of Drood’s dis­ap­pear­ance is de­scribed as ‘blow­ing out many of the lamps (in some in­stances shat­ter­ing the frames too, and bring­ing the glass rat­tling to the ground’ (154). Its de­struc­tive dis­per­sals are an­tic­i­pat­ed by the fate of Neville’s gob­let, which ‘he dash­es … down under the grate, with such force that the bro­ken splin­ters fly out again in a show­er’ (72).

There are modes of mo­tion ap­pro­pri­ate to pul­veri­sa­tion – where the solid con­di­tion al­lows for de­ter­mi­nate, vec­to­ri­al mo­tion, the shat­tered or par­tic­u­late con­di­tion is ex­pressed and an­tic­i­pat­ed in trem­blings, quak­ings and os­cil­la­tions. Jasper’s ‘scat­tered con­scious­ness’ is ac­com­pa­nied by a ‘trem­bling frame’ (3), while the im­pend­ing thun­der­storm has the odd ef­fect on the house­maids in the Nuns’ House that ‘they have felt their own knees all of a trem­ble all day long’ (205). Along with trem­bling, there is abun­dant ‘flick­er­ing’ (150), ‘chat­ter­ing and clat­ter­ing’ (6), ‘rip­pling’ (9), ‘rat­tling’, ‘flut­ter­ing’ and, most sug­ges­tive of all, ‘stir­ring’.

It is not just solid mat­ter that is sus­cep­ti­ble to this pul­veri­sa­tion. It can hap­pen to thoughts - the novel be­gins with an in­stance of what is called ‘scat­tered con­scious­ness’ (3) – and to words, as in the ill-over­heard con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Crisparkle and Neville, in which the shat­ter­ing ef­fect is brought about by echoes, which both mul­ti­ply and sun­der the dis­course: 

The echoes were favourable at those points, but as the two ap­proach, the sound of their talk­ing be­comes con­fused again. The word ‘con­fi­dence,’ shat­tered by the echoes, but still ca­pa­ble of being pieced to­geth­er, is ut­tered by Mr. Crisparkle. As they draw still near­er, this frag­ment of a reply is heard: 'Not de­served yet, but shall be, sir.' As they turn away again, Jasper again hears his own name, in con­nec­tion with the words from Mr Crisparkle: 'Re­mem­ber that I said I an­swered for you con­fi­dent­ly.' Then the sound of their talk be­comes con­fused again. (124)

A sim­i­lar shred­ding of voice is ef­fect­ed by the Princess Puffer’s cough, which is de­scribed as ‘rend­ing’ (150), and which is aptly im­aged in the con­di­tion of her own lungs, which she as­sures Jasper are ‘wore away to cab­bage-nets’ (242). Clois­ter­ham is char­ac­terised by the thick­ness of its echoes. Even in Lon­don, echoes seem to be as­so­ci­at­ed with the ac­tion of grind­ing, in the form of a sonic per­cus­sion: ‘There was music play­ing here and there, but it did not en­liv­en the case. No bar­rel-or­gan mend­ed the mat­ter, and no big drum beat dull care away. Like the chapel bells that were also going here and there, they only seemed to evoke echoes from brick sur­faces, and dust from ev­ery­thing’ (209).

There is a num­ber of al­lotrop­ic or ac­ces­so­ry func­tions of dust which the novel also ad­dress­es, of which I will take note of three: amal­ga­ma­tion; as­pi­ra­tion and evap­o­ra­tion. 


Just as the ul­ti­mate par­ti­cles of which things are com­posed have no in­trin­sic qual­i­ties, gain­ing them only when they are ag­gre­gat­ed to­geth­er, so the dust that sifts and swirls through this novel seems to have as its pri­ma­ry qual­i­ty sim­ply that of en­ter­ing into com­po­si­tion with things. Dusk scat­ters, but it also gath­ers. Re­duc­tion to the con­di­tion of dust, ash, soot and grit, al­lows for easy dis­per­sal and con­se­quent­ly of com­bi­na­tion with other sub­stances.

Milling, we may say, is as­so­ci­at­ed with mulling, an as­so­ci­a­tion that seems some­how to have in­sin­u­at­ed it­self into the novel, in which Jasper’s mulling of wine, de­scribed by Dick­ens as ‘mix­ing and com­pound­ing’ (68), and there­fore as­so­ci­at­ed with the mix­ing of the opium, is promi­nent. The Ox­ford En­glish Dic­tio­nary in­forms us stern­ly that ‘Quite in­ad­mis­si­ble is the no­tion, which ap­pears in all re­cent Dicts., that mulled ale is a cor­rup­tion of moldale (MOULD sb.) a fu­ner­al ban­quet’, though there do seem to be other con­nec­tions be­tween mulling and mould – for ex­am­ple in the fact that mull is also a name for a form of mould, or fine soil, and in the di­alec­tal term moul, which means to grow mouldy. The Deputy, who spends his time ac­cel­er­at­ing the pro­cess of ero­sion by hurl­ing stones, both at liv­ing per­sons, and at other stones, uses the term in a dif­fer­ent sense, when he cries ‘Mulled agin!’ (39) when­ev­er he miss­es his tar­get. The ed­i­tor of the Ev­ery­man The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood in­forms us that ‘A mull is a miss, mis­take, or mud­dle, often used in sport­ing slang. It is de­rived from the di­alec­tal word mull, mean­ing to grind, crush or pul­verise, with the in­flu­ence of anal­o­gous terms like mud­dle, mell and med­dle’ (263) Had his hand not been sage­ly stayed by his Gen­er­al Ed­i­tor, the au­thor of these words might well have pur­sued these chains of as­so­ci­a­tion into even more ob­scure re­cess­es of the novel – tak­ing note, for ex­am­ple, of the mu­ta­tion of milling and mulling into maul­ing, in the ac­count of the phi­lan­thropists’ fight­ing code, that al­lows them to ‘stamp upon [their vic­tim], gouge him, and maul him be­hind his back with­out mercy’ (176), or lin­ger­ing, for ex­am­ple, on the term ‘mod­dley-cod­dley’ used twice by Edwin Drood (11, 140) him­self of the fussy at­ten­tions of his uncle, in which, we may sur­mise, there is more of med­dling or moil­ing than of mol­li­fi­ca­tion, not to say the ‘maul­ing’ which is said to be among the op­er­a­tions of the pugilis­tic phi­lan­thropists (175). No doubt our as­sid­u­ous ed­i­tor must have been dis­ap­point­ed to find no ref­er­ence in the novel to Mul­li­gatawny soup, though in no other Dick­ens novel is its ap­pear­ance more like­ly. In fact, far from hav­ing any­thing to do with mulling or min­gling, its name comes from the Tamil mi­lagu-tan­nir, ‘pep­per-wa­ter’ (Drood com­plains that the dust of Lon­don is like ‘Cayenne pep­per’, 106). Still it will be cheer­ing to some to know that a ‘mul­li­gan’ is a late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can name for a stew made with odds and ends.

The novel pre­sents us with many per­mu­ta­tions of the idea of per­me­ation. Rosa feels that there is nowhere we she can be safe from the in­flu­ence of Jasper, ‘the solid walls of the old con­vent being pow­er­less to keep out his ghost­ly fol­low­ing of her’ (207). The story of the fight be­tween Neville and Edwin prop­a­gates with the same dis­dain for walls: 

By what means the news that there had been a quar­rel be­tween the two young men overnight, in­volv­ing even some kind of on­slaught by Mr. Neville upon Edwin Drood, got into Miss Twin­kle­ton's es­tab­lish­ment be­fore break­fast, it is im­pos­si­ble to say. Whether it was brought in by the birds of the air, or came blow­ing in with the very air it­self, when the case­ment win­dows were set open; whether the baker brought it knead­ed into the bread, or the milk­man de­liv­ered it as part of the adul­ter­ation of his milk; or the house­maids, beat­ing the dust out of their mats against the gateposts, re­ceived it in ex­change de­posit­ed on the mats by the town at­mo­sphere; cer­tain it is that the news per­me­at­ed every gable of the old build­ing be­fore Miss Twin­kle­ton was down. (76)

Sound and odour are par­tic­u­lar­ly sub­ject to this kind of per­me­ation, as for ex­am­ple, when Edwin Drood finds that the pre­mon­i­to­ry words of Princess Puffer ‘are in the ris­ing wind, in the angry sky, in the trou­bled water, in the flick­er­ing lights. There is some solemn echo of them even in the Cathe­dral chime’ (151).

But per­haps the most im­por­tant of the ways in which sub­stances are first dis­solved and then remingled is through the ac­tion of eat­ing. This as­so­ci­a­tion is evoked early in the novel: 

An an­cient city, Clois­ter­ham, and no meet dwelling-place for any one with han­ker­ings after the noisy world. A monotonous, silent city, de­riv­ing an earthy flavour through­out from its Cathe­dral crypt, and so abound­ing in ves­tiges of monas­tic graves, that the Clois­ter­ham chil­dren grow small salad in the dust of ab­bots and abbess­es, and make dirt-pies of nuns and fri­ars; while every plough­man in its out­ly­ing fields ren­ders to once puis­sant Lord Trea­sur­ers, Arch­bish­ops, Bish­ops, and such-like, the at­ten­tion which the Ogre in the sto­ry-book de­sired to ren­der to his un­bid­den vis­i­tor, and grinds their bones to make his bread. (18)

This pat­tern of as­so­ci­a­tion link­ing dis­so­lu­tion with in­ges­tion ap­pears also in the the ref­er­ence to the ic­ing-sug­ar, or ‘Dust of De­light’ left on Rosa’s lips after her con­sump­tion of her ‘Lumps of De­light’ (25). It also takes in the sur­pris­ing­ly abun­dant sweet­meats and other co­mestibles that make an ap­pear­ance in the novel. Such ref­er­ences, for ex­am­ple to the ‘cur­rants, raisins, spices, can­died peel and moist sugar’ that ap­pear in the Clois­ter­ham shops at Christ­mas, are meant to sug­gest ‘lav­ish pro­fu­sion’ (143). But pro­fu­sion is hard to keep apart from dif­fu­sion, in­ter­fu­sion and con­fu­sion too – spilling over spills into spilling into. The young ladies who we are told ‘sipped and crum­bled’ (133) at the wine and cake pro­vid­ed by Miss Twin­kle­ton be­fore the Christ­mas re­cess are un­com­fort­ably re­call­ing the ‘Old 'un crum­bled away’ in Dur­dles’s en­act­ment – this al­low­ing a grey drift from the tran­si­tive con­di­tion of the verb ‘crum­bled’ to an ‘in­tran­si­tive’. The ref­er­ence con­nects with quite a few other men­tions of crumbs through the novel, which add to the se­quence of par­tic­u­late forms of mat­ter, and in­clude the ‘crumbs in the beds’ of the Nun’s House (132), the ‘tears of crumb’ wept by the de­mor­alised loaf of bread in The Tilt­ed Wagon (156) and even in the ‘crumbs of com­fort’ Jasper claims to find in the ac­count of Edwin’s dis­ap­pear­ance – ‘I shall be glad to pick up your crumbs,’ said Mr. Grew­gious, dryly (166). The idea of dif­fu­sive sweet­ness is there in par­o­d­ic fash­ion too in the name of Luke Hon­eythun­der (though I think I would have pre­ferred Dick­ens’s first idea, which was ‘Hon­ey­blast’ – Ja­cob­sen 1986, 15), whose ‘gun­pow­der­ous’ (53) phi­lan­thropy is there­by rep­re­sent­ed as a kind of ex­plo­sion of op­pres­sive and un­wished-for ‘sweet­ness’. When Rosa is of­fered ‘a nice jum­ble of all meals’ (211) by Grew­gious after her flight to Lon­don, it both sug­gests over­flow­ing abun­dance and makes for a dark as­so­ci­a­tion with the prin­ci­ple of over-as­so­cia­tive­ness that ac­com­pa­nies eat­ing and in­ges­tion in the novel.

We have al­ready en­coun­tered such a tooth­some med­ley in the mag­i­cal clos­et of pick­les and pre­serves main­tained in Minor Canon Cor­ner. Ef­fect­ing a har­mon­is­ing of sweet and sour, the clos­et is a fac­to­ry of ‘sac­cha­rine trans­fig­u­ra­tion’, in which taste, odour and sound are mirac­u­lous­ly con­fect­ed: ‘There was a crown­ing air upon this clos­et of clos­ets, of hav­ing been for ages hummed through by the Cathe­dral bell and organ, until those ven­er­a­ble bees had made sub­li­mat­ed honey of ev­ery­thing in store’ (93). And yet this sub­li­ma­tion is an­swered and un­done by the very in­clu­sive­ness of its as­so­ci­a­tions: the cab­i­net of gus­ta­to­ry and ol­fac­to­ry won­ders re­calls the ‘earthy flavour’ of the Cathe­dral too much for the as­so­ci­a­tions to be quite com­fort­able, or even, to be can­did, en­tire­ly leg­i­ble – even down to its con­tain­ing ‘a dou­ble mys­tery’ (92). Han­del pre­sides over the whole, but, at the bot­tom, there is, omi­nous­ly, ‘a com­pact lead­en vault’ (93).

This un­com­fort­able over­spill be­tween the plea­sur­able synaes­thet­ic spilling of the Minor Canon Cor­ner Wun­derkam­mer and the in­ter­fu­sion of the sens­es char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Cathe­dral be­comes man­i­fest in the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Dur­dles and Jasper as they as­cend the tower. Here, too, odour and sound per­me­ate each other, but the whole now has a mor­tu­ary fra­grance:

The odour from the wick­er bot­tle (which has some­how passed into Dur­dles's keep­ing) soon in­ti­mates that the cork has been taken out; but this is not as­cer­tain­able through the sense of sight, since nei­ther can de­scry the other. And yet, in talk­ing, they turn to one an­oth­er, as though their faces could com­mune to­geth­er.
'This is good stuff, Mis­ter Jarsper!'
'It is very good stuff, I hope.--I bought it on pur­pose.'
'They don't show, you see, the old uns don't, Mis­ter Jarsper!'
'It would be a more con­fused world than it is, if they could.'
'Well, it would lead to­wards a mix­ing of things,' Dur­dles ac­qui­esces: paus­ing on the re­mark, as if the idea of ghosts had not pre­vi­ous­ly pre­sent­ed it­self to him in a mere­ly in­con­ve­nient light, do­mes­ti­cal­ly or chrono­log­i­cal­ly. 'But do you think there may be Ghosts of other things, though not of men and women?'
'What things? Flow­er-beds and wa­ter­ing-pots? hors­es and har­ness?'
'No. Sounds.'
'What sounds?'
'What cries do you mean? Chairs to mend?'
'No. I mean screech­es.’ (126)

Ev­ery­thing in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, it seems, is sub­ject to the prop­aga­tive com­mix­ture char­ac­ter­is­tic of par­tic­u­late sub­stances; ev­ery­thing gets ev­ery­where, and ev­ery­where is li­able to get mixed up with ev­ery­where else. There is one, valiant, but frag­ile, coun­ter­mand­ing of this, in the in­tri­cate sys­tem of ‘stowage’ prac­tised in Tar­tar’s mar­itime eyrie: 

Stuffed, dried, re­pol­ished, or oth­er­wise pre­served, ac­cord­ing to their kind; birds, fish­es, rep­tiles, arms, ar­ti­cles of dress, shells, sea­weeds, grass­es, or memo­ri­als of coral reef; each was dis­played in its es­pe­cial place, and each could have been dis­played in no bet­ter place. Paint and var­nish seemed to be kept some­where out of sight, in con­stant readi­ness to oblit­er­ate stray fin­ger-marks wher­ev­er any might be­come per­cep­ti­ble in Mr. Tar­tar's cham­bers. No man-of-war was ever kept more spick and span from care­less touch. (222-3) 


Most read­ers are apt to take away from the novel a sense of Clois­ter­ham as brood­ing, grave, weighed down by decay and fa­tigue. The weight­i­ness of Dur­dles’s keys (38) and the oddly ob­ses­sive con­cern with the in­ap­pro­pri­ate heav­i­ness of Neville’s walk­ing stick (144-5) be­longs to this pat­tern of as­so­ci­a­tions, as does the grad­u­al build­ing of sus­pi­cions against Neville, form­ing a ‘cu­mu­la­tive weight’ (169) and, in a slight­ly dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter, Luke Hon­eythun­der’s char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion as a ‘Heavy-Weight’ con­tender in phi­lan­thropy (174). Neville’s re­mark to He­le­na on the night of their din­ner with Jasper, ‘What a strange dead weight there is in the air’, seems to char­ac­terise the ex­pe­ri­ence of the novel, as does Dur­dles’s growl ‘We’re a heavy lot’ (196). The novel seems to want to per­suade us, and even it­self, that it is draw­ing out, from ‘the vast iron-works of time and cir­cum­stance’ chains of con­nec­tion that are ‘riv­et­ted to the foun­da­tions of heav­en and earth, and gift­ed with in­vin­ci­ble force to hold and drag’ (141)

But the swirling im­ma­nence of ‘brit­tle dust’ through the novel draws at­ten­tion away from these pu­ta­tive foun­da­tions, en­forc­ing an aware­ness of an in­sis­tent light­ness of being. Grav­i­ty is mined through with lev­i­ty, like the mas­sive walls of Clois­ter­ham that are in fact hon­ey­combed with cav­i­ties. Per­haps be­cause Edwin Drood is to have been mur­dered by being flung from the top of the Cathe­dral tower, the novel is char­ac­terised by an in­sis­tent pat­tern of ref­er­ences to twinned lev­i­ta­tions and de­clen­sions. The very first words of the novel plum­met from the vi­sion of ‘spike of rusty iron in the air’ to the re­al­i­sa­tion that it may be ‘so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bed­stead’ (3). This os­cil­la­tion is even to be found in the de­tails of the Crisparkles’ mar­vel­lous clos­et, which ‘had a lock in mid-air, where two per­pen­dic­u­lar slides met; the one falling down, and the other push­ing up’ (92). Once again, there is a re­sem­blance be­tween the mag­i­cal re­versibil­i­ty of up and down of the cab­i­net, whose lower leaf can be lift­ed above its upper and vice versa, and that of the Cathe­dral tower, in the Irish logic that al­lows Dur­dles at once to lose and to gain weight dur­ing its as­cent and de­scent: 

As aero­nauts light­en the load they carry, when they wish to rise, sim­i­lar­ly Dur­dles has light­ened the wick­er bot­tle in com­ing up. Snatch­es of sleep sur­prise him on his legs, and stop him in his talk. A mild fit of ca­len­ture seizes him, in which he deems that the ground so far below, is on a level with the tower, and would as lief walk off the tower into the air as not. Such is his state when they begin to come down. And as aero­nauts make them­selves heav­ier when they wish to de­scend, sim­i­lar­ly Dur­dles charges him­self with more liq­uid from the wick­er bot­tle, that he may come down the bet­ter. (128)

Grav­i­ty and lev­i­ty change places too in Crisparkle’s evo­ca­tion of his boy­hood res­cue by the diminu­tive Tar­tar: ‘imag­ine Mr. Tar­tar, when he was the small­est of ju­niors, div­ing for me, catch­ing me, a big heavy se­nior, by the hair of the head, and strik­ing out for the shore with me like a wa­ter-gi­ant!’ (218). A sim­i­lar im­pon­der­abil­i­ty aris­es from the cute joke about Rosa’s neg­li­gi­ble trav­el­ling bag: ‘Joe… hand­ed in the very lit­tle bag after her, as though it were some enor­mous trunk, hun­dred­weights heavy, which she must on no ac­count en­deav­our to lift’ (208).

To be sure, there are, as so often in Dick­ens, safe­ty, lu­cid­i­ty and re­pose to be found in high places, chief among these being the refuge that Rosa finds in Tar­tar’s ‘gar­den in the air’ (221). But height and light­ness are also oddly char­ac­ter­is­tic of Clois­ter­ham, whether in the lofti­ness of Sapsea – ‘Mr Sapsea may “go up” with an ad­dress. Rise, Sir Thomas Sapsea!’ (118) – and seems to arise nat­u­ral­ly from the ‘grit­ty state of things’ that pre­vails in both coun­try and city.


The light­ness of pow­dery or par­tic­u­late mat­ter is ap­pre­hen­si­ble as a re­sult of its ca­pac­i­ty to be stirred or lift­ed by air. Dust can eas­i­ly be­come air­borne, as fog, or smoke, or a ‘half fire and half smoke state of mind’ (113). We are sub­tly re­mind­ed of this as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween air and par­tic­u­late mat­ter by Mr Sapsea’s re­gret that, since the pass­ing of the docile Ethe­lin­da, he has been ‘wast­ing my con­ver­sa­tion on the desert air’ (34). The grit­ty state of things is there­fore close­ly com­pound­ed with the var­i­ous forms of ‘un­ac­count­able wind’ (105) that gust and drift through the novel.

The ease with which dust can be lift­ed by and into the air also brings about a close as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween as­pi­ra­tion and res­pi­ra­tion. This seems to be the point of the odd ex­change be­tween Datch­ery and Princess Puffer about Jasper, in the final chap­ter of the novel that Dick­ens com­plet­ed:

‘Sings in the choir.’
‘Choir.’ (226)

As one might ex­pect in such an adul­ter­at­ed at­mo­sphere, breath­ing is fre­quent­ly strained, im­ped­ed or asth­mat­ic. Jasper’s first singing ap­pear­ance in the novel prompts the ob­ser­va­tion from Mr Tope that ‘'Mr. Jasper's breath­ing was so re­mark­ably short … when he came in, that it dis­tressed him might­i­ly to get his notes out’. This as­so­ci­ates Jasper with the Princess Puffer and the cough that shreds her words: ‘My lungs is weak­ly; my lungs is dr­ef­fle bad. Poor me, poor me, my cough is rat­tling dry!’ (150). The Princess Puffer’s cough is matched by the ‘chok­ing’ of Edwin (106) and the ‘sneez­ing, wheez­ing’ of the Lon­don clerks in the as­trin­gent Lon­don fog (110). Rosa ex­pe­ri­ences a sim­i­lar con­stric­tion when as­sailed by Jasper, as her ‘pant­ing breath­ing comes and goes as if it would choke her’ (202).

Breath, like dust, is rep­re­sent­ed in the novel as a form of com­mu­ni­ty of being, The ‘se­cret of mix­ing’ (5) opium seems to in­volve an in­ti­mate trans­ac­tion of breath, giv­ing an­oth­er layer of ref­er­ence to the Princess Puffer’s name, as she blows at the pipe and ‘bub­bling at it, in­hales much of its con­tents’ (5), be­fore pass­ing it across to Jasper. This res­pi­ra­to­ry traf­fic is also sug­gest­ed in the nar­ra­tor’s ref­er­ence to ‘the in­nate shrink­ing of dust with the breath of life in it from dust out of which the breath of life has passed’ (125), a state­ment which re­calls but lacks the grim zest of Dur­dles’s ac­count of the rigours of his oc­cu­pa­tion: ‘ “And if it's bit­ter cold for you, up in the chan­cel, with a lot of live breath smok­ing out about you, what the bit­ter­ness is to Dur­dles, down in the crypt among the earthy damps there, and the dead breath of the old 'uns,” re­turns that in­di­vid­u­al, “Dur­dles leaves you to judge’ (37). For Dur­dles, it is not a mat­ter of an an­tipa­thy be­tween the breath­ing and the un­breath­ing, but be­tween liv­ing and dead breath.

The airi­est char­ac­ter in the novel is Bil­lickin, who ar­rives in the novel ‘with the air of hav­ing been ex­press­ly brought-to for the pur­pose, from an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of sev­er­al swoons’ (228). Her speech is as pneu­mat­ic as her de­meanour: ‘ “I am as well,” said Mrs. Bil­lickin, be­com­ing as­pi­ra­tional with ex­cess of faint­ness, “as I hever ham” ’ (228). She is pre­oc­cu­pied by the upper reach­es of her house, es­pe­cial­ly by the con­di­tion of her roof-slates, which WILL rat­tle loose at that ele­wa­tion in windy weath­er’ (229), though she finds the as­cent try­ing: ‘She made var­i­ous gen­teel paus­es on the stairs for breath, and clutched at her heart in the draw­ing-room as if it had very near­ly got loose, and she had caught it in the act of tak­ing wing’ (230). It comes as no sur­prise to hear that the rooms of her house, she so gaseous her­self, have gas-pipes, fit­ted over rather than under the joists, to save ex­pense (229).

The airy con­di­tion of things in the novel may even be hint­ed at in Neville and He­le­na’s name, to which Grew­gious draws at­ten­tion with his ques­tion: ‘What is the Land­less­es? An es­tate? A villa? A farm?’ (109), as though try­ing out an­swers to a rid­dle. As it hap­pens, the word ‘land­less’ does fea­ture in a nurs­ery-rhyme rid­dle that was cur­rent in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, though it can be found in Latin ver­sions as early as the 8th and 10th cen­turies (Orme 1995, 85) 

White bird feath­er­less, flew from Par­adise 
Pitched on Par­son­age wall.
Along came Lord Land­less, took it up hand­less,
And Rode away horse­less, to the King’s white hall.
[Rode away teeth­less, And never let him fall]
(Shep­pard 421)

The an­swer here is ‘snow set­tling, then evap­o­rat­ing into the air’.

If the pre­sid­ing state of mat­ter in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood is in­deed dust, and its smithereen cousins, then we can say that even this ul­ti­mate con­di­tion is only prox­i­mate, that dust is it­self mat­ter tend­ing to the con­di­tion of air or the im­ma­te­ri­al. It is next-door-but-one to the ‘next De­gree to Noth­ing’ that, ac­cord­ing to Robert Boyle, the air is (Boyle 2000, 132). Sus­pen­sion

What, it may be asked, does all this con­cern with light­ness, dis­so­lu­tion, per­me­ation, add to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, or add up to in it?

I began by say­ing that I was de­lib­er­ate­ly seek­ing to see the novel in Mr Venus’s ‘bony light’ – to dis­sect it out into a kind of di­a­gram. The el­e­ments of this di­a­gram are not hard to de­tect or as­sem­ble. So the prob­lem is not that this struc­ture is buried too deeply, or dis­tribut­ed in too com­plex or cryp­tic a fash­ion through the novel. It is rather, that it seems to yield it­self up so read­i­ly to this kind of in­spec­tion. It is the op­po­site of su­per­fi­cial­i­ty; rather than suf­fer­ing from a lack of depth, what we have of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood seems to suf­fer rather from a lack of sur­face, a deficit of cir­cum­stance. We don’t have enough of the novel, and yet what we have is too much. It is not at all that the novel is all im­agery and sym­bol, or lacks sta­bil­is­ing plot or in­ci­dent. In­deed, I find it easy to agree with my il­lus­tri­ous pre­de­ces­sor as the ed­i­tor of an Ev­ery­man edi­tion of the novel, G.K. Chester­ton, that this novel is, if any­thing, awk­ward­ly over­bur­dened with plot, a sat­u­ra­tion that iron­i­cal­ly makes its un­fin­ished na­ture even more in­tol­er­a­ble: ‘The only one of Dick­ens’s nov­els that he did not fin­ish was the only one that re­al­ly need­ed fin­ish­ing… Dick­ens, hav­ing had far too lit­tle plot in the sto­ries he had to tell pre­vi­ous­ly, had far too much plot in the story he never told’ (Chester­ton 1915, vii). There is far more story than we could pos­si­bly need in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood and, for that very rea­son, not near­ly enough.

It is tempt­ing to try to find in a kind of the­mat­ics of the ma­te­ri­al, an anl­y­sis of the world of Drood, rather than the ac­tions per­formed in it, a kind of com­pen­sa­tion for this short­fall. But the con­di­tions of that world re­main in­sis­tent, but ar­bi­trary, as de­tailed and per­plex­ing as data re­lat­ing to the con­di­tions ob­tain­ing on some un­in­hab­it­ed plan­et. It is hard to make out a logic in this sys­tem of ma­te­ri­al re­la­tions that con­nects with the other kinds of logic in the novel – af­fec­tive. dra­mat­ic, eth­i­cal, even po­lit­i­cal. The novel in­sists on its rather per­verse and ar­bi­trary physics just as it in­sists on its plot, but with­out hav­ing had time to evolve a sys­tem that would me­di­ate the two or­ders, the one hav­ing to do with char­ac­ter, mo­tive, ac­tion and event, the other hav­ing to do with mat­ter, pro­cess and re­la­tion. In The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, Dick­ens’s ma­te­ri­al imag­i­na­tion and his moral-aes­thet­ic imag­i­na­tion in­ter­lock, but do not in­ter­act; cor­re­late but do not com­mu­ni­cate. They an­swer, but do not enter into one an­oth­er. Per­haps it is ap­pro­pri­ate that a novel so suf­fused by forms of mat­ter that them­selves apt to form aeri­al sus­pen­sions should it­self have been left, like dust, hang­ing in the air. 


Boyle, Robert (2000). The Gen­er­al His­to­ry of the Air (1692), in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Ed­ward B. Davis, Vol. 12. Lon­don: Pick­er­ing and Chat­to.

Chester­ton, G.K., ed. (1915) The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood and Mas­ter Humphrey’s Clock. Lon­don: Dent.

Ja­cob­sen, Wendy S. (1986). A Com­pan­ion to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. Lon­don: Allen and Unwin.

Orme, Nicholas (1995). ‘The Cul­ture of Chil­dren in Me­dieval Eng­land.’ Past and Pre­sent, 124, 48-98.

Shep­pard, E. (1855). ‘White Bird Feath­er­less.’ Notes and Queries, 11.292 (June 2), 421.