Stuart Mitchner: Bicentenary Update: Dickens Bows Out With a Masterful Chapter

First published in "Town Topics", Mai 2012


HEN the el­dest of Charles Dick­ens’s ten chil­dren, 33-year-old Charley, looked in on him less than a week be­fore the au­thor’s death on June 9, 1870, Dick­ens was “writ­ing very earnest­ly” on the last chap­ter of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. As Charley took his leave (“I shall be off now”), Dick­ens paid no at­ten­tion and con­tin­ued writ­ing “with the same in­ten­si­ty as be­fore.” Half a life­time of such mo­ments had con­di­tioned the son to ex­pect at least a few words from his fa­ther, but on this oc­ca­sion, as Charley re­calls, he “gave no sign of being aware of my pres­ence. Again, I spoke — loud­er, per­haps this time — and he raised his head and looked at me long and fixed­ly. But I soon found that, al­though his eyes were bent upon me and he seemed to be look­ing at me earnest­ly, he did not see me, and that he was, in fact, un­con­scious for the mo­ment of my very ex­is­tence. He was in dream­land with Edwin Drood and I left him — for the last time.”

Quot­ing Charley’s ac­count in his mas­sive bi­og­ra­phy, Dick­ens (Harper­Collins 1990), Peter Ack­royd finds it “dis­turb­ing” that the fa­ther was “still so im­mersed in his words and im­ages that he could not even see his own son stand­ing in front of him,” and no less dis­turb­ing that in Charley’s last mo­ment with his fa­ther “he was ig­nored by him in favor of the crea­tures of his imag­i­na­tion.”

Ack­royd doesn’t ac­knowl­edge the ob­vi­ous, how­ev­er, which is the out­ward re­sem­blance be­tween the trance im­mers­ing the writ­er at work and the opium dream­land in­hab­it­ed by the choir­mas­ter of Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral, John Jasper. It’s in that tranced state that Jasper em­barks on the opium “jour­ney” that leads, again and again, to the mur­der of his beloved Ned, that is, his nephew, Edwin Drood (“I did it mil­lions and bil­lions of times. I did it so often, and through such vast ex­pans­es of time, that when it was re­al­ly done, it seemed not worth the doing, it was done so soon”). Beloved though he may be, Ned is in dan­ger be­cause the being Jasper de­sires be­yond all rea­son is Edwin’s fi­ance, “the pret­ty, child­ish” or­phan, Miss Rosa Bud.

An End-Game Aware­ness

Charley caught his fa­ther in the mid­dle of a cre­ative trans­port, in an­oth­er world where the word of choice is “Un­in­tel­li­gi­ble” and the pre­ferred sub­stance is opium. To see Dick­ens in that state was like see­ing Co­leridge in the mo­ment he was roused from the lau­danum dream that spawned his poem, “Kubla Khan,” an­oth­er great, un­fin­ished work.

Dick­ens was not just in “dream­land with Drood” when Charley came to say good­bye, he was deeply ab­sorbed in one of the most ex­traor­di­nary, rich­ly ac­com­plished chap­ters he would ever write, and not mere­ly be­cause it hap­pened to be his last. With its ex­plic­it ref­er­ence back to the Chap­ter I (“The Dawn”), Chap­ter XXIII of Edwin Drood (“The Dawn Again”) is marked by an end-game aware­ness that Dick­ens has reached the turn­ing point of a nar­ra­tive he feels he will not live to com­plete. Three days be­fore the stroke that killed him, he ad­mit­ted as much, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter Katey (“he spoke as though his life was over and there was noth­ing left”). Far from sur­ren­der­ing, Dick­ens is con­sol­i­dat­ing his in­ten­tions, as if he could make a half-fin­ished work seem com­plete in it­self, a self-con­tained enig­ma that would do suf­fi­cient jus­tice to his orig­i­nal in­ten­tions for the novel.


The fact that The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood was left un­fin­ished has led to a cot­tage in­dus­try of guess­ing games, reimag­in­ings, and rewrit­ings based on clues scat­tered by the au­thor him­self. The most cred­i­ble ev­i­dence drawn from Dick­ens or the sources clos­est to him, how­ev­er, has the opi­um-ad­dled choir­mas­ter John Jasper stran­gling his nephew and dis­pos­ing of the body in quick­lime. Con­trary to the end­ings of both the 1935 Uni­ver­sal film and last month’s BBC drama­ti­za­tion, Dick­ens did not in­tend for Jasper to fall to his death from the bell­tow­er of Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral. He ex­pressed his no­tion of Jasper’s fate to his close friend and bi­og­ra­pher, John Forster; there would be a “re­view of the mur­der­er’s ca­reer by him­self at the close, when its temp­ta­tions were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the cul­prit, but some other man, were the tempt­ed. The last chap­ters were to be writ­ten in the con­demned cell.” Com­pared to the melo­dra­mat­ic deaths of Bill Sikes in Oliv­er Twist or Bradley Head­stone in Our Mu­tu­al Friend, the novel pre­ced­ing Drood, Jasper’s end would be sub­tle, com­plex, and prob­a­bly re­demp­tive, some­thing clos­er to the fate of Raskol­nikov in Crime and Pun­ish­ment or of Dmitri Kara­ma­zov in The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov.

Speak­ing of Dos­to­evsky, when he vis­it­ed the Lon­don of­fice of Dick­ens’s jour­nal, All The Year Round, in 1862, Dick­ens told him that “the good sim­ple peo­ple in his nov­els” were “what he want­ed to have been, and his vil­lains were what he was (or rather, what he found in him­self),” and that there were “two peo­ple in him,” one “who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the op­po­site. From the one who feels the op­po­site I make my evil char­ac­ters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”


If there’s a pass­word to the clois­tered heart of Edwin Drood, one that Sher­lock Holmes would pounce on were he and Wat­son on the case (too bad Conan Doyle never thought to send the great sleuth to Clois­ter­ham), it’s the word un­in­tel­li­gi­ble, which is ut­tered twice and with marked em­pha­sis by Jasper in the novel’s opi­um-shroud­ed open­ing, opium being a po­tent enemy of the in­tel­li­gi­ble.

The first para­graph of Edwin Drood has Jasper con­fus­ing a bed-post in an East End opium den with the tower of Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral. Com­ing out of the drugged rever­ie, he’s like a sur­ro­gate of the au­thor “whose scat­tered con­scious­ness has thus fan­tas­ti­cal­ly pieced it­self to­geth­er,” or like Hyde mor­ph­ing back into Jeck­yll. Lying on the “sor­did bed” with him are a Chi­na­man and a Las­car, two other clients of the “hag­gard woman” who is “blow­ing at a kind of pipe to kin­dle it.” As Jasper gazes down at the woman who will ul­ti­mate­ly help un­mask him, he smug­ly won­ders “what vi­sions can she have” and “turns her face to­ward him” for a bet­ter look (the po­si­tions will be dra­mat­i­cal­ly re­versed in the book’s last chap­ter) be­fore bend­ing down “to lis­ten to her mut­ter­ings.” What he hears makes no sense (“Un­in­tel­li­gi­ble!” he ex­claims), but given what hap­pens next, he might have stuck his head into the crater of an ac­tive vol­cano: “As he watch­es the spas­mod­ic shoots and darts that break out of her face and limbs, like fit­ful light­ning out of a dark sky, some con­ta­gion in them seizes upon him.” The choir­mas­ter is so shak­en that he has to sit down in a chair, “hold­ing tight, until he has got the bet­ter of this un­clean spir­it of im­i­ta­tion.”

In case the read­er doubts that Jasper is ca­pa­ble of mur­der while under the in­flu­ence, Dick­ens has him, still in the grip of the “un­clean spir­it,” as­sault both the men he’d been shar­ing the “ink-bot­tle pipe” with; when the Chi­na­man “re­sists, gasps, and protests,” Jasper asks, “What do you say?” and an­swers him­self, after a “watch­ful pause,” again with that word: “Un­in­tel­li­gi­ble!” In the fog sug­gest­ed by that word, one may com­mit mur­der with­out per­ceiv­ing the re­al­i­ty of the act.

“The Dawn Again”

Dick­ens gives the “hag­gard woman” no prop­er name, nor does he in­clude her on the list of char­ac­ters pre­ced­ing the first chap­ter, which makes sense: why list Jasper’s venge­ful opium genie, as if she were a “real per­son”? She does have a nick­name, Princess Puffer, sup­plied by “Deputy,” a stone-throw­ing imp whose real name is known to none but the ”mys­te­ri­ous white-haired man” iden­ti­fied on the same list as Dick Datch­ery.

The only way to do jus­tice to the last chap­ter — Dick­en’s mas­ter­ful swan song — would be to reprint the scene be­tween the old woman and Jasper in full. By the time the choir­mas­ter re­vis­its the mis­er­able room where the novel began, Edwin Drood has dis­ap­peared and is pre­sumed dead. Thus this ex­change:

‘Who was they as died, deary?’

‘A rel­a­tive.’

‘Died of what, lovey?’

‘Prob­a­bly, Death.’

‘We are short to-night!’ cries the woman, with a pro­pi­tia­to­ry laugh. ‘Short and snap­pish we are! But we’re out of sorts for want of a smoke. We’ve got the all-overs, haven’t us, deary? But this is the place to cure ’em in; this is the place where the all-overs is smoked off.’ “

Sens­ing Jasper has some­thing sig­nif­i­cant to hide, the old woman teas­es him with en­dear­ments like “deary,” “lovey” “pop­pet” (and even at one point “chuck­ey”) “lays her hand upon his chest, and moves him slight­ly to and fro, as a cat might stim­u­late a half-slain mouse.” Re­peat­ing “her cat-like ac­tion she slight­ly stirs his body again, and lis­tens; stirs again, and lis­tens; whis­pers to it, and lis­tens. Find­ing it past all rous­ing for the time, she slow­ly gets upon her feet, with an air of dis­ap­point­ment, and flicks the face with the back of her hand in turn­ing from it.”

Is there any doubt which of the two Charles Dick­ens is in charge of this scene?

Dick­ens and Datch­ery

There is al­most as much spec­u­la­tion among read­ers and crit­ics about Dick Datch­ery’s iden­ti­ty as there is about whether Drood is dead or alive. Datch­ery’s white-maned dis­guise is just the sort Sher­lock Holmes would use, which makes sense, since one the­o­ry is that Datch­ery is the de­tec­tive who will solve the mys­tery, with some help from the opium woman who has stalked Jasper all the way from Lon­don to Clois­ter­ham.

In the novel’s clos­ing pages, which are dom­i­nat­ed by Datch­ery, he hails the imp nick­named Deputy, “ ‘Hal­loa, Winks!’ At which the imp says, “ ‘don’t yer go a-mak­ing my name pub­lic. I never means to plead to no name, mind yer.’ “ At this point, it’s as if Dick­ens has, in ef­fect, en­tered his own novel in the guise of Datch­ery, for the only other per­son who knows the imp by name is the au­thor who cre­at­ed him and put “Winks” in paren­the­ses in the list of char­ac­ters pre­ced­ing the first chap­ter.

Dick­ens also be­stows on Dick Datch­ery an elab­o­rate anal­o­gy un­like any other fig­ure or fancy in the novel. It’s as if he had called up the spir­its of Homer and Mil­ton for the oc­ca­sion of his last hur­rah:

“John Jasper’s lamp is kin­dled, and his light­house is shin­ing when Mr. Datch­ery re­turns alone to­wards it. As mariners on a dan­ger­ous voy­age, ap­proach­ing an iron-bound coast, may look along the beams of the warn­ing light to the haven lying be­yond it that may never be reached, so Mr. Datch­ery’s wist­ful gaze is di­rect­ed to this bea­con, and be­yond.”

Is that Dick­ens him­self gaz­ing wist­ful­ly to­ward the bea­con “and be­yond” of the end­ing he knows he will never write (and yet tri­umphant­ly does)? I’d like to think so.