Sven Karsten: The Identification of Princess Puffer

'Poor me, poor me, my head is so bad. Them two come in after ye. Ah, poor me, the busi­ness is slack, is slack! Few Chi­na­men about the Docks, and fewer Las­cars, and no ships com­ing in, these say! Here's an­oth­er ready for ye, deary. Ye'll re­mem­ber like a good soul, won't ye, that the mar­ket price is dr­ef­fle high just now? More nor three shillings and six­pence for a thim­ble­ful! And ye'll re­mem­ber that no­body but me (and Jack Chi­na­man t'other side the court; but he can't do it as well as me) has the true se­cret of mix­ing it? Ye'll pay up ac­cord­ing­ly, deary, won't ye?'

She blows at the pipe as she speaks, and, oc­ca­sion­al­ly bub­bling at it, in­hales much of its con­tents.

'O me, O me, my lungs is weak, my lungs is bad! It's near­ly ready for ye, deary. Ah, poor me, poor me, my poor hand shakes like to drop off! I see ye com­ing-to, and I ses to my poor self, "I'll have an­oth­er ready for him, and he'll bear in mind the mar­ket price of opium, and pay ac­cord­ing." O my poor head! I makes my pipes of old penny ink-bot­tles, ye see, deary — this is one — and I fits-in a mouth­piece, this way, and I takes my mix­ter out of this thim­ble with this lit­tle horn spoon; and so I fills, deary. Ah, my poor nerves! I got Heav­ens-hard drunk for six­teen year afore I took to this; but this don't hurt me, not to speak of. And it takes away the hunger as well as wit­tles, deary.'

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It is usu­al­ly said, that the Dick­ens’s novel con­tains not one, not two, but the whole three mys­ter­ies: The mys­tery of Drood’s dis­ap­pear­ance, the mys­tery of Datch­ery Iden­ti­ty and the mys­tery of The Opium Woman. The first two mys­ter­ies has al­ready been dis­cussed in my pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cles, so now it’s time to solve the last one, the mys­tery of Princess Puffer. Who is she, where is she com­ing from, what does she want from poor Jasper the choir­mas­ter?

What is known to us about the old pro­pri­etress of the opium den? It’s clear from the novel, that she lived in the same court with Jack Chi­na­man and ran an opium den just like he did. It’s very un­like­ly, that Jack might tol­er­ate ri­val­ry, es­pe­cial­ly so close­ly lo­cat­ed. It more prob­a­ble for Puffer’s den to be noth­ing but a branch of Jack Chi­na­man’s opium net­work, tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion that their prices were the same.

In the last chap­ter of the novel Jasper after com­ing out of a hy­brid hotel on Alder­s­gate Street, near the Gen­er­al Post Of­fice, sets off East­ward to the East End of Lon­don, to mis­er­able streets, a place, where Lon­don Chi­na­town was lo­cat­ed back in the Vic­to­ri­an Era. This route match­es Jack Chi­na­man’s (a char­ac­ter from the novel) real ad­dress. Jack was based on Ah Sing, Chris­tian name John John­son—6, New Court, Vic­to­ria Street.

We can find New Court on the map of 1878 to the right of Pub­lic Gar­den in the mid­dle.

It’s know that Dick­ens vis­it­ed Ah Sing’s den (under po­lice es­cort) for bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the sen­sa­tion of opium dens in 1869.

Dick­ens's Amer­i­can friend, Mr J.T. Fields, has record­ed that, dur­ing his stay in Eng­land in the sum­mer of 1869, he ac­com­pa­nied the nov­el­ist one night (under po­lice es­cort) to some lock-up hous­es, watch-hous­es, and opi­um-dens, it being from one of the lat­ter that he gath­ered the in­ci­dents which are re­lat­ed in the open­ing pages. "In a mis­er­able court," says Mr. Fields, "we found the hag­gard old woman blow­ing at a kind of pipe made of an old penny ink-bot­tle. The iden­ti­cal words which Dick­ens puts into the mouth of this wretched crea­ture in 'Edwin Drood' we heard her croon as we leaned over the tat­tered bed on which she was lying. There was some­thing hideous in the way this woman kept re­peat­ing 'Ye'll pay up ac­cord­ing, deary, won't ye?' and the Chi­na­men and Las­cars made nev­er-to-be-for­got­ten pic­tures in the scene." We also have Dick­ens's state­ment that what he de­scribed he saw—ex­act­ly as he had de­scribed it—down in Shad­well in the au­tumn of 1869. "A cou­ple of the In­spec­tors of Lodg­ing-hous­es knew the woman, and took me to her as I was mak­ing a round with them, to see for my­self the work­ing of Lord Shaftes­bury's Bill." Rel­a­tive to his sketch of opi­um-smok­ing, Sir John Bowring (who had been British Am­bas­sador to China and Gov­er­nor of Hong Kong) point­ed out to Dick­ens what ap­peared to him an in­ac­cu­ra­cy in his de­lin­eation of that scene, and sent him an orig­i­nal Chi­nese sketch of the form of the pipe and the man­ner of its em­ploy­ment. While thank­ing him for the in­for­ma­tion, the nov­el­ist replied that he had only chron­i­cled what ac­tu­al­ly came under his own ob­ser­va­tion in the neigh­bour­hood of the Lon­don docks. Sir John's com­ment upon this is as fol­lows: "No doubt the Chi­na­man whom he [Dick­ens] de­scribed had ac­com­mo­dat­ed him­self to En­glish usage, and that our great and faith­ful drama­tist here as else­where most cor­rect­ly por­trayed a piece of ac­tu­al life."

Dick­ens placed the scene of Jasper's opi­um-smok­ings in a court just be­yond the church­yard of St. George-in-the-East, Step­ney. The Rev. Harry Jones, rec­tor from 1873 to 1882, men­tions that the old crone was known as Las­car Sal, and was liv­ing at the time he wrote (1875). The John Chi­na­man of whom she was so jeal­ous in her trade was George Ah Sing, who died in 1889, he resid­ed at 131, Corn­wall Road, St. George's-in-the-East, and at the in­quest it tran­spired that death was due to the rup­ture of a blood-ves­sel ac­cel­er­at­ed by des­ti­tu­tion. When the nov­el­ist vis­it­ed him, he kept an opi­um-den in New Court, Vic­to­ria Street, E., which used to be a house of call for Chi­nese sea­men com­ing to this coun­try and oth­ers who in­dulged in the use of the drug. The par­tic­u­lar den de­scribed in the story was pulled down some years ago to make room for a Board-school play­ground, while the bed­stead, pipes, etc., were pur­chased by Amer­i­cans and oth­ers in­ter­est­ed in cu­ri­ous relics.

Ah Sing’s wife, Han­nah John­son, a tai­lor from Som­er­set, resid­ed (just like The Old Puffer) in the two rooms on the op­po­site side of a court in New Court:

In the novel, the mis­tress of Jasper’s opium den refers to an­oth­er den “run by Jack Chi­na­man t’other side of the court”. Mrs John­son, mean­while, is list­ed on 1870 Cen­sus records as liv­ing at num­bers 2 and 3 New Court, off Vic­to­ria Street (rough­ly on the site of the mod­ern-day Del­low Street in Shad­well), while her hus­band Ah Sing rent­ed num­bers 6 and 7, on the other side of the court. Mrs John­son, it should be point­ed out, claims that her rooms were a board­ing house rather than an opium den, while cheer­ful­ly ad­mit­ting her hus­band’s life­long trade. Mrs John­son’s board­ers were gen­er­al­ly “coloured men … sea­far­ers … and gen­er­al­ly Las­cars”.

Thus, we’ve learnt The Old Puffer’s ap­prox­i­mate ad­dress. The exact ad­dress will be re­vealed lat­ter in the ar­ti­cle. As for now, let’s try to an­swer the ques­tion: ‘Why was she a Puffer?’

Dick­ens never re­veals the old woman’s name through­out the story. More­over, she is never called an old woman, for Dick­ens she is just ‘a hag­gard woman’. It’s read­ers’ imag­i­na­tion that makes her so old. It’s known, that ‘Las­car Sally’, a fa­mous mis­tress of an opium den was no older than twen­ty six, how­ev­er she looked as if she was eighty. Puffer might as well ap­pear to be a young woman, slight­ly harmed by al­co­holism, opium ad­dic­tion and lung can­cer.

Deputy is the one who calls the mis­tress of the opium den, Puffer. But how did Deputy know, that Puffer smoked opium? Had he ever seen her smok­ing? Was he able to tell opium from to­bac­co while it was smoked?

Puffer had been in Clois­ter­ham twice, but only on her sec­ond visit she takes a room at ‘Trav­el­ers’ Twopen­ny’, where Deputy used to work as a man-ser­vant by the time:

‘I’m man-ser­vant up at the Trav­ellers’ Twopen­ny in Gas Works Gard­ing,’ this thing ex­plains. ‘All us man-ser­vants at Trav­ellers’ Lodg­ings is named Deputy. When we’re chock full and the Trav­ellers is all a-bed I come out for my ’elth.’

Puffer doesn’t spend any money on a room on her first visit, she is rather oc­cu­pied with her pur­suit of Jasper, ‘look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack’, as she calls it. She is so ex­haust­ed with that pur­suit Edwin finds her crouch­ing on the ground near a wick­et gate in a cor­ner at the Monks’ Vine­yard. Puffer lookes ill and prob­a­bly suf­fered from ab­sti­nence syn­drome. Puffer promis­es Edwin to leave for Lon­don right away (Note: om­nibus­es set to Lon­don from the cor­ner of Trav­el­ers’ Twopen­ny on Maid­stone Road), if he gives her ‘three-and-six­pence’, and will trou­ble no one, get­ting back to her busi­ness (opium).

If Puffer only had her pipe and some opium to smoke, she wouldn’t be crouch­ing under the bush­es by the road, suf­fer­ing from with­draw­al pains. It’s hard to be­lieve she would. She need­ed ‘three-and-six­pence’ to buy a quar­ter pint bot­tle of opium made of brown glass la­beled as ‘Lau­danum’ in a chemist’s shop. The price of that good was ex­act­ly 80 US cents, which was three shillings and three pence, ac­cord­ing to the Vic­to­ri­an Era ex­change rate of 4.75 US dol­lars per pound.

Thus, if Puffer left Lon­don with the last om­nibus on the Christ­mas Eve (she is sup­posed to have enough money for om­nibus, oth­er­wise she would have taken more money from Edwin), she couldn’t meet Deputy that day, and it was im­pos­si­ble for him to know she smoked opium.

On her sec­ond visit, again she begs, now Datch­ery for ‘three-and-six­pence’. She tells she needs money for medicine that does her good, and then being hon­est with Datch­ery ad­mits it is opium (or Lau­danum). After get­ting the need­ed amount and the nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion from Datch­ery, who tells her she could find John Jasper singing at the Cathe­dral in the morn­ing, Puffer takes a room for night at Trav­el­er’s Twopen­ny and the last penny she spends on ‘early wash’, which means tak­ing a bath.

Datch­ery then meets Deputy to get in­for­ma­tion about his new lodger, just few min­utes after she leaves, Datch­ery has time enough only to get his hat from the house. Where did Deputy get in­for­ma­tion about Puffer you might ask? Was it an in­ter­view or was it a friend­ly talk? Nei­ther of it. He was sim­ply stand­ing by, while the pro­pri­etor of Trav­el­er’s Twopen­ny was reg­is­ter­ing her name and per­ma­nent ad­dress in his log book. Dick­ens put that in­for­ma­tion for his read­ers pro­cessed through Deputy’s delu­sion­al and fool­ish con­scious­ness:

‘Puffer,’ as­sents Deputy, with a shrewd leer of recog­ni­tion, and smok­ing an imag­i­nary pipe, with his head very much on one side and his eyes very much out of their places: ‘Hopeum Puffer.’

‘What is her name?’

‘’Er Royal High­ness the Princess Puffer.’

‘She has some other name than that; where does she live?’

‘Up in Lon­don. Among the Jacks.’

‘The sailors?’

‘I said so; Jacks; and Chayn­er men: and hother Knifers.’

It’s ob­vi­ous from his last sen­tence that he was talk­ing about Jack Chi­na­man, while ‘hother Knifers’ is noth­ing but Deputy’s an­oth­er mis­spelling, which is meant to be ‘hotel for night’, both give us the idea of Jack Chi­na­man’s lodg­ing.

The name of the street where Jack Chi­na­man’s hotel for night lo­cat­ed was also un­be­liev­ably mis­spelled by Deputy. In­stead of ‘Princes Street’, which is next to Vic­to­ria Street, Deputy with the power of his imag­i­na­tion pro­posed that Puffer her­self was noth­ing but 'Er Royal High­ness the Princess Puffer’.

Then why did Deputy called his new lodger Puffer, if he’d never seen her smok­ing? Sim­ply be­cause of her Last Name Puffert, which is a char­actonym, just like some other names in the novel: Rosa Bud or Rose­bud, Chrisparkle from ‘Christ’ and ‘sparkle’, Grew­gious from ‘grew’ and ‘egre­gious’ and few more. Giv­ing names, that are de­scrip­tive of a trait or qual­i­ty was pop­u­lar amongst au­thors of that pe­ri­od. As for Mrs. Puffert’s first name—it was a old-fashioned pu­ri­tan name Hope­ful.

Thus, we have fi­nal­ly found pro­pri­etress’s full name and ad­dress:

Hope­ful Puffert, Jack Chi­na­man’s hotel for night, Princes Street, East End, Lon­don.

Translated by Lucius Tellus