Sven Karsten: The Identification of Sapsea

The text below is a recording of the author's speech at the First Drood Conference at the Senate Building in London in 2014.  
Anthony Trollope satirized Charles Dickens in his novel The Warden in 1855, making him a subject to unjustified and spiteful criticism, calling him Mr Popular Sentiment. Trollope admits later in his Autobiography, that the reason was ‘his own peculiar idiosyncrasy’ towards both Charles Dickens and his works. But even within that grotesque portrayal Anthony Trollope could not deny that ‘Mr Popular Sentiment is the most powerful’ novelist of present and that ‘perhaps, Mr Sentiment’s great attraction is in his second-rate characters.’

We are not here to discuss the confrontation between Dickens and Trollope. Let’s get back to the point. I believe that the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood is also a parody of Anthony Trollope’s creative work, and some those ‘second-rate characters’ imitate Trollope himself. I have to agree with Trollope at one point, the genius of Dickens truly made his characters appear ‘as natural as though one met them in the street.’
One of those so-called ‘second-rate characters’ of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the Mayor of Cloisterham Mr Thomas Sapsea. It’s remarkable that Dickens gives very short but yet so complete description of that character: ‘Accepting the Jackass as the type of self-sufficient stupidity and conceit — a custom, perhaps, like some few other customs, more conventional than fair — then the purest jackass in Cloisterham is Mr. Thomas Sapsea, Auctioneer.’

Sapsea tells a story about himself in addition to Dickenses description — about his miserable ‘knowledge of the World’, about his fake patriotism and obvious xenophobia. He tells about his vanity (he thinks he is even worthy of being a Knight), about his desire to guide and instruct people either as a Mayor or Bishop — it doesn’t really matter for him. He also tells his idea on technological progress: ‘In those days there was no railway to Cloisterham and Mr. Sapsea said there never would be. Mr. Sapsea said more; he said there never should be.’

Indeed, the inhabitants of Cloisterham, who voted for such a retrograde, had to take a one hour omnibus trip in order to get to the train. That was the reality of Kent. Also according to Wikipedia, ‘When the railways were built in the 1840s, Maidstone was not well served. It was reported at the time that inhabitants were bitterly opposed to the railway and the mayor suggesting that Maidstone will be ruined as a commercial town.’
The Mayor of Cloisterham repeated the exact words of the real Mayor of Maidstone in 1842. It was 1842 both in the novel and real life. From Mayors of Maidstone list we could find out that his name was Thomas Edmett.

This triple coincidence is of course remarkable (the name, the year and being related to a railway), nevertheless it also could have been accidental. Let’s compare other facts from the life of Thomas Edmett and Thomas Sapsea.
Let’s figure out Thomas Edmett’s profession first. According to James Pigot’s Directory of 1840, Thomas Edmett just like Sapsea was an auctioneer. Besides he sold fashion clothing, hats, wool, linen and silk fabric, he also was a pawnbroker, that is to say he was somewhat ‘a valuer’ just like Sapsea.

Before starting his wares shop, Thomas Edmett worked as an upholsterer and cabinet maker. Moreover, he kept his workshop in Middle Row Street even after becoming a trader. By the end of his life he was assigned to Justice of the Peace position.

I must admit, that the similarity of their professions is too much to be accidental. Nevertheless let’s continue comparing the life of the Mayor of Cloisterham with the real Mayor of Maidstone.
Mr. Sapsea lived in The High Street, over against the Nun’s House. According to Pigot’s Directory, Thomas Edmett also owned a house in the High Street, and there was Blue-Coat School for girls and boys on its front. The apartment number three has not remained to this day, but we can see its canvas blinds above shop windows of Edmett & Son at a picture of The High Street taken in 1870.
Edmett and Sapsea also have similar political views. Charles Dickens noted in his manuscript, that Thomas Sapsea was ‘An Old Tory Jackass’, meaning he was a member of the Conservative Party.

Kentish Gazette posted a list of the intellectuals of Maidstone, attributing Thomas Edmett to the Conservative Party. We can assume, that Thomas Edmett was just like Sapsea —The Conservative Party mayoral nominee in 1842.
Another coincidence was the age at the time they were assigned a Mayor. It was mentioned in the novel that Sapsea was ‘much nearer sixty years of age than fifty’ in 1842, meaning he was approximately 56 to 58.

According to Maidstone parish register, Thomas Edmett was born in 1785. Thus, he was exactly 57 when he was elected a Mayor.

I think there are too many literal coincidences to be ignored.
Let’s face the fact. The face that is in the picture of Thomas Edmett hanging in the gallery of Maidstone Museum next to his son Thomas Edmett Junior’s portrait.

Dickens mentioned in his novel that Sapsea was ‘characteristically attended by his portrait, his eight-day clock, and his weather glass.’ I haven’t managed to find his clock and a weather glass after 172 years, but I still think that Thomas Edmett’s portrait is quite ‘characteristically attended’.
Edmett was married, just like Sapsea. Thomas Edmett was of the same age with his wife —they were both born in 1785. However, her name was Ann, unlike Sapsea’s Ethelinda. That is the first difference between Edmett and Sapsea.

They got married in 1809. Thomas and Ann were 24 years old by the time. There is no way for Ann to be the proprietress of a rival establishment to The Nuns’ House, or ‘the other parallel establishment downtown’, — as Sapsea called it. It’s meaningless to find any matches in that. However, that ‘parallel establishment’ might be considered a school by a workhouse in Knightrider Street in Maidstone, which was knocked down in 1842 (the year Mr. Edmett was elected) to build a Baptist Church on its place, which has remained to this day. Maybe, that was what Dickens was hinting by ‘Mr. Sapsea dresses at the Dean.’

In defense of Maidstone, I can say that a better establishment ‘Maidstone Union Workhouse’ was built at that time. Also a brand new school was built a little later.
Thus, Mr. and Mrs. Sapsea lived happily for 5 years, whereas the Edmetts as long as 28 years. However, death of both wives was caused by similar reasons.

Mrs. Sapsea died from ‘feeble action of liver’ (supposedly jaundice) on Christmas night of 1841, whereas Mrs. Edmett, according to Kentish Gazette died ‘after a lingering illness’ on May’s 27th 1837. The interval between two dates is four years. It’s remarkable, that Edmett is mentioned as an upholsterer in the same newspaper.

After the death of Ann and Ethelinda, the grief-stricken husbands built Tombstone Monuments for their deceased wives with a marble memorial plaque carved with inscription.
The same memorial ‘Sacred to the memory of Ann, wife of Thomas Edmett’ still could be found at All Saints Church of Maidstone.

The inscription written by Mr. Sapsea for his wife is more like an election poster, containing more information about Thomas itself, rather than his wife. Until the very death of Thomas Edmett, Justice of the Peace, fifteen years later in 1852, two thirds of the memorial plaque and half of the family monument had remained empty. Now there is so much of Thomas Edmett and very little of Ann.

The monuments of both Sapsea and Edmett were monuments for two. There were no room for Thomas Edmett Junior at the Edmett's family monument, thus he was buried in a city graveyard, outside the Church area. Charles Dickens visited Maidstone together with Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author of fairytales in 1847. They might have seen the Edmett's memorial. As far as I know, that memorial has not remained to this day, so you cannot find Edwin Drood’s body there.
The similarity between life of Edmett and Sapsea are mentioned in the following chart. I would say that differences only shade the coincidences. There is no doubt, that Mr. Thomas Edmett was the prototype of Thomas Sapsea, The Mayor of Cloisterham.

In conclusion, we have figured out that fictitious city of Cloisterham was made from two real cities of England — Rochester and Maidstone. The Rochester part of Cloisterham was represented as the Cathedral, Jasper’s gatehouse, the Nuns’ House, Crisparkle, Durdles and Deputy, whereas the Maidstone part was represented as Mr. Sapsea, his family monument, Allington Weir and few other details.
I’d like to sum up the speech with a short quote from Anthony Trollope:

‘There can be no doubt that the most popular novelist of my time—probably the most popular English novelist of any time—has been Charles Dickens’ and his ‘second-rate characters were as natural as though one met them in the street’. In my opinion it shows up most strikingly in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Reverend Robert Whiston, the headmaster of the King’s School of Rochester in 1842 appears as The Reverend Septimus Crisparkle. A nameless stonemason of a German origin appears as drunkard Durdles. The Mayor of Maidstone Thomas Edmett appears as Saphead Sapsea. And that last character is worthy of entering English language, along with Missis Gamp, Micawber, and Pecksniff as another well-known word — the word Sapsea.