T. W. Hill: Drood Time in Cloisterham

First published in "The Dickensian", 1944

Jasper's gatehouse, 1906

HAT pe­ri­od is cov­ered by the story of the Mys­tery of Edwin Drood? The in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Percy Car­den and oth­ers have fixed the pe­ri­od as 1842, but there are dif­fi­cul­ties in the way of ac­cept­ing this date as cor­rect, and these dif­fi­cul­ties merit ex­am­i­na­tion. Dick­ens says in Chap­ter III that "suf­fi­cient rea­sons which the nar­ra­tive will un­fold" oblige him to dis­guise the name of the cen­tral scene of the story, and it would ap­pear that equal­ly "suf­fi­cient rea­sons" make the pe­ri­od equal­ly dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine.

Con­sid­er the il­lus­tra­tions. Charles Collins, who de­signed the month­ly wrap­per be­fore a word of the book was writ­ten "made his de­signs from her [Kate Dick­ens's] fa­ther's di­rec­tions." It may there­fore be as­sumed that Dick­ens ap­proved of the wrap­per as we see it, and ap­proved of the way in which the fig­ures in the de­sign are dressed. Look­ing close­ly at these cos­tumes we see that they are all, male and fe­male, of the pe­ri­od 1869-1870 when the book was writ­ten. In the top sec­tion Rosa is wear­ing the polon­aise of the six­ties and Edwin is garbed in the morn­ing coat and light trousers of the same pe­ri­od. On the op­po­site side Jasper's side-whiskers — "mut­ton-chops" — are of the same date. All the other male fig­ures wear the or­di­nary ev­ery- day cos­tume of the six­ties and sev­en­ties; note es­pe­cial­ly the light over­coat or surtout of the fig­ure fac­ing the lantern in the low­est cen­tre panel. Ob­serve also, on the left, the lady whose hand is being kissed; she wears the hat and fight veil of the late six­ties.

Now look at Luke Fildes's pic­tures, also drawn under Dick­ens's per­son­al di­rec­tions and doubt­less drawn with the ut­most care, as they are the work of a young and am­bi­tious artist of twen­ty-six who would be only too anx­ious to earn the ap­proval of the most pop­u­lar nov­el­ist of his day. The top-hats of all the men are "dated" as of 1868-69 and so are the frock-coats; Edwin's jack­et in "Under the trees" might be the iden­ti­cal vel­veteen jack­et that Fildes wore in his stu­dio — the style was just be­com­ing fash­ion­able for artists. The pi­anoforte and the stool in "At the piano" are of 1865-70. The young ladies' cos­tumes and the maid's dress in "Good­bye, Rose­bud, Dar­ling," might have been drawn from a fash­ion-plate of 1869, and quite pos­si­bly they were. The neck­wear of the three men in "On dan­ger­ous ground" are of the same pe­ri­od and so are Edwin's light trousers with the dark stripe down the leg, and so is the dust and soot col­lect­ing fringed man­tel-board of the fire­place, and also the hideous coal-scut­tle. In fine, judg­ing by the cover and the il­lus­tra­tions which, in the cir­cum­stances of their in­cep­tion and ex­e­cu­tion, must be re­gard­ed as in­te­gral parts of the story, Dick­ens was writ­ing what we should call nowa­days a "mod­ern novel," that is to say a novel of his own day —1870.

The moder­ni­ty of the book is shewn also in the in­ci­dent of Rosa's hat. In Chap­ter XXI Rosa, at Fur­ni­val's Inn, "asked if she should put her hat on," and then "with­drew for the pur­pose." Now hats did not be­come or­di­nary wear for women until about 1860 or a lit­tle later; up to that time every woman, from Queen Vic­to­ria down­wards, wore a bon­net (often with a veil); when hats be­came fash­ion­able, el­der­ly ladies like Miss Twin­kle­ton clung to their bon­nets, and we know that that lady brought her bon­net-box to Lon­don.

But an­oth­er as­pect of the ques­tion of the date is seen when we dis­cuss Mr. Sapsea's age. He was "much near­er sixty years of age than fifty." Let fifty-eight be as­sumed. "In his in­fan­cy" he had known a pa­tri­ot­ic toast: "When the French come over May we meet them at Dover." He did not drink the toast, for it was "in his in­fan­cy " — say, when he was about eight years old — but a child of that age would re­mem­ber his el­ders rais­ing their glass­es in 1804, the year Napoleon's army was en­camped at Boulogne seek­ing an op­por­tu­ni­ty to in­vade Eng­land. If Sapsea were eight years old in 1804 he would be fifty-eight in 1854, and on this rea­son­ing the time of the ac­tion of the book is the 'fifties, which does not agree with the pe­ri­od of the pic­tures.

Is it pos­si­ble to draw any def­i­nite con­clu­sion from the third sen­tence in the book? "The well-known mas­sive grey square tower of its old cathe­dral." The view in the vi­gnette on the ti­tle-page (which it is quite pos­si­ble Dick­ens never saw) shows this to be Rochester. The his­to­ry of Rochester and old prints of the city in­di­cate that orig­i­nal­ly the four­teenth cen­tu­ry tower was sur­mount­ed by a rather squat spire. That spire was re­moved dur­ing "restora­tions" in 1823 and the square tower em­bel­lished by cor­ner pin­na­cles as shewn in Fildes's draw­ing; and this was' the tower with which Dick­ens was fa­mil­iar all his life; for dur­ing his early boy­hood at Chatham he prob­a­bly would not pay any par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the tower of Rochester cathe­dral, and he was only eleven years of age when he was brought to Lon­don in the same year that the spire dis­ap­peared. The pin­na­cles were not taken away and a spire re­in­stat­ed till 1904, long after Dick­ens's death. On these con­sid­er­a­tions the date of the story would be after 1823.

An­oth­er line of en­quiry sug­gests it­self with re­gard to Christ­mas Day. In the book this fes­ti­val fell upon a Sun­day (Chap­ter XII), and this might hap­pen in 1836, in 1842, in 1853, in 1859 or in 1864. Car­den votes con­fi­dent­ly for 1842, back­ing his opin­ion with the scanty rail­way fa­cil­i­ties re­ferred to later. This date would, how­ev­er, clash with all the other con­sid­er­a­tions ex­am­ined so far.

An­oth­er point­er may help a lit­tle with our en­quiries: this time from the il­lus­tra­tions only, and not from the text, which in Chap­ter XXII sends Lieu­tenant Tar­tar's boat­ing party "up the river" from Tem­ple Stairs. Fildes's pic­ture shews that they got as far as Put­ney, and Dick­ens must have ap­proved. The ugly tim­ber bridge shewn in the back­ground, with its dou­ble toll-house astride the road­way, was built in 1845, so by this ev­i­dence the pe­ri­od of the story is later than 1845, and takes us a lit­tle near­er the date sug­gest­ed by Sapsea's age.

That boat­ing trip start­ed from Tem­ple Stairs, and so we get fur­ther help, for the Stairs were re­placed, when the Vic­to­ria Em­bank­ment was con­struct­ed in 1864-1870, by the pre­sent hand­some dou­ble flight of stone steps. We see there­fore that from these two para­graphs that the date of the story is be­tween 1845 and 1864. This pe­ri­od would suit Sapsea's age, and also give a year when Christ­mas Day fell upon a Sun­day as 1853 or 1859 are avail­able, but not 1864, as prob­a­bly the Tem­ple Stairs were not in use dur­ing the build­ing works on the Em­bank­ment: if they were the nar­ra­tive would have said so, as Mr Grew­gious's hat and Rosa's hat would be in fash­ion about 1864.

An­oth­er ref­er­ence ap­pears to point to the same pe­ri­od. In Chap­ter XVII Canon Crisparkle re­mem­bers his col­lege days when he had known "pro­fes­sors of the Noble Art of Fisticuffs" (i.e. prize-fight­ing). At the Haven of Phi­lan­thropy the Canon recog­nised "the coun­ter­part of a de­ceased bene­fac­tor of his species, an em­i­nent pub­lic char­ac­ter once known as Frosty-faced Fogo." The palmy days of prize-fight­ing were from about 1750 to 1850, the last great fight tak­ing place be­tween Say­ers and Heenan in 1860. (Dick­ens took an in­ter­est in this fight and pro­cured tick­ets for it for a friend.) Fogo, who­ev­er he was, was dead, but he must have been some­one whom Dick­ens re­mem­bered. Canon Crisparkle's age was 35, and if the story was a mod­ern one (1869-70) his uni­ver­si­ty days were about 1853 to 1856, and this would agree with some of the fore­go­ing re­sults.

Let us try again. In Chap­ter XVII there is a ref­er­ence to an "un­fin­ished and un­de­vel­oped rail­way sta­tion." The name is not given for the "suf­fi­cient rea­sons" that keep the name of Rochester out of the book, but if Rochester is dis­guised as Clois­ter­ham the sta­tion must be Lon­don Bridge, for Rosa "came into Lon­don over the house- tops," and none of the other Lon­don sta­tions ap­proached "over the house­tops" — Wa­ter­loo, Char­ing Cross, Can­non Street, Fenchurch Street and Broad Street — would fit the con­di­tions of the story, in­clud­ing the fact that Neville, after see­ing Canon Crisparkle off, walked the streets and "crossed the bridges." Lon­don Bridge Sta­tion has had, since its be­gin­ning, so many ad­di­tions and ad­just­ments that it nec­es­sar­i­ly re­mained "un­fin­ished and un­de­vel­oped" for years. Opened in 1836 as the ter­mi­nus for the Green­wich line, it served the same pur­pose in 1841 for the Brighton line; in 1842-43 for the line to Folke­stone; for the North Kent line to Strood in 1849; and each of these ad­di­tions and ad­just­ments so held up its com­ple­tion that Dick­ens's story might have its ac­tion any time after 1836 until the time when he was writ­ing.

The Car­den the­o­ry that the date was 1842 ap­pears to re­ceive sup­port from a para­graph in Chap­ter VI, so it may be worth while to com­ment on the pas­sage rather close­ly. "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. And yet, won­der­ful to con­sid­er, it has come to pass, in these days [i.e. 1869-70] that ex­press trains don't think Clois­ter­ham worth stop­ping at." (In fact, there was no sta­tion at Rochester till 1892.) Here, then, is ev­i­dence that the date of the story may be any time be­fore 1858, which, while jus­ti­fy­ing the state­ment about Sapsea's age, would also in­clude a Christ­mas Day on a Sun­day in 1853, and might even be ap­pli­ca­ble to 1842, though that would rule Sapsea out.

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing sketch map (not to scale) is com­piled from ma­te­ri­als very kind­ly sup­plied by Mr. T. S. Las­celles, who has also given con­sid­er­able help with this sec­tion. Ref­er­ence to the map will as­sist in un­der­stand­ing the ge­og­ra­phy of Clois­ter­ham.

Nei­ther Strood (North Kent Line) nor Rochester Bridge (L.C.D Rail­way), also called Strood at some pe­ri­ods of its ex­is­tence, can have been in­tend­ed as the sta­tion used by Jasper and Rosa as that sta­tion is lit­tle more than half a mile from the Nuns' House, and a coach or an om­nibus would not be nec­es­sary; more­over its con­nex­ion with Rochester is not "from an un­prece­dent­ed (? out­landish) part of the coun­try by a back sta­ble (no thor­ough­fare) way" but by the main coach-road from Lon­don to Dover which pass­es with­in 300 yards of it. An­oth­er sen­tence from the same chap­ter reads: "Some re­mote frag­ment of Main Line to some­where else there was," and this seems to refer to the South East­ern Rail­way Line from Lon­don Bridge via Red­hill to Folke­stone, opened for traf­fic as far as Head­corn in Au­gust, 1842. Where that line cross­es the road con­nect­ing Tun­bridge Wells and Maid­stone there was a sta­tion called Maid­stone Road: this is 21 miles from Rochester by road ("re­mote" and "in the days when Clois­ter­ham took of­fence at the ex­is­tence of a rail­road afar off"). Maid­stone Road and Rochester were linked by an om­nibus ("a short squat om­nibus"), say, about two and a half hours' ride al­low­ing for a change of hors­es half-way at Maid­stone, and this might be the length of Joe's en­durance of being squashed by the weight and size of Mr Hon­eythun­der. In 1844 a line had been con­struct­ed from Maid­stone to Maid­stone Road, re­named Pad­dock Wood, leav­ing only eleven miles of road trav­el from Maid­stone to Rochester. This short­er jour­ney by om­nibus would give Joe a less or­deal of being "com­pressed into a most un­com­fort­ably small com­pass," and while less dis­tress­ing than the 21 miles from Maid­stone Road, it would allow the date of the story to be later than 1842, but not be­fore 1844. It must, how­ev­er, be re­mem­bered that this short­er jour­ney can­not be rec­on­ciled with the time oc­cu­pied by Rosa's trip to Lon­don in Chap­ter XX. Let us see how her time would be filled in. She saw Jasper in the gar­den of the Nuns' House after the af­ter­noon ser­vice—say at 5 o'clock: by 5.30 she was in­doors faint­ing, writ­ing a "hur­ried note to Miss Twin­kle­ton" and pack­ing a "few quite use­less ar­ti­cles into a very lit­tle bag"; so that by 6 o'clock she was ready for the om­nibus to take her to the rail­way sta­tion; that jour­ney would take her from 6 o'clock to about 8.30; the train was wait­ing, for Joe put her straight in, and she start­ed for Lon­don, ar­riv­ing at Lon­don Bridge at about 9.45; then a cab would land her at Sta­ple Inn at 10 o'clock just "as the clocks were strik­ing." But un­for­tu­nate­ly this will not do, for, on con­sult­ing the rail­way time-table for 1842, it is seen that the train was not timed to get to Lon­don Bridge till 10.15, which, as Eu­clid would say, is ab­surd.

Now, turn to Chap­ter XXIII, where Princess Puffer tracks Jasper — "I'll not miss ye twice." The porter at the hy­brid hotel tells the Puffer that Jasper will re­turn to Clois­ter­ham "at six this evening." Puffer will "be there be­fore ye and bide your com­ing," so the "poor soul stands in Clois­ter­ham High Street … until nine o'clock, at which hour" the om­nibus "that plied be­twixt the sta­tion and the place" would ar­rive. Now, if the Puffer caught the 1.30 train from Lon­don Bridge, she would get to Maid­stone Road at 3.46 and to Clois­ter­ham at about 6.15, and would have to wan­der about the High Street for near­ly three hours. Her next train from Lon­don, the 4.10, reached Maid­stone Road at 6.16, and the om­nibus would reach Clois­ter­ham about 8.45, in which case, in­stead of "get­ting through the time as best she can until nine o'clock," she would only have a quar­ter of an hour to wait. Now ex­am­ine Jasper's move­ments, again con­sult­ing the time-table. If he left the hy­brid hotel "at six this evening" how could he catch the last train from Lon­don Bridge, which left at 5.30? And even if he did he would not reach Maid­stone Road till 7.46 and Clois­ter­ham till about 10.15. It is all very puz­zling, and adds to the dif­fi­cul­ties of fix­ing the pe­ri­od of the story.

[A minor point aris­es, al­though it need not af­fect our en­quiry as to the pe­ri­od. Why did Dick­ens send his char­ac­ters by such a round­about way to and from Lon­don as to in­volve a jour­ney of 67 miles (21 miles by om­nibus and 46 by rail) in­clud­ing a change of ve­hi­cles at Maid­stone Road? He might have sent them by road-coach di­rect from Rochester to Lon­don, which is only 29 miles, or 8 miles fur­ther than from Rochester to Maid­stone Road. Such a coach jour­ney would take about three and a half hours with­out a change, where­as the com­bined coach and rail­way jour­ney took near­ly five hours.]

The re­sults of the en­quiry can now be briefly sum­marised:

1. The cover and the pic­tures. — Point to a time about 1869.

2. Rosa's hat. — Any time after about 1860.

3. Sapsea's age. — About 1854.

4. Cathe­dral tower. — Any time after 1823.

5. Christ­mas Day. — A wide choice: 1836, 1842, 1853 or 1859

6. Put­ney Bridge. — After 1845.

7. Tem­ple Stairs. — Be­fore 1864.

8. Frosty-faced Fogo. — Be­tween 1850 and 1860.

9. Rail­way sta­tion. — After 1836.

10. Rail­way tran­sit. — Ap­par­ent­ly be­tween 1842 and 1844.

It seems quite im­pos­si­ble to find any com­mon focus. As soon as one line of en­quiry leads to one goal, an­oth­er line leads oth­er­where. One can only con­clude that Dick­ens was not writ­ing a to­po­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ac­count of Rochester-Clois­ter­ham, nor was he trou­bling much how his var­i­ous al­lu­sions and ref­er­ences could be rec­on­ciled one with an­oth­er. He was writ­ing what promised to be a mas­ter­piece of fic­tion — a novel, a mod­ern novel, with an in­ter­est peren­ni­al in its ap­peal. One can al­most see his mind at work: "I will write a mod­ern mys­tery tale: where shall it be? Rochester I know best, but I must not call it that; let us say Clois­ter­ham — that has a cathe­dral­ly sound; I can then refer to the lo­cal­i­ties with safe­ty, es­pe­cial­ly to the cathe­dral tower, and I need not men­tion the cas­tle at all, as I shall not want it for my mys­tery: I must tell Collins the cos­tumes may be mod­ern: I must have an old "Jack­ass" as every drama has a jack­ass, so I'll in­vent Sapsea; some­one is sure to say later that his name is an ana­gram of ape and ass; Christ­mas shall be the crit­i­cal time — I'll make it fall on a Sun­day, the year won't mat­ter, as I don't sup­pose any­one will check it, so I need not worry about look­ing up a cal­en­dar: what about trav­el? I must get the peo­ple to Lon­don, as every read­er will ex­pect some­thing about Lon­don in any book of mine; I must make it more dif­fi­cult than it would be nowa­days, and, any­way, there is no rail­way sta­tion at Rochester, and I don't sup­pose there will be for years: I shall want a boat-trip up the Thames, so I'll use Tem­ple Stairs; I used them in Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, and they'll do again: as to pe­ri­od, well, I don't know, but any time about the mid­dle of the cen­tu­ry will do, I should think …"