First printed in "The Dickensian", vol. 88, 1992
Based on internal evidence in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Percy Garden in 1920 formulated what appeared to be a convincing argument that Edwin Drood disappeared early in the morning of Sunday, December 25, 1842, and that therefore the action of the story took place in 1842-1843. But then in 1944 T. W. Hill challenged Garden's theory by claiming that the assorted evidence in the half-finished novel could in fact yield a wide variety of dates, and that Dickens did not have any particular year in mind as his starting point. My purpose here is to rebut Hill's contention and prove that Garden was right after all.
At the end of his discussion Hill summarizes ten items of evidence and indicates the approximate date(s) that he thinks each supports, as follows:
Before analyzing Hill's ten points, we'll need to record two that he missed (that is, there should be twelve items on his list rather than ten). First, he ignores Garden's argument that in the year of the story "no neighbouring architecture of lofty proportions had arisen to overshadow Staple Inn. The Westering sun bestowed bright glances on it and the South-west wind blew into it unimpeded. By 1853, this was no longer so. The lofty building which is now the Patent Office standing in what was once the garden of the Inn was planned in 1843, and built soon after. Later the Birkbeck Buildings shut out the Western sun." Felix Aylmer tacks on, "Birkbeck Buildings announce from the roof-top that they were 'Founded 1851.'" With both the Patent Office and the Birkbeck Buildings in place by the end of 1851, we should add to the list (in Hill's format):
The second tidbit of evidence has been picked up since Hill's time. In Chapter 23 Dickens mentions "the new Railway Advertisers," and Margaret Cardwell says the Advertisers he had in mind were the Railway Times (1837) and Bradshaw's Railway Time-table (1839). In 1843 these publications could still be described as "new"; after 1850, they could not. So let's add:
Having expanded the list, we can now take a closer look at Hill's original ten points. This reveals that five of the ten — numbers 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10 — are not inconsistent with Percy Garden's theory. For example, Hill says his fourth entry, the Cathedral tower, points to a date "after 1823." Since 1842 certainly came after 1823, this item actually supports Garden. Similarly, the fact that Christmas Day fell on Sunday in several years besides 1842 in no way invalidates Garden's conclusions, so long as 1842 remains the year most consistent with the other evidence. (Perhaps Mr. Hill thought he could strengthen his case by showering us with dates.)
However, we are still left with five points that cannot be disposed of so easily—numbers 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8. How well does each of them stand up under careful scrutiny?
1. The cover and the pictures. Hill notes that the illustrations, both on the parts cover by Charles Collins and inside the book by Luke Fildes, show the figures dressed in costumes of the period 1869-70, and he proceeds from this observation to argue that the drawings are a reliable means of dating the story. Though I am forced to concede that Hill's dating of the clothes is correct (give or take a year or two), this fact does not necessarily tell us anything about when the story was supposed to take place.
As a matter of record, fiction readers of the 1860s had a strong preference for stories set in their own country and their own time, and the profit motive gave publishers a corresponding incentive to comply with their customers' wishes. Consider the case of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who had placed the plot of his self-published House by the Churchyard (1863) in the Ireland of the previous century. When House achieved a modest success, Le Fanu signed a contract for his next novel with the London publisher Richard Bentley. But for purely practical reasons "Bentley insisted on 'the story of an English subject and in modern times.' Le Fanu heeded Bentley's dictum: starting with Wylder's Hand (1864), almost all of the Irish author's subsequent novels had settings in mid-nineteenth century England.
As editor of All the Year Round and veteran novelist, Charles Dickens must have been aware of the public's preference for modernity. Having a full measure of self-confidence, he had no compunction about breaking the rule and setting his story some thirty years in the past. But there was no point in advertising the fact on the cover and in the other illustrations, and in giving his mystery an old-fashioned, dowdy look; and so he allowed his illustrators to dress the characters in the current mode. After all, the reason why Dickens's artists were paid a generous fee for illustrating his works was not that he meant their drawings to establish dates, but rather that he expected them to increase sales.
Concerning the cover illustrations only, Dickens probably calculated that his readers would not hold him responsible for minor discrepancies between these and his text, since few of his previous covers, drawn as they were when only the opening chapters of the books had actually been written, depicted with complete accuracy the scenes they were intended to represent. Marcus Stone, the artist who illustrated Dickens's last complete novel, commented upon this state of affairs: "The cover of Our Mutual Friend, with the representation of different incidents in the story, I drew after seeing an amount of matter equivalent to no more than the first two one-shilling monthly parts.
2. Rosa's hat. In Chapter 21 of Edwin Drood, Rosa Bud "dutifully asked if she should put her hat on?" Hill informs us that "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. . . ."
Strangely enough, Dickens's casual mention of Rosa's hat may constitute Hill's strongest piece of evidence. "By 1840 the close-fitting bonnet had ousted all other styles for daytime wear," and it continued to hold sway until about 1855, when hats began to make a comeback, at least for younger women like Rosa. But perhaps Hill endowed the hat with more significance than it deserves, because a bonnet can be construed as just another kind of hat. That is, "hat" is the general term for any sort of shaped headwear, and as such includes in its meaning "bonnet," the word for a specific type of hat. Thus the Oxford English Dictionary (1989 edition) gives this as its basic definition of bonnet: "1. An article of apparel for the head; 'a covering for the head, a hat, a cap.'"
There's also evidence that even in the 1840s, when bonnets were at the peak of their popularity, some people tended to call them hats. For instance, note how the narrator parenthetically corrects Eliza in Chapter 7 of Charlotte Bronte's Shirley (1849): "'I want to finish trimming my hat' (bonnet she meant)."' And Dickens's friend George Augustus Sala reported, in the Daily Telegraph for 10 June 1864, "By the way, they call a lady's dress here [in New York] a 'robe,' and a bonnet a 'hat.'" Having visited the United States himself in 1867-68, Dickens would have been familiar with this usage; and for the same reasons he permitted modern dress in the illustrations, he chose the vague and noncommittal "hat" in preference to the unambiguous and telltale "bonnet."
In other words, Dickens realized that dressing Rosa in a bonnet would make her seem dowdy and old-fashioned; and so, assuming that no one would notice the anachronism anyway, he called it a hat. Or perhaps he simply forgot, when he wrote Chapter 21 in 1870, that hats were out of fashion twenty-seven years earlier. After all, even the Inimitable was not Infallible.
3. Sapsea's age. Hill places the auctioneer's age when the story begins at fifty-eight, which agrees with Dickens's statement that Sapsea was much nearer sixty years of age than fifty. "In Mr. Sapsea's infancy" he had heard a patriotic toast that ran, "When the French come over / May we meet them at Dover." Hill arbitrarily selects "eight years old" as Sapsea's age when the toast was proposed, and goes on to identify the year as 1804, when "Napoleon's army was encamped at Boulogne seeking an opportunity to invade England." Mr. Hill concludes, "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."
To me "eight years old" is well beyond the time of infancy, which my dictionary defines as "babyhood or very early child-hood" — a time when Sapsea would have been too young to be present when the toasts were raised, or to remember them if he had been present. But suppose that Dickens was using the term "infancy" not in its everyday, but in its legal sense: i.e., that he was referring to the time before Sapsea attained his majority at the age of twenty-one. This reading puts a mildly satiric edge on the phrase, by extending Mr. Sapsea's infancy to age twenty; and if he was as old as twenty when he heard the toast in 1804 (granting that Hill is right about the year), then he would have reached fifty-eight in the year 1842 — which hits Percy Garden's date smack on the digit! (Apparently Mr. Hill missed the passage in Bleak House [Ch. 24] where the Lord Chancellor describes the twenty-year-old Richard Carstone as "a vexatious and capricious infant.")
6. Putney Bridge. Of Luke Fildes's picture "Up the River," drawn to illustrate Chapter 22 in the novel's sixth monthly installment, Hill says, "The ugly timber bridge shewn in the background . . . was built in 1845, so by this evidence the period of the story is later than 1845."
According to Luke Fildes, Dickens had already died when the illustrations were prepared for the last three numbers (including Chs. 13-23), and it is probable that the author never even had the opportunity to discuss with Fildes the two pictures for the sixth number. Dickens wrote to the artist on 7 June 1870 to set up a meeting on 11 June, presumably with the drawings for the sixth installment (which he was then engaged in writing) as one of the topics on their agenda. On June 8th the novelist suffered his fatal stroke, and he died June 9th, a couple of days before the scheduled interview.'
Because Fildes was solely responsible for the content of "Up the River," its value in dating the story is nil.
8. Frosty-faced Fogo. In Chapter 17 Dickens tells us that Mr. Crisparkle in his college days had known an eminent public character, since deceased, called Frosty-faced Fogo, "who in days of yore superintended the formation of the magic circle [i.e., of the prize-ring] with the ropes and stakes."
T. W. Hill's exposition of this point is somewhat confused, so bear with me while I try to sort it out. In the body of his article Hill says, "Canon Crisparkle's age was 35, and if the story was a modern one (1869-70), his university days were about 1853 to 1856." That is, Crisparkle attended college and met Fogo roughly thirteen to sixteen years before the story starts. Yet when Hill transfers the Fogo question to the list of evidence at the end of his essay, he dates the story not in 1869-70 where he first set it, but instead "between 1850 and 1860." In effect his final word on Fogo places Edwin's disappearance during the period he originally identified as Crisparkle's college years!
Moreover, Hill's major premise, "if the story is a modern one (1869-70)," is flawed, because it derives not from any new evidence, but from the dating of the story based upon the cover and other illustrations. In short, what Hill tries to do here is make his first point serve double duty by extracting a second set of dates from it. (By the way, Fogo had nothing whatever to do with the illustrations; he appears neither on Collins's cover nor in Fildes's pictures, and no drawing or photograph of the man exists anywhere—or if it does, it has certainly not yet surfaced in the Drood literature.)
Since the days when Hill wrote his article, Margaret Cardwell has discovered some pertinent information about "Frosty-faced" Fogo, who was a real person, not just a figment of Dickens's lively imagination: "Jack Fogo nicknamed 'frosty-face' (pock-marked), popular in the 1820s and 1830s for his help in organizing contests. Known as 'the poet laureate of the prize ring,' he contributed to Bell's Life, as did Dickens."
Because Jack Fogo was actively involved in boxing matches of the 1820s and 1830s, and because he died on 20 March 1839, Mr. Crisparkle probably met him sometime between 1820 and his death in 1839. As the Minor Canon knew him, by Hill's reckoning, some thirteen to sixteen years before the time when the Drood story begins, this would establish that the action took place between about 1833 and 1855, not between 1850 and 1860 as Hill suggests.
To conclude, here's how the evidence stacks up as a result of my analysis:
While I have not perhaps been able to refute T. W. Hill's arguments entirely, I believe that the preponderance of evidence clearly favors Percy Carden's 1842-1843 dating of the story.