Ray Dubberke: Dating the Drood Story

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:

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

2. Rosa's hat. . . after about 1860.

3. Sapsea's age . . . about 1854.

4. The Cathe­dral tower . . . after 1823.

5. Christ­mas Day fell on Sun­day in 1836, 1842, 1853, 1859, and 1864.

6. Put­ney Bridge sug­gests a year after 1845.

7. Tem­ple Stairs . . . be­fore 1864.

8. Frosty-faced Fogo . . . be­tween 1850 and 1860.

9. Rail­way sta­tion . . . after 1836.

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

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):

11. Sta­ple Inn in­di­cates a year be­fore 1852.

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:

12. New Rail­way Ad­ver­tis­ers . . . be­tween 1837 and 1850.

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:

1. The cover and pic­tures. Im­ma­te­ri­al: The il­lus­tra­tions were de­signed to sell books, not to date them.

2. Rosa's hat. Equiv­o­cal: The word "hat" could refer to a bon­net, or it could sim­ply be a care­less slip.

3. Sapsea's age points to 1842 or later.

4. Cathe­dral tower . . . some­time after 1823.

5. Christ­mas Day . . . 1842, be­cause this is the only year con­sis­tent with most of the other ev­i­dence.

6. Put­ney Bridge. In­ad­mis­si­ble: Hav­ing died be­fore this scene was con­ceived, Dick­ens pro­vid­ed no input for it.

7. Tem­ple Stairs . . . be­fore 1864.

8. Frosty-faced Fogo . . . be­tween about 1833 and 1855.

9. Rail­way sta­tion . . . after 1836.

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

11. Sta­ple Inn . . . be­fore 1852.

12. New Rail­way Ad­ver­tis­ers . . . be­tween 1837 and 1850.

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.