9. Sapsea Fragment

The puz­zle of the so-called Sapsea Frag­ment, found by John Forster ‘with­in the leaves of one of Dick­ens’s other manuscripts’, is eas­i­ly solved.

John Forster didn’t find it ...

He wrote it.

The idea of com­pos­ing his own lit­tle sketch about Mr Sapsea, then pass­ing it off as one of Dick­ens’s last — and sup­pos­ed­ly best! — pieces of writ­ing, must have been ir­re­sistible once it oc­curred to him. Few peo­ple were more fa­mil­iar with Dick­ens’s hand­writ­ing, and to forge his tiny, cramped, al­most il­leg­i­ble hand would have been sim­ple enough.

But em­u­lat­ing the prose of the world’s great­est nov­el­ist proved rather more dif­fi­cult. In fact, to put it blunt­ly, the frag­ment is crap.

“It would sup­ply an an­swer”, wrote the vain joker, “to those who have as­sert­ed that the hope­less deca­dence of Dick­ens as a writ­er had set in be­fore his death. Among the lines last writ­ten by him, these are the very last we can ever hope to re­ceive; and they seem to me a de­light­ful spec­i­men of the power pos­sessed by him in his prime, and the rarest which any nov­el­ist can have, of re­veal­ing a char­ac­ter by a touch. Here are a cou­ple of peo­ple, Kim­ber and Peartree, not known to us be­fore, whom we read off thor­ough­ly in a dozen words [Kim­ber and Peartree are life­less nonen­ti­ties] and as to Sapsea him­self, auc­tion­eer and mayor of Clois­ter­ham, we are face to face with what be­fore we only dimly re­alised ...” Fid­dle­sticks!

“The frag­ment ends there”, con­cludes the shame­less im­pos­tor, “and the hand that could alone have com­plet­ed it is at rest for ever”. Ho, ho, ho.

The piece, sug­gests Forster, was to have been slot­ted in later in the novel. But a chap­ter of first-per­son prose, nar­rat­ed by a minor char­ac­ter, wouldn’t slot any­where into a third-per­son novel. If Dick­ens wrote the frag­ment, its ex­is­tence is baf­fling and bizarre. If Forster was its au­thor — as he was — there’s no mys­tery at all.

To make it look like part of a larg­er whole, the sketch was writ­ten on slips of paper num­bered six to ten. But ‘How Mr. Sapsea Ceased To Be A Mem­ber Of The Eight Club’ — Forster couldn’t re­sist giv­ing it a title — doesn’t begin awk­ward­ly in the mid­dle of a sen­tence. Oh no! It com­mences as a fresh new para­graph with Mr Sapsea en­ter­ing his club. The end­ing, too, pe­ters out nice­ly, hav­ing reached its nat­u­ral con­clu­sion.

The sketch was writ­ten ‘on paper only half the size of that used for’ Edwin Drood. Why? Be­cause Forster’s sketch was of a strict­ly lim­it­ed length. He didn’t want it con­clud­ing eight lines or so into a full-sized sheet. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the five-page frag­ment would have filled about two and a half sheets of or­di­nary paper. Even as it was, Forster strug­gled to pad out the final page: “Where are you going to, Poker, and where do you come from?” “Ah Mr. Sapsea! Dis­guise from you is im­pos­si­ble. You know al­ready that I come from some­where, and am going some­where else. If I was to deny it, what would it avail me? ... Or,” pur­sued Poker, “or if I was to deny that I came to this town to see and hear you, sir, what would it avail me? Or if I was to deny — ”

Poker is cer­tain­ly very for­get­ful. Meet­ing Mr Sapsea out­side the Club: “Is it Mr. Sapsea,” he said doubt­ful­ly, “or is it — ”

But Mr Sapsea has al­ready in­tro­duced him­self!

Kim­ber: “He had been speak­ing to you just be­fore, it seemed, by the church­yard; and though you had told him who you were ...” Poor Poker has ev­i­dent­ly for­got­ten this re­cent con­ver­sa­tion! (We’re sure­ly not sup­posed to be­lieve that Poker thought Mr Sapsea was lying about his iden­ti­ty?) And if he “came to this town to see and hear” Mr Sapsea, why didn’t he say so be­fore?

In short, the prose is clunky and the di­a­logue lame and un­re­al. The only rea­son John Forster raved about the piece is be­cause it was him who wrote the damn thing!