Cornhill Magazine: A Novelist’s Favourite Theme

Cornhill Magazine, January 1886.


T has been said by Wen­dell Holmes that every man has in him one good novel, if he could but man­age to write it. Most men leave their novel care­ful­ly un­writ­ten. It has not yet been no­ticed, we think, that even those nov­el­ists whose va­ri­ety of con­cep­tion strikes us as their most re­mark­able qual­i­ty have usu­al­ly had one favourite idea, which reap­pears again and again, even in the tex­ture of works oth­er­wise most var­ied in struc­ture.

For ex­am­ple, even Sir Wal­ter Scott has his favourite theme, which some­times is the chief fea­ture of the story, at other times oc­cu­pies quite a sub­or­di­nate po­si­tion, but is near­ly al­ways pre­sent in one form or an­oth­er. Scott's favourite idea, brought in so often that but for his mar­vel­lous skill in cloth­ing it in ev­er-vary­ing garb it would have be­come weari­some, is to pre­sent the youth­ful hero of his plot as a young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced man, treat­ed by the older char­ac­ters as lit­tle more than a boy, often their un­con­scious agent in im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal plots, oc­ca­sion­al­ly looked down upon by the hero­ine her­self (who knows more of such plans and takes a more lead­ing part in car­ry­ing them out than the hero of the story), but show­ing him­self wor­thi­er, or at least man­li­er, than his el­ders had imag­ined him to be. Scott has not al­ways, per­haps, con­tent­ed us with his hero; often an­oth­er char­ac­ter is more in­ter­est­ing, as Fer­gus than Wa­ver­ley, Bois Guil­bert than Ivan­hoe, Evan­dale than Mor­ton; pos­si­bly be­cause all Scott's heroes show the pe­cu­liar­i­ty we have de­scribed. In Ed­ward Wa­ver­ley we have the orig­i­nal of the type. In 'Guy Man­ner­ing' Harry Bertram never shakes off the man­ner of a very young man, whether with Meg Mer­rilies, the Do­minie, Mr. Pley­dell, or Colonel Man­ner­ing. Frank Os­bald­i­s­tone, in 'Rob Roy,' treat­ed by his fa­ther as a mere boy, is af­ter­wards a mere tool in the hands of older men. Even Die Ver­non treats him till near the end as but an in­ex­pe­ri­enced lad. Lovell, in 'The An­ti­quary,' plays a sim­i­lar part, alike with Monkbarns, with the Baronet, and with old Edie Ochiltree, and re­mains to the end un­con­scious of his real po­si­tion, in re­gard both to his pu­ta­tive fa­ther and to Earl Geral­dine. In 'Redgaunt­let ' the plot of which, by the way, is not very in­ter­est­ing we have a hero sim­i­lar­ly sit­u­at­ed, and un­con­scious­ly tak­ing part in a dan­ger­ous po­lit­i­cal plot. The hero of 'The Black Dwarf' is still more cav­a­lier­ly treat­ed, in­so­much that no one, I imag­ine, takes the least in­ter­est in him. Young Arthur, in 'Anne of Greier­stein,' is a pup­pet in his fa­ther's hands to the end. The scenes be­tween Quentin Dur­ward and Louis XI il­lus­trate well Scott's favourite theme. But Dur­ward is also treat­ed as a mere boy by Le Bal­afre, by Earl Craw­ford, and by Charles of Bur­gundy; we note, too, that he is en­tire­ly un­con­scious of the part he is re­al­ly play­ing in the jour­ney to Liege. Ivan­hoe is under Cedric's high dis­plea­sure till near the end of the story, and is as boy­ish a hero as Quentin Dur­ward, de­spite the brav­ery they both show in the sad­dle. Henry Mor­ton, with his uncle, with Dame Wil­son, and af­ter­wards with Bal­four of Bur­ley; Hal­bert Glendin­ning, with the monks; Ju­lian Avenel, with Lady Avenel, and af­ter­wards with Queen Mary and Catharine Sey­ton; Harry Grow (and Conachar) with Simon; Edgar Kavenswood with the elder Ash­ton and Caleb Balder­stone; Tres­sil­ian, in 'Ke­nil­worth'; Mon­tei­th, in 'The Leg­end of Mon­trose'; Mer­ton, in 'The Pi­rate' (with old Mor­daunt, with Norna of the Fit­ful Head, and even with Minna and Bren­da) and their fa­ther, all these are sam­ples of Sir Wal­ter Scott's favourite theme. It is the same with Dami­an, in 'The Be­trothed'; with the Varangian, in 'Count Eobert of Paris'; with young Nigel, in 'The For­tunes of Nigel'; with Ju­lian, in 'Pev­er­il of the Peak'; and with the Knight of the Leop­ard, in 'The Tal­is­man.' Only one ex­cep­tion, and that rather ap­par­ent than real, can be men­tioned the 'Heart of Mid­loth­i­an,' per­haps the finest of all Scott's nov­els: but this is a novel with­out a hero, or, rather, Jeanie Deans is both hero and hero­ine (for Keuben But­ler can scarce­ly be con­sid­ered a hero). Now, strange­ly enough, Jeanie, thus tak­ing a dou­ble part, wom­an­like in her pa­tience and good­ness, man­like in her en­durance and courage, il­lus­trates Scott's pet theme (as ob­vi­ous­ly as Ed­ward Wa­ver­ley or Frank Os­bald­i­s­tone) in the scenes with Staunton and Staunton's fa­ther, with the Duke of Ar­gyll and Queen Car­o­line nay, even with Madge Wild­fire.

Dick­ens, a writ­er of an­oth­er type, had also his favourite theme. So far as I know, the point has not yet been no­ticed; but I think there can be no doubt that one spe­cial idea had more at­trac­tion for him than any other, and seemed to him the most ef­fec­tive lead­ing idea for a plot.

The idea which, more than any other had a fas­ci­na­tion for Dick­ens, and was ap­par­ent­ly re­gard­ed by him as like­ly to be most po­tent in its in­flu­ence on oth­ers, was that of a wrong-do­er watched at every turn by one of whom he has no sus­pi­cion, for whom he even en­ter­tains a feel­ing of con­tempt. This char­ac­ter­is­tic, al­though, as I have said, it has been gen­er­al­ly over­looked, is so marked that, so soon as at­ten­tion is di­rect­ed to it, men won­der it had not been no­ticed at once.

Of course, in a story like 'Pick­wick,' start­ed orig­i­nal­ly as a comic sport­ing tale, and only worked into a more se­ri­ous form after the death of the sport­ing artist who was to have il­lus­trat­ed it, we should not ex­pect to find any trace of an idea which Dick­ens val­ued chiefly for its ef­fect in ex­cit­ing trag­ic emo­tions. We have only to con­sid­er how he worked this idea to see how un­suit­able it would have been in such a novel as 'Pick­wick' if, in­deed, 'Pick­wick' can be called a novel.

But in two out of the first four nov­els which Dick­ens wrote we find this idea of pa­tient watch­ing even to death or doom a marked fea­ture of the story. In 'Barn­a­by Rudge' Haredale steadi­ly waits and watch­es for Rudge, till, after more than twen­ty years, 'at last, at last,' as he cries, he cap­tures his broth­er's mur­der­er on the very spot where the mur­der had been com­mit­ted. In this case, too, it is to be no­ticed that Rudge has been sup­posed to be dead dur­ing all the years of Haredale's watch; and this was so im­por­tant a part of Dick­ens's con­cep­tion that he makes Haredale speak of it, even in the fierce rush in which he seizes Rudge. 'Vil­lain!' he says, 'dead and buried, as all men sup­posed, through your in­fer­nal arts, but re­served by heav­en for this.' It be­came a favourite idea of Dick­ens to as­so­ci­ate the thought of death ei­ther with the watch­er or the watched; and, un­less I mis­take, in the final and finest de­vel­op­ment of his favourite theme, he made one 'dead and buried as all men sup­posed' watch the very man who sup­posed him dead, and not only buried but de­stroyed.

In 'Nicholas Nick­le­by' it is the un­tir­ing en­mi­ty of Brook­er, not the work of those he chiefly dreads, which drives Ralph Nick­le­by to self-mur­der. 'Ralph had no rea­son,' we are told, 'that he knew, to fear this man; he had never feared him be­fore;' but he trem­bles when Brook­er comes forth from the dark­ness in which he had been con­cealed, and con­fronts him to tell the story which is to be as the doom of death to him.

In the other two of these first four works 'Oliv­er Twist' and 'The Old Cu­rios­i­ty Shop' we find less marked use of Dick­ens's favourite idea, though it is not whol­ly ab­sent from ei­ther work. In 'The Old Cu­rios­i­ty Shop,' the two Brass scamps (to in­clude that 'old fel­low,' Miss Sally Brass, in the term) are watched by the de­spised Mar­chioness, and it is by her their pow­er­less vic­tim, as they sup­posed that their de­tec­tion is brought about. 'Oliv­er Twist' was writ­ten spe­cial­ly to at­tack the work­house sys­tem in Eng­land, and other ideas gave place to that lead­ing one.

In Dick­ens's next novel the idea is fur­ther de­vel­oped. In pass­ing, I note that nat­u­ral­ly the idea could never be pre­sent­ed twice in the same pre­cise form. It is in­deed won­der­ful how many changes Dick­ens was able to ring on this gen­er­al no­tion of an un­tir­ing watch kept on one not sus­pect­ing that he was watched, and least of all that he was watched by the man who was re­al­ly hold­ing his ways and do­ings con­stant­ly in view. In 'Mar­tin Chuz­zle­wit' the two chief vil­lains of the story, Jonas Chuz­zle­wit, the mur­der­er (per­haps the most shad­owy mur­der­er ever pic­tured by nov­el­ist), and Peck­sniff, the hyp­ocrite, are both watched in the melo­dra­mat­ic way that Dick­ens loved. Jonas has no fear of Nad­gett, and, in­deed, never sus­pects that Tom Pinch's silent land­lord is watch­ing him at all. All his thoughts are di­rect­ed to­wards Mon­tague Tigg. To see how Dick­ens de­light­ed in the idea I am con­sid­er­ing, we have only to no­tice the way in which he pre­sents Jonas Chuz­zle­wit's thoughts when Nad­gett de­nounces him. 'I never watched a man so close as I have watched him,' says Nad­gett; and the thoughts of the fright­ened mur­der­er shape them­selves thus: ' An­oth­er of the phan­tom forms of this ter­rif­ic truth! An­oth­er of the many shapes in which it start­ed up about him out of va­can­cy! This man, of all men in the world, a spy upon him; this man, chang­ing his iden­ti­ty, cast­ing off his shrink­ing, pur­blind, un­ob­ser­vant char­ac­ter, and spring­ing up into a watch­ful enemy ! The dead man might have come out of his grave and not con­found­ed and ap­palled him so.' Later, Dick­ens meant to have made use of this supreme hor­ror, a dead man watch­ing his mur­der­er; for note: Jonas thinks not of some dead man, but of the dead man whom he has mur­dered. We may ob­serve also that Jonas Chuz­zle­wit, like the lat­est of Dick­ens's vil­lains, is but a mur­der­er in in­tent, and in the sup­posed achieve­ment of his pur­pose, at first; he com­mits an ac­tu­al mur­der to es­cape pun­ish­ment for a sup­posed mur­der, as Jasper, in killing Neville Land­less, was to be brought to death in try­ing to es­cape death; prob­a­bly, too, by self-slaugh­ter, like Jonas.

While Jonas is watched by Nad­gett, whom he de­spis­es ('Old What's-his-name,' he calls him, 'look­ing as usual as if he want­ed to skulk up the chim­ney; of all the pre­cious dum­mies in ap­pear­ance that ever I saw, he's about the worst; he's afraid of me, I think'), Peck­sniff is watched by one whom he re­gards as to all in­tents and pur­pos­es dead, who had lived in his house, 'weak and sink­ing,' but who sud­den­ly shows that he has been keen and res­o­lute, 'with watch­ful eye, vig­or­ous hand on staff, and tri­umphal pur­pose in his fig­ure.' 'I have lived in this house, Pinch,' says old Mar­tin, 'and had him fan­ning on me days and weeks and months; I have suf­fered him to treat me as his tool and in­stru­ment; I have un­der­gone ten thou­sand times as much as I could have en­dured if I had been the mis­er­able old man he took me for. I have had his base soul bare be­fore me day by day, and have not be­trayed my­self. I never could have un­der­gone such tor­ture but for look­ing for­ward to this time. The time now draw­ing on will make amends for all, and I wouldn't have him die or hang him­self for mil­lions of gold­en pieces.'

It is clear that the idea of pa­tient watch­ing to bring an evil­do­er to jus­tice must have been strong in Dick­ens's mind when he thus worked it into the warp of his most char­ac­ter­is­tic plots, and into both warp and woof of the work which was per­haps most char­ac­ter­is­tic of them all. That the theme is melo­dra­mat­ic and ut­ter­ly un­like any­thing in real life makes this all the clear­er. Prob­a­bly no man that ever lived has been will­ing to de­vote months or years of his life to such a task as Dick­ens thus imag­ined; but so much the more ob­vi­ous is it that the idea was spe­cial­ly his own.

In Dick­ens's next im­por­tant work 'Dombey and Son' we do not find this char­ac­ter­is­tic idea in so marked a form. Yet it is pre­sent, and in more ways than one. Thus we find Dombey watched by Cark­er (whom he re­gards as a mere busi­ness man­ag­er for his great house), all his ways noted, and the ruin of his house wrought, by the man whom he con­sid­ers so lit­tle worth notic­ing. But Cark­er him­self in turn is tracked by those whom he re­gards as ut­ter­ly con­temptible old Moth­er Brown and her un­hap­py daugh­ter. So again, in the pur­suit of Cark­er by the man whom he has wronged and whom he de­spis­es, we have the same idt a, though in a changed form. The pur­suit re­minds one of a hideous dream, in which some enemy from whom we fly ap­pears al­ways at the mo­ment when we imag­ine we have reached safe­ty. 'In the fever of his mor­ti­fi­ca­tion and rage,' we are told, ' panic mas­tered him com­plete­ly. He would glad­ly have en­coun­tered al­most any risk rather than meet the man of whom, two hours ago, he had been ut­ter­ly re­gard­less. His fierce ar­rival, which he had never ex­pect­ed, the sound of his voice, their hav­ing been so near meet­ing face to face he would have braved out this; but the spring­ing of his mine upon him­self seemed to have rent and shiv­ered all his hardi­hood and self-re­liance.'

In ' David Cop­per­field,' which was in large de­gree au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, we might have ex­pect­ed that the idea we are con­sid­er­ing would not pre­sent it­self. Yet here also it is seen, and more than once. The plots of Uriah Heep are de­feat­ed by the close watch kept on him by Mi­caw­ber, whom Heep thor­ough­ly de­spis­es. Lit­timer, the 'sec­ond vil­lain' of the story, is brought to pun­ish­ment, as one of his gaol­ers tells Cop­per­field, by the de­vo­tion of lit­tle Miss Mowch­er, who, once on his track, fol­lows him till he is in the toils, and fi­nal­ly aids in his cap­ture.

In 'Bleak House' the in­ter­est of an im­por­tant part of the story turns on a mur­der. Mys­tery is sug­gest­ed, not so much by the ques­tion, 'Who is the mur­der­er?' (about which no read­er of av­er­age in­tel­li­gence can have any doubt), but by doubts as to the way in which the mur­der has been com­mit­ted and sus­pi­cion thrown on two in­no­cent per­sons. Here, again, Dick­ens adopts his favourite idea. Made­moi­selle Hort­ense spares no pains to bring the charge of mur­der on an­oth­er, who is her enemy a theme which Dick­ens was to have wrought out more fully in his lat­est work. In her anx­i­ety to throw sus­pi­cion on Lady Ded­lock she loses sight of her own dan­ger. If she has any fears, she cer­tain­ly has none of the woman with whom she lodged. Yet this is where her real dan­ger lies. This woman keeps watch upon her night and day. This woman had un­der­tak­en ('speak­ing to me,' says her hus­band, In­spec­tor Buck­et, 'as well as she could on ac­count of the sheet in her mouth') 'that the mur­der­ess should do noth­ing with­out her knowl­edge, should be her pris­on­er with­out sus­pect­ing it, should no more es­cape from her than from death.'

In ' Lit­tle Dor­rit ' we find Dick­ens's favourite theme in a new as­pect. I think the im­por­tance of this part of the rather be­wil­der­ing plot of 'Lit­tle Dor­rit ' ob­tained less recog­ni­tion than Dick­ens in­tend­ed. The mur­der­ous Rigaud-Blan­dois, or Blan­dois-Rigaud (as best suits his con­ve­nience), dis­guis­es him­self as a much older man with white hair an idea which in a mod­i­fied form was to reap­pear in Dick­ens's last novel. He is watched close­ly and pa­tient­ly by the de­spised Cav­alet­to, the 'con­tra­band beast,' as Blan­dois calls him. 'It is nec­es­sary,' says Cav­alet­to, telling the story, 'to have pa­tience. I have pa­tience ... I wait pa­ti­en­tis­sa­men­tal­ly. I watch, I hide, until he walks and smokes. He is a sol­dier with grey hair. But ! ... he is also this man that you see.' What Dick­ens felt (or sup­posed) to be the ef­fects of the sud­den dis­cov­ery that a watch of this sort had been kept is shown by the way in which even Rigaud-Blan­dois (whose chief char­ac­ter­is­tic, out­side his vil­lainy, is his cool­ness) blanch­es when he hears how Cav­alet­to had watched him so pa­ti­en­tis­sa­men­tal­ly. 'White to the lips' yet when he knows that his story is known, he 'faces it out with a bare face, as the in­fa­mous wretch he was.'

The 'Tale of Two Cities,' of course, turns whol­ly on the gen­er­al idea which we have thus found in more or less im­por­tant parts of Dick­ens's chief works. It is the undy­ing hate, hand­ed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, of the de­spised French peas­antry a hate pa­tient­ly wait­ing for vengeance, even on the in­no­cent de­scen­dants of the feu­dal tyrants of old which brings about the se­ries of events lead­ing to the catas­tro­phe. Dick­ens him­self called at­ten­tion to this point. The ob­jec­tion was raised that the feu­dal cru­el­ties did not come suf­fi­cient­ly with­in the date of the ac­tion to jus­ti­fy his use of them. 'I had, of course, full knowl­edge,' he replied, 'of the for­mal sur­ren­der of the feu­dal priv­i­leges;' but he had also suf­fi­cient knowl­edge of human na­ture, he went on to say, to know that ha­treds which had been grow­ing dur­ing twen­ty gen­er­a­tions would not die out, or even per­cep­ti­bly di­min­ish, in the first few gen­er­a­tions after their cause was re­moved nay, that even the di­rect ef­fects of that evil cause would not quick­ly cease, and as­sured­ly had not ceased when the French Rev­o­lu­tion began.1

In 'Great Ex­pec­ta­tions' the whole plot turns on two watch­ings, by men whom the watched per­sons de­spise. First, Mag­witch keeps watch (and kind­ly ward, too, de­spised though he is) on Pip, whose dis­gust and hor­ror when he learns who has been his un­known bene­fac­tor must be re­gard­ed as un­doubt­ed­ly il­lus­trat­ing Dick­ens's favourite theme. But also the de­spised and thor­ough­ly de­spi­ca­ble Com­peyson keeps pa­tient and fi­nal­ly suc­cess­ful watch on his enemy Mag­witch. The in­ter­est of the story cul­mi­nates in the close of this long watch, the death of the watch­er, and the mor­tal in­jury of the watched. A minor part of the ac­tion shows the same char­ac­ter­is­tic idea in the watch kept by Or­lick, first on Mrs. Gargery, till he strikes her a death-blow, and then long and pa­tient­ly on Pip, till fi­nal­ly he suc­ceeds in in­vei­gling him to the lone­ly place by the marsh­es, where he had in­tend­ed that not only should Pip be slain, but de­stroyed from off the face of the earth. (An­oth­er vil­lain was to have planned a sim­i­lar end for his vic­tim in Dick­ens's lat­est story.)

Never sure­ly had any lead­ing idea been so thor­ough­ly worked by a nov­el­ist as this pet theme of Dick­ens had been worked and over­worked, one would have said in the sto­ries I have dealt with. It would seem as though Dick­ens con­ceived that noth­ing could more im­press and move his read­ers than the idea of pa­tient, un­sus­pect­ed watch kept by some­one sup­posed ei­ther to be in­dif­fer­ent or in­signif­i­cant or pow­er­less or dead, that he thus used the idea in so many forms in his chief works up to the time when 'Great Ex­pec­ta­tions' had ap­peared. It might be imag­ined that now at last he could feel it to be no longer avail­able. The thought may in­deed pre­sent it­self that as a man ad­vances in years his first no­tions be­come more and more his lead­ing themes: yet it would seem as though Dick­ens could not, with­out re­peat­ing him­self, make fur­ther use of his favourite idea.

What, how­ev­er, do we find? In his next novel, 'Our Mu­tu­al Friend,' Dick­ens takes as the lead­ing in­ci­dent for his story' (I quote his own words) 'the idea of a man, young and per­haps ec­cen­tric, feign­ing to be dead, and being dead to all in­tents and pur­pos­es ex­ter­nal to him­self.' He pre­sents this man as keep­ing pa­tient watch on more than one char­ac­ter, in this the most var­ied in colour­ing of all Dick­ens's nov­els. He shows him try­ing to re­call the man­ner of his own death, in order that the read­er may more fully recog­nise how thor­ough­ly dead is this pa­tient­ly watch­ing man to all ex­ter­nal to him­self. 'I have no clue to the scene of my death,' he says; ' not that it mat­ters now.' 'It is a sen­sa­tion not ex­pe­ri­enced by many mor­tals,' he adds, 'to be look­ing into a church­yard on a wild, windy night, and to feel that I no more hold a place among the liv­ing than these dead do, and even to know that I lie buried as they lie buried; noth­ing uses me to it; a spir­it that was once a man could hard­ly feel stranger or lone­li­er, going un­recog­nised among men, than I feel.' In his lat­est story Dick­ens meant to have brought out still more promi­nent­ly the idea of a man, sup­posed to be dead, thus look­ing into the place where, to all in­tents and pur­pos­es ex­ter­nal to him­self, he lay dead, buried, and de­stroyed.

Even this is not quite all, how­ev­er. In 'No Thor­ough­fare' (in the part writ­ten by Dick­ens) we have a man de­scribed as dead if it means any­thing to say that his 'heart stood still' (not mo­men­tar­i­ly, but dur­ing events that must have last­ed many min­utes) com­ing to life, and con­fronting the man who sup­posed he had mur­dered him. The cir­cum­stances of this sup­posed mur­der are akin, by the way, in two strik­ing cir­cum­stances, to the sup­posed mur­der which was the real mys­tery of Dick­ens's last story.

Again, in 'Hunt­ed Down' we have a man whom the vil­lain of the story sup­pos­es to be dying (as sure­ly mur­dered by him as if he had slain him out­right) turn­ing out to be an­oth­er man, dis­guised, who is not dying at all, but tracks Slink­ton to his own death by self-mur­der, as it was to have been with the vil­lain of Dick­ens's last story, and as it had been with so many of his ear­li­er vil­lains. 'You shall know,' says Meltham, speak­ing as Beck­with, 'for I hope the knowl­edge will be ter­ri­ble and bit­ter to you, why you have been pur­sued by one man, and why you have been tracked to death at a sin­gle in­di­vid­u­al's charge. That man, Meltham, was as ab­so­lute­ly cer­tain that you could never elude him in this world, if he de­vot­ed him­self to your de­struc­tion with the ut­most fi­deli­ty and earnest­ness, and if he di­vid­ed this sa­cred duty with no other duty in life, as he was cer­tain that in achiev­ing it he would be a poor in­stru­ment in the hand of Prov­i­dence, and would do well be­fore Heav­en in strik­ing you out from among liv­ing men. I am that man, and I thank God that I have done my work.'

Be­fore pass­ing to the last work of all, I may note here that Dick­ens him­self noted among his 'sub­jects for sto­ries' a form of the theme we have been con­sid­er­ing. 'Here is a fancy,' Forster says, 'that I re­mem­ber him to have been more than once bent upon using; but the op­por­tu­ni­ty never came.' 'Two men to be guard­ed against' the words are Dick­ens's own now 'one whom I open­ly hold in some se­ri­ous an­i­mos­i­ty, whom I am at the pains to wound and defy, and whom I es­ti­mate as worth wound­ing and de­fy­ing; the other, whom I treat as a sort of in­sect, and con­temp­tu­ous­ly and pleas­ant­ly flick aside with my glove. But it turns out to be the lat­ter who is the re­al­ly dan­ger­ous man; and when I ex­pect the blow from the other it comes from him.' In a sort this idea was worked out in 'The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood.' Here a young man, who seemed light and way­ward, has been swept aside and is sup­posed to be dead, as an in­sect might be crushed. Jasper has no fur­ther thought of him; but he plots se­ri­ous mea­sures against a man whom he holds in se­ri­ous an­i­mos­i­ty, and whom he has been at the pains to wound and defy. But the fatal blow was to have come from the man who had seemed so want­ing in pur­pose, the 'bright boy' of the open­ing scenes.

Every con­ceiv­able form of his favourite theme had now been tried, save that which Dick­ens had him­self in­di­cat­ed as the most ef­fec­tive of all that the dead should rise from the grave to con­front his mur­der­er. This idea was at length to be used, dif­fi­cult though it seemed to work it out suc­cess­ful­ly. 'I have a very cu­ri­ous and new idea for my new story,' he wrote to Forster; 'not a com­mu­ni­ca­ble idea (or the in­ter­est of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though dif­fi­cult to work.' From what we know of Forster's rest­less in­quis­i­tive­ness in re­gard to Dick­ens's plans, we learn with­out sur­prise that im­me­di­ate­ly after he had been told that the idea was not com­mu­ni­ca­ble he asked to have it com­mu­ni­cat­ed to him. Nor does it seem to have been re­gard­ed by Forster as at all strange that at once (his own words are 'im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter­wards') Dick­ens com­mu­ni­cat­ed to him the idea which had been de­scribed as 'in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble,' or that the new and cu­ri­ous idea should be both stale and com­mon­place noth­ing, in fact, but the oft-told tale of a mur­der de­tect­ed by the pres­ence of in­de­struc­tible jew­ellery in lime into which the body of the mur­dered man had been flung. Forster's van­i­ty blind­ed him in such sort that the patent ar­ti­fice was not de­tect­ed. Yet he asked where the orig­i­nal­i­ty of the idea came in. Dick­ens ex­plained, he naive­ly adds, that it was to con­sist 'in the re­view of the mur­der­er's ca­reer by him­self at the close, when its temp­ta­tions were to be dwelt upon as if not he, the cul­prit, but some other man, were the tempt­ed.' But of course, so far as this spe­cial fea­ture was con­cerned, the idea had been al­ready worked out in the 'Mad­man's Manuscript' in 'Pick­wick,' and in the 'Clock-case Con­fes­sion' in 'Mas­ter Humphrey's Clock.'

The real idea un­der­ly­ing 'The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood' was a very strik­ing and novel form of Dick­ens's favourite theme. But be­fore show­ing this it may be well to make a few gen­er­al re­marks re­spect­ing this re­mark­able work.

The usual idea about 'The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood' has been that the novel was one of the dullest Dick­ens ever began. I re­mem­ber hear­ing an em­i­nent nov­el­ist say, in 1873, that, as part after part came out, he felt that 'Charles Dick­ens was gone, pos­i­tive­ly gone' just as the great dra­mat­ic crit­ic in 'Nicholas Nick­le­by' felt about the Shake­spear­i­an drama. Longfel­low, how­ev­er, thought dif­fer­ent­ly, and I take him to have been far and away the bet­ter judge. He thought that 'The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood' promised to be the finest work Dick­ens had writ­ten. That opin­ion, ex­pressed with­in a few weeks of Dick­ens's death, led me to read a story which I had de­ter­mined to avoid, as in­com­plete, and like­ly there­fore to be tan­ta­lis­ing in the read­ing; and I have al­ways felt grate­ful to the poet for thus send­ing me to read a work which, even though in­com­plete, is worth, to my mind, 'Nicholas Nick­le­by' and 'Mar­tin Chuz­zle­wit' to­geth­er.

I take it that 'The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood' is dis­liked chiefly be­cause the idea pre­sents it­self to many read­ers that the plot re­al­ly is formed on the com­mon­place and well-worn idea men­tioned to Forster, and art­ful­ly sug­gest­ed at every turn of the nar­ra­tive. Longfel­low, as a poet, felt the real mean­ing of the tones in which Dick­ens told that seem­ing­ly com­mon­place story, and heard be­neath them voic­es telling a story full of pathos and trag­ic force. To the or­di­nary read­er 'Edwin Drood' is mere­ly the story of a mur­der, the mur­der of a way­ward, care­less young man. The very de­tails of the mur­der seem clear. The read­er knows, he thinks, how the mur­der is to be found out, whom the hero­ine and her friend are to marry, and how the mur­der­er is to tell the story of his own crime as well as of his de­feat­ed at­tempt to bring about the death of the man he hates and fears.

In such a story there is lit­tle of in­ter­est; and the tone of the com­plet­ed half of the book seems quite un­suit­ed to the in­trin­sic in­signif­i­cance of the nar­ra­tive. Thus judged, 'Edwin Drood' promised to be as worth­less as many con­sid­ered it.

It was not of such a story, thus ill told, that Longfel­low spoke with such en­thu­si­asm. The real story is more mys­te­ri­ous, more ter­ri­ble; it is at once more pa­thet­ic and more hu­mor­ous.

How Dick­ens had pro­posed to ex­plain in the de­noue­ment the de­tails of Jasper's at­tack on Edwin, and sub­se­quent at­tempt to de­stroy the body of his sup­posed vic­tim, we do not know. But that Edwin Drood has been in some way saved from death (through the agen­cy of Dur­dles, prob­a­bly, though Dur­dles him­self, half-drunk as usual at the time, knows lit­tle about it) is man­i­fest to all who un­der­stand Dick­ens's ways. The very words by which he tries to con­vince us that Drood is dead show that Drood has not been killed. It is the 'bright boy' who is never to be seen again. Drood lives; and changed by a ter­ri­ble shock from boy­ish­ness to man­li­ness, Drood's care­less­ness to­wards Rosa is turned into earnest love. More­over, Rosa knows that Drood is liv­ing, and is full of sor­row for him that she can give him but a sis­ter's love. Rosa's sor­row for Edwin's hope­less love is so skil­ful­ly veiled in the later chap­ters of the story, that it is mis­tak­en by most read­ers for sor­row be­cause Edwin is dead. But every tone shows that it is sor­row for the liv­ing. Every tone, too, of all that Drood says, when his thoughts dwell on his new-born love for Rosa, shows that he feels that love to be hope­less.

All this must seem idle to those who imag­ine that Edwin is dead and there­fore silent. The most care­less read­er, said Miss Meyrick in 'The Cen­tu­ry,' can see that the idea that Edwin is alive is con­tra­dict­ed by Dick­ens him­self in the story. Even so: Dick­ens so care­ful­ly con­tra­dicts this idea, that the care­less read­er, as Miss Meyrick shows, re­jects it as out of the ques­tion. The care­ful read­er forms an­oth­er opin­ion, es­pe­cial­ly when he learns that Dick­ens had ex­pressed his fear lest, with all his anx­i­ety to keep his plot con­cealed, it had been dis­closed for the keen­er-sight­ed.

We might never have heard of the fear thus ex­pressed were it not that a few hours af­ter­wards Dick­ens was dead. Miss Hog­a­rth nat­u­ral­ly men­tioned all that Dick­ens had said to her dur­ing those last few days. Forster's words are these : 'Dick­ens had be­come,' he says, 'a lit­tle ner­vous about the course of the tale, from a fear that he might have plunged too soon into the in­ci­dents lead­ing to the catas­tro­phe, such as "the Datch­ery as­sump­tion" in the fifth num­ber a mis­giv­ing he had cer­tain­ly ex­pressed to his sis­ter-in-law.' Ob­serve the words, 'the Datch­ery as­sump­tion,' and con­sid­er how much they mean. The char­ac­ter of the quaint, half-sad, half-hu­mor­ous stranger is, then, an as­sumed one. That Datch­ery is dis­guised is of course ob­vi­ous, even to Miss Meyrick's 'care­less read­er.' But the part is as­sumed, and the as­sump­tion is one which sug­gests the na­ture of the de­noue­ment. This, in re­al­i­ty, is telling the whole se­cret. For, pass­ing over, as 'too cruel silly,' the idea that the ge­nial yet sad and sym­pa­thet­ic Datch­ery might be Baz­zard, Grew­gious's dull and self-con­ceit­ed clerk, there is no one else in the story who can have as­sumed the part of Datch­ery, ex­cept the man whom the care­less read­er will be the last to think of Edwin Drood him­self.

But in re­al­i­ty it needs no keen­ness of sight, but only a good ear for tone and voice, to show that Drood and Datch­ery are one. I ven­ture to say that Longfel­low did not need to have any ex­ter­nal ev­i­dence to show that this is so. I do not know if Dr. Holmes has read Dick­ens's half-told tale, but I am con­fi­dent that if he has, he will not have doubt­ed for an in­stant that the man who talks to Princess Puffer as Edwin Drood, just be­fore Drood dis­ap­pears, is the same man, with the same feel­ings at work in his heart (in par­tic­u­lar, the same sense of all he has thrown away by his own way­ward­ness) as he who later talks to her at the same place as Datch­ery, in the as­sumed char­ac­ter of Datch­ery, 'an idle buffer liv­ing on his means.' We know even, as the music of the words is heard, that, in some in­stinc­tive way, the old opi­um-eater feels this. But we feel still more strong­ly that the same thought sad­dens the man that sad­dened the boy the thought of what-Rosa has be­come to him now he has re­leased her from a fool­ish tie the thought how hope­less is his new-born love. The read­er must be more than 'care­less' who does not feel that the half sad, half hu­mor­ous Datch­ery of this con­ver­sa­tion is Drood, moved by anx­i­ety about the dan­ger­ous duty he has de­ter­mined to ful­fil, and by doubts as to what will fol­low. Who but Edwin him­self would be so moved by thoughts of the Edwin of old, so stirred by sad­ness at the thought of some sac­ri­fice past, so wist­ful at the thought that 'the haven be­yond the iron-bound coast might never be reached'? Dick­ens had in­deed lost all his old power, his music had in­deed be­come 'as sweet bells jan­gled, out of tune and harsh,' if the ten­der re­frain heard so often in that last scene but one of the half-told story has no deep­er mean­ing than the busi­ness med­i­ta­tions of a de­tec­tive!

Those who love Dick­ens (with all his faults), but have not cared to read his un­fin­ished story, or, hav­ing read it, have failed to note the del­i­cate clue run­ning through it, may find in the knowl­edge that Drood is saved from death to be his own avenger, all that they need to make 'The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood,' in­com­plete though it is, one of the most in­ter­est­ing of Dick­ens's nov­els. All that we know of Dick­ens's favourite ideas, all that the story re­al­ly tells us, all that is con­veyed by the music of the de­scrip­tions, as­sures those who re­al­ly un­der­stand Dick­ens that his favourite theme was to have been worked into this novel in strik­ing and mas­ter­ly fash­ion. Jasper was to have been tracked re­morse­less­ly to his death by the man whom he sup­posed he had slain. Risen from the grave, Drood was to have driv­en Jasper to his tomb. Nay, we know from the re­mark­able pic­ture which ap­peared on the out­side of the orig­i­nal month­ly num­bers (a pic­ture2, be it re­mem­bered, which was de­signed be­fore a line of the story was pub­lished), that Drood was to have forced Jasper to visit the very tomb where he thought that the dust of his vic­tim lay there to find, alive and im­pla­ca­ble, the man whom he had doomed to a sud­den and ter­ri­ble death.

1. In the last chap­ter of the fourth vol­ume of Al­i­son's 'His­to­ry of Eu­rope' (I refer to the first edi­tion of twen­ty-one vol­umes, the form in which I read that light and el­e­gant lit­tle work as a boy) this is very fully point­ed out per­haps even some­what too fully.

2. In this pic­ture we see Edwin stand­ing in the tomb as Jasper en­ters it, doubt­less to seek for the jew­elled ring, of which he would be told by Grew­gious, pur­pose­ly that he might be driv­en to that dread­ful search. Grew­gious ob­vi­ous­ly knew of Edwin's es­cape, from the tomb (wit­ness the scene with Jasper, and Grew­gious's sub­se­quent seem­ing care­less­ness about the ring which we know to have been most pre­cious in his eyes). It has been ob­ject­ed that it would have been cruel for Edwin and Grew­gious to let Neville Land­less re­main under sus­pi­cion but Grew­gious may very well have re­gard­ed this as a dis­ci­pline much need­ed by Neville, and like­ly to be very ben­e­fi­cial in a young man of his fiery na­ture. The keen and kind­ly old man was ev­i­dent­ly watch­ing that no harm should come to Neville.