G. K. Chesterton: Mr. Datchery is really Miss Twinkleton


ick­wick was a work part­ly de­signed by oth­ers, but ul­ti­mate­ly filled up by Dick­ens. Edwin Drood, the last book, was a book de­signed by Dick­ens, but ul­ti­mate­ly filled up by oth­ers. The Pick­wick Pa­pers showed how much Dick­ens could make out of other peo­ple's sug­ges­tions; The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood shows how very lit­tle other peo­ple can make out of Dick­ens's sug­ges­tions.

Dick­ens was meant by Heav­en to be the great melo­drama­tist; so that even his lit­er­ary end was melo­dra­mat­ic. Much more was meant in the cut­ting short of Edwin Drood by Dick­ens than the mere cut­ting short of a good novel by a great man. It seems rather like the last taunt of some elf, leav­ing the world, that it should be this story which is not ended, this story which is only a story. The only one of Dick­ens's nov­els which he did not fin­ish was the only one that re­al­ly need­ed fin­ish­ing. He never had but one thor­ough­ly good plot to tell; and that he has only told in heav­en. This is what sep­a­rates the case in ques­tion from any par­al­lel cases of nov­el­ists cut off in the act of cre­ation. That great nov­el­ist, for in­stance, with whom Dick­ens is con­stant­ly com­pared, died also in the mid­dle of Den­nis Duval. But any one can see in Den­nis Duval the qual­i­ties of the later work of Thack­er­ay; the in­creas­ing dis­cur­sive­ness, the in­creas­ing ret­ro­spec­tive po­et­ry, which had been in part the charm and in part the fail­ure of Philip and The Vir­gini­ans. But to Dick­ens it was per­mit­ted to die at a dra­mat­ic mo­ment and to leave a dra­mat­ic mys­tery. Any Thack­er­ayan could have com­plet­ed the plot of Den­nis Duval ex­cept in­deed that the Thack­er­ayan might have had some doubt as to whether there was any plot to com­plete. But Dick­ens, hav­ing had far too lit­tle plot in the sto­ries he had to tell pre­vi­ous­ly had far too much plot in the story he never told. Dick­ens dies in the act of telling, not his tenth novel, but his first news of mur­der. He drops down dead as he is in the act of de­nounc­ing the as­sas­sin. It is per­mit­ted to Dick­ens, in short, to come to a lit­er­ary end as strange as his lit­er­ary be­gin­ning. He began by com­plet­ing the old ro­mance of trav­el. He ended by in­vent­ing the new de­tec­tive story.

It is as a de­tec­tive story first and last that we have to con­sid­er The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. This does not mean, of course, that the de­tails are not often ad­mirable in their swift and pen­e­trat­ing hu­mour; to say that of the book would be to say that Dick­ens did not write it. Noth­ing could be truer, for in­stance, than the man­ner in which the dazed and drunk­en dig­ni­ty of Dur­dles il­lus­trates a cer­tain "bit­ter­ness at the bot­tom of the be­wil­der­ment of the poor. Noth­ing could be bet­ter than the way in which the haughty and al­lu­sive con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Miss Twin­kle­ton and the land­la­dy il­lus­trates the mad­den­ing pref­er­ence of some fe­males for skat­ing upon thin so­cial ice. There is an even bet­ter ex­am­ple than these of the orig­i­nal hu­mor­ous in­sight of Dick­ens; and one not very often re­marked, be­cause of its brevi­ty and its unim­por­tance in the nar­ra­tive. But Dick­ens never did any­thing bet­ter than the short ac­count of Mr. Grew­gious's din­ner being brought from the tav­ern by two wait­ers: "a sta­tion­ary wait­er," and "a fly­ing wait­er." The "fly­ing wait­er" brought the food and the "sta­tion­ary wait­er" quar­relled with him; the "fly­ing wait­er" brought glass­es and the "sta­tion­ary wait­er" looked through them. Fi­nal­ly, it will be re­mem­bered the "sta­tion­ary wait­er" left the room, cast­ing a glance which in­di­cat­ed "let it be un­der­stood that all emol­u­ments are mine, and that Nil is the re­ward of this slave." Still, Dick­ens wrote the book as a de­tec­tive story; he wrote it as The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. And alone, per­haps, among de­tec­tive-sto­ry writ­ers, he never lived to de­stroy his mys­tery. Here alone then among the Dick­ens nov­els it is nec­es­sary to speak of the plot and of the plot alone. And when we speak of the plot it be­comes im­me­di­ate­ly nec­es­sary to speak of the two or three stand­ing ex­pla­na­tions which cel­e­brat­ed crit­ics have given of the plot.

The story, so far as it was writ­ten by Dick­ens, can be read here. It con­cerns, as will be seen, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the young ar­chi­tect Edwin Drood after a night of fes­tiv­i­ty which wels sup­posed to cel­e­brate his rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with a tem­po­rary enemy, Neville Land­less, and was held at the house of his uncle John Jasper. Dick­ens con­tin­ued the tale long enough to ex­plain or ex­plode the first and most ob­vi­ous of his rid­dles. Long be­fore the ex­ist­ing part ter­mi­nates it has be­come ev­i­dent that Drood has been put away, not by his ob­vi­ous op­po­nent, Land­less, but by his uncle who pro­fess­es for him an al­most painful af­fec­tion. The fact that we all know this, how­ev­er, ought not in fair­ness to blind us to the fact that, con­sid­ered as the first fraud in a de­tec­tive story, it has been, with great skill, at once sug­gest­ed and con­cealed. Noth­ing, for in­stance, could be clev­er­er as a piece of artis­tic mys­tery than the fact that Jasper, the uncle, al­ways kept his eyes fixed on Drood's face with a dark and watch­ful ten­der­ness; the thing is so told that at first we re­al­ly take it as only in­di­cat­ing some­thing mor­bid in the af­fec­tion; it is only af­ter­wards that the fright­ful fancy breaks upon us that it is not mor­bid af­fec­tion but mor­bid an­tag­o­nism. This first mys­tery (which is no longer a mys­tery) of Jasper's guUt, is only worth re­mark­ing be­cause it shows that Dick­ens meant and felt him­self able to mask all his bat­ter­ies with real artis­tic strat­e­gy and artis­tic cau­tion. The man­ner of the un­mask­ing of Jasper marks the man­ner and tone in which the whole tale was to be told. Here we have not got to go with Dick­ens sim­ply giv­ing him­self away, as he gave him­self away in Pick­wick or The Christ­mas Carol. Some­times one wish­es that he would thus give him­self away; for there was no bet­ter gift.

What was the mys­tery of Edwin Drood from Dick­ens's point of view we shall never know, ex­cept per­haps from Dick­ens in heav­en, and then he will very like­ly have for­got­ten. But the mys­tery of Edwin Drood from our point of view, from that of his crit­ics, and those who have with some courage (after his death) at­tempt­ed to be his col­lab­o­ra­tors, is sim­ply this. There is no doubt that Jasper ei­ther mur­dered Drood or sup­posed that he had mur­dered him. The cer­tain­ty we have from the fact that it is the whole point of a scene be­tween Jasper and Drood's lawyer Grew­gious, that Jasper is struck down with re­morse when he re­alis­es that Drood has been killed (from his point of view) need­less­ly and with­out prof­it. The only ques­tion is whether Jasper's re­morse was as need­less as his mur­der. In other words the only ques­tion is whether, while he cer­tain­ly thought he had mur­dered Drood, he had re­al­ly done it. It need hard­ly be said that such a doubt would not have been raised for noth­ing; gen­tle­men like Jasper do not as a rule waste good re­morse ex­cept upon suc­cess­ful crime. The ori­gin of the doubt about the real death of Drood is this. To­wards the lat­ter end of the ex­ist­ing chap­ters there ap­pears very abrupt­ly, and with a quite os­ten­ta­tious air of mys­tery, a char­ac­ter called Datch­ery. He ap­pears to have the pur­pose of spy­ing upon Jasper and get­ting up some case against him; at any rate, if he has not this pur­pose in the story he has no other earth­ly pur­pose in it. He is an old gen­tle­man of ju­ve­nile en­er­gy, with a habit of car­ry­ing his hat in his hand even in the open air; which some have in­ter­pret­ed as mean­ing that he feels the un­ac­cus­tomed weight of a wig. Now there are one or two peo­ple in the story whom this per­son might pos­si­bly be. No­tably there is one per­son in the story, who seems as if he were meant to be some­thing, but who hith­er­to has cer­tain­ly been noth­ing; I mean Baz­zard, Mr. Grew­gious's clerk, a sulky fel­low in­ter­est­ed in the­atri­cals, of whom an un­nec­es­sary fuss is made. There is also Mr. Grew­gious him­self, and there is also an­oth­er sug­ges­tion, so much more startling that I shall have to deal with it later.

For the mo­ment, how­ev­er, the point is this. That cel­e­brat­ed writ­er, Mr. Proc­tor, start­ed the high­ly plau­si­ble the­o­ry that this Datch­ery was Drood him­self, who had not re­al­ly been killed. He ad­duced a most in­ge­nious scheme cov­er­ing near­ly all the de­tails; but the strongest ar­gu­ment he had was rather one of gen­er­al artis­tic ef­fect. This ar­gu­ment has been quite per­fect­ly summed up by Mr. An­drew Lang in one sen­tence: "If Edwin Drood is dead, there is not much mys­tery about him." This is quite true; Dick­ens, when writ­ing in so de­lib­er­ate, nay, dark and de­lib­er­ate a man­ner, would sure­ly have kept the death of Drood and the guilt of Jasper hid­den a lit­tle longer if the only real mys­tery had been the guilt of Jasper and the death of Drood. It cer­tain­ly seems ar­tis­ti­cal­ly more like­ly that there was a fur­ther mys­tery of Edwin Drood ; not the mys­tery that he was mur­dered, but the mys­tery that he was not mur­dered. It is true in­deed that Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters has a the­o­ry of Datch­ery (to which I have al­ready dark­ly al­lud­ed) a the­o­ry which is wild enough to be the cen­tre not only of any novel but of any harlequinade. But the point is that even Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters' the­o­ry, though it makes the mys­tery more ex­traor­di­nary, does not make it any more of a mys­tery of Edwin Drood. It should not have been called The Mys­tery of Drood, but The Mys­tery of Datch­ery. This is the strongest case for Proc­tor; if the story tells of Drood com­ing back as Datch­ery, the story does at any rate ful­fil the title upon its title page.

The prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tion to Proc­tor's the­o­ry is that there seems no ad­e­quate rea­son why Jasper should not have mur­dered his nephew if he want­ed to. And there seems even less rea­son why Drood, if un­suc­cess­ful­ly mur­dered, should not have raised the alarm. Happy young ar­chi­tects, when near­ly stran­gled by el­der­ly or­gan­ists, do not gen­er­al­ly stroll away and come back some time af­ter­wards in a wig and with a false name. It does seem su­per­fi­cial­ly true to say that it would seem al­most as odd to find the mur­der­er in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ori­gin of the mur­der, as to find the corpse in­ves­ti­gat­ing it. To this prob­lem two of the ablest lit­er­ary crit­ics of our time, Mr. An­drew Lang and Mr. William Archer (both of them per­suad­ed gen­er­al­ly of the Proc­tor the­o­ry) have es­pe­cial­ly ad­dressed them­selves. Both have come to the same sub­stan­tial con­clu­sion; and I sus­pect that they are right. They hold that Jasper (whose mania for opium is much in­sist­ed on in the tale) had some sort of fit, or trance, or other phys­i­cal seizure as he was com­mit­ting the crime, so that he left it un­fin­ished; and they also hold that he had drugged Drood, so that Drood, when he re­cov­ered from the at­tack, was doubt­ful about who had been his as­sailant. This might re­al­ly ex­plain, if a lit­tle fan­ci­ful­ly, his com­ing back to the town in the char­ac­ter of a de­tec­tive. He might think it due to his uncle (whom he last re­mem­bered in a kind of mur­der­ous vi­sion) to make an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion as to whether he was re­al­ly guilty or not. He might say, as Ham­let said of a vi­sion equal­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, "I'll have grounds more rel­a­tive than this." In fair­ness it must be said that there is some­thing vague­ly shaky about this the­o­ry; chiefly, I think, in this re­spect; that there is a sort of far­ci­cal cheer­ful­ness about Datch­ery which does not seem al­to­geth­er ap­pro­pri­ate to a lad who ought to be in an agony of doubt as to whether his best friend was or was not his as­sas­sin. Still there are many such in­con­gruities in Dick­ens; and the ex­pla­na­tion of Mr. Archer and Mr. Lang is an ex­pla­na­tion. I do not be­lieve that any ex­pla­na­tion as good can be given to ac­count for the tale being called The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, if the tale prac­ti­cal­ly starts with his corpse.

If Drood is re­al­ly dead one can­not help feel­ing the story ought to end where it does end, not by ac­ci­dent but by de­sign. The mur­der is ex­plained. Jasper is ready to be hanged, and every one else in a de­cent novel ought to be ready to be mar­ried. If there was to be much more of any­thing, it must have been of an­ti-cli­max. Nev­er­the­less there are de­grees of an­ti-cli­max. Some of the more ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tions of Datch­ery are quite rea­son­able, but they are dis­tinct­ly tame. For in­stance, Datch­ery may be Baz­zard; but it is not very ex­cit­ing if he is; for we know noth­ing about Baz­zard and care less. Again, he might be Grew­gious; but there is some­thing point­less about one grotesque char­ac­ter dress­ing up as an­oth­er grotesque char­ac­ter ac­tu­al­ly less amus­ing than him­self. Now, Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters has at least had the dis­tinc­tion of in­vent­ing a the­o­ry which makes the story at least an in­ter­est­ing story, even if it is not ex­act­ly the story that is promised on the cover of the book. The ob­vi­ous enemy of Drood, on whom sus­pi­cion first falls, the swarthy and sulky Land­less, has a sis­ter even swarthi­er and, ex­cept for her queen­ly dig­ni­ty, even sulki­er than he. This bar­bar­ic princess is ev­i­dent­ly meant to be (in a som­bre way) in love with Crisparkle, the cler­gy­man and mus­cu­lar Chris­tian who rep­re­sents the breezy el­e­ment in the emo­tions of the tale. Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters se­ri­ous­ly main­tains that it is this bar­bar­ic princess who puts on a wig and dress­es up as Mr. Datch­ery. He urges his case with much in­ge­nu­ity of de­tail. He­le­na Land­less cer­tain­ly had a mo­tive ; to save her broth­er, who was ac­cused false­ly, by ac­cus­ing Jasper just­ly. She cer­tain­ly had some of the fac­ul­ties; it is elab­o­rate­ly stat­ed in the ear­li­er part of her story that she was ac­cus­tomed as a child to dress up in male cos­tume and run into the wildest ad­ven­tures. There may be some­thing in Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters' ar­gu­ment that the very flip­pan­cy of Datch­ery is the self-con­scious flip­pan­cy of a strong woman in such an odd sit­u­a­tion; cer­tain­ly there is the same flip­pan­cy in Por­tia and in Ros­alind. Nev­er­the­less, I think there is one final ob­jec­tion to the the­o­ry; and that is sim­ply this, that it is comic. It is gen­er­al­ly wrong to rep­re­sent a great mas­ter of the grotesque as being grotesque ex­act­ly where he does not in­tend to be. And I am per­suad­ed that if Dick­ens had re­al­ly meant He­le­na to turn into Datch­ery, he would have made her from the first in some way more light, ec­cen­tric, and laugh­able; he would have made her at least as light and laugh­able as Rosa. As it is, there is some­thing strange­ly stiff and in­cred­i­ble about the idea of a lady so dark and dig­ni­fied dress­ing up as a swag­ger­ing old gen­tle­man in a blue coat and grey trousers. We might al­most as eas­i­ly imag­ine Edith Dombey dress­ing up as Major Bag­stock. We might al­most as eas­i­ly imag­ine Re­bec­ca in Ivan­hoe dress­ing up as Isaac of York.

Of course such a ques­tion can never re­al­ly be set­tled pre­cise­ly, be­cause it is the ques­tion not mere­ly of a mys­tery but of a puz­zle. For here the de­tec­tive novel dif­fers from every other kind of novel. The or­di­nary nov­el­ist de­sires to keep his read­ers to the point; the de­tec­tive nov­el­ist ac­tu­al­ly de­sires to keep his read­ers off the point. In the first case, every touch must help to tell the read­er what he means; in the sec­ond case, most of the touch­es must con­ceal or even con­tra­dict what he means. You are sup­posed to see and ap­pre­ci­ate the small­est ges­tures of a good actor; but you do not see all the ges­tures of a con­juror if he is a good con­juror. Hence, into the crit­i­cal es­ti­mate of such works as this, there is in­tro­duced a prob­lem, an extra per­plex­i­ty, which does not exist in other cases. I mean the prob­lem of the things com­mon­ly called blinds. Some of the points which we pick out as being sug­ges­tive may have been put in as being de­cep­tive. Thus the whole con­flict be­tween a crit­ic with one the­o­ry, like Mr. Lang, and a crit­ic with an­oth­er the­o­ry, like Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters, be­comes eter­nal and a tri­fle far­ci­cal. Mr. Wal­ters says that all Mr. Lang's clues were blinds; Mr. Lang says that all Mr. Wal­ters' clues were blinds. Mr. Wal­ters can say that some pas­sages seemed to show that He­le­na was Datch­ery; Mr. Lang can reply that those pas­sages were only meant to de­ceive sim­ple peo­ple like Mr. Wal­ters into sup­pos­ing that she was Datch­ery. Sim­i­lar­ly Mr. Lang can say that the re­turn of Drood is fore­shad­owed; and Mr. Wal­ters can reply that it was fore­shad­owed be­cause it was never meant to come off. There seems no end to this in­sane pro­cess; any­thing that Dick­ens wrote may or may not mean the op­po­site of what it says. Upon this prin­ci­ple I should be very ready for one to de­clare that all the sug­gest­ed Datch­erys were re­al­ly blinds; mere­ly be­cause they can nat­u­ral­ly be sug­gest­ed. I would un­der­take to main­tain that Mr. Datch­ery is re­al­ly Miss Twin­kle­ton, who has some mer­ce­nary in­ter­est in keep­ing Rosa Budd at her school. This sug­ges­tion does not seem to me to be re­al­ly much more ridicu­lous than Mr. Gum­ming Wal­ters' the­o­ry. Yet ei­ther may cer­tain­ly be true. Dick­ens is dead, and a num­ber of splen­did scenes and startling ad­ven­tures have died with him. Even if we get the right so­lu­tion we shall not know that it is right. The tale might have been, and yet it has not been. And I think there is no thought so much cal­cu­lat­ed to make one doubt death it­self, to feel that sub­lime doubt which has cre­at­ed all re­li­gion — the doubt that found death in­cred­i­ble. Edwin Drood may or may not have re­al­ly died; but sure­ly Dick­ens did not re­al­ly die. Sure­ly our real de­tec­tive liveth and shall ap­pear in the lat­ter days of the earth. For a fin­ished tale may give a man im­mor­tal­i­ty in the light and lit­er­ary sense; but an un­fin­ished tale sug­gests an­oth­er im­mor­tal­i­ty, more nec­es­sary and more strange.

"Appreciations and criticisms of the works of Charles Dickens" by G. K. Chesterton, 
1911, London: J. M. Dent & sons, LTD. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.