First published in: "About Dickens", 1908
remember the appearance of this novel in installments at the time of its writing and I recall the general interest that it awakened in this country. Dickens' visit to us in 1842 had been followed by an account of his travels and observations and by the introduction of some American scenes into one of his novels. As he saw us in the later visit, great progress had been made; slavery had disappeared; the cities of the eastern portion of the country had increased in culture and importance; and the nation had risen to the position of one of the world powers.
It was, expected, therefore, by many Americans that he would take occasion, through the pages of a novel, to revoke some of the harsh judgments he had pronounced upon us in the story of Martin and Mark, as he had towards the Jewish community in his presentation of a character in "Our Mutual Friend." There were not wanting some, though the number was very few, who thought that perhaps the disappearance of Edwin Drood was preliminary to shifting the scene for a time to the United States, but the text offers no foundation for this view.
The novel was received in the United States very differently by different persons. I do not think I do the great author injustice by saying that the first chapters were generally disappointing. A few of the critics expressed confidence that it would be one of his best novels, but most Americans found it dull. The intense localization of the scenes, presenting, as they did almost entirely, the rather commonplace life of an English cathedral town, did not attract the American reader who had been accustomed to the more worldly characters in the earlier novels. When I first read it, I was not much attracted to it, but it has grown in favor after close study. In view of its incompleteness, it is a subject for special controversial literature.
I think it may be considered established that Drood was murdered. Numerous sentences from the novel might be quoted to show this, in addition to those frequently quoted by those who have been discussing this topic.
Some points in the story lead one to think that if the novel had been completed along the lines that are generally supposed, it might have given rise to adverse criticism similar to that which was brought against the story of the death of the rag and bottle merchant in "Bleak House." Dickens there used the theory of "spontaneous combustion," but this has been shown by careful research in medical jurisprudence to be impossible. The complete disappearance of the body which is essential to the story cannot take place. Dickens attempted to answer his critics, but his citations are in no sense convincing. Similarly, in "Edwin Drood" it appears from the text, and it is generally conceded, that the body of Drood was to be placed in the Sapsea vault and covered with lime. It is believed that this lime would so far destroy the body as to leave no fragment for identification except the ring which the young man had with him and of which the murderer was ignorant. As a matter of fact, it would have required many buckets of lime to produce any notable destruction of tissue, and even after a considerable time much would have remained by which identification could have been made.
It is not permissible to suppose that many months elapsed before the detection of the crime. The novel seems to have been about half finished; the detective who has appeared at the scene of the murder has already made considerable progress in elucidating the mystery and is obviously regarding Jasper as an important person in the crime.
We will have to imagine that Jasper carried the lime into the Sapsea vault on the same night that the murder was committed, and it imposes a little upon our capacity for imagination to think of him carrying so much material through the streets of the town, even when the night was stormy and the streets deserted.
Moreover, nothing is said as to Durdles noticing next morning the disappearance of the lime, nor is it clear as to what condition this was in. Jasper had observed it a day or so before. It seems to be provecl that Drood was killed by strangulation with the stout silk scarf that Jasper wore on the day of the murder. It may be worth while noting here that a murder of this character appears to have been committed in Philadelphia about twenty years ago. A woman was probably strangled in her bed by a silk handkerchief, wound around the neck tightly and tied in two knots. The body was buried in the kitchen of her home and was found some fourteen years afterward in repairing the floor of that place. Nothing remained but a skeleton, a few fragments of cloth, a pocketbook and the handkerchief, somewhat injured, but complete in its circle with its two knots. I was an expert in the case; heard the details of it, and saw this relic.
It is permitted, to a limited extent, to the author of a work of fiction to pass beyond the bounds of probability, or at least to set up details in the plot which will not bear strict cross-examination. A great novel produces in the minds of most persons exactly the same effect as true history. To most of us who read Dickens with earnestness and interest, Mr. Pickwick is as real as Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Jefferson; Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear are as real to the readers of Shakspere as is Henry the Eighth or Wolsey. Nevertheless, we all recognize that we cannot subject these works of fiction to the critical tests to which we subject writings that are intended to record history.
Few, if any, of Shakspere's plays are consistent in regard to sequence in time. I do not mean by this merely that they are not faithful to the chronology of the period in which the action is cast. That fact is well known. Shakspere's anachronisms are frequent and almost unprecedented. He makes Hector quote Aristotle; he makes Hamlet allude to cannons. These inconsistencies do not disturb us. The playwright and the novelist create not only the characters, but, to a certain extent, a world of fiction which has its own methods and movements. It is permissible to genius, under these circumstances, even to make yesterday the day after to-morrow, which, if we closely analyze plays and novels, will be found to be often the case. The time-sequence in Shakspere's plays has been shown to be so utterly inconsistent with the normal course of affairs that one critic has suggested the introduction of two systems of time in most of the plays. Mr. Fitzgerald has shown the confusion of time-sequence in some respects in the story of Pickwick.
Returning to the discussion of the murder of Drood and the disposal of the body, let us take up the incident of the finding of the jewelry. It is clear that Dickens intended, as has been shown by several critics, that Jasper should remove all the jewelry that he knew the young man carried.
This is brought out very strongly in the interview with the jeweler who tells Drood that Mr. Jasper knows what jewelry he (Drood) carries. It is not clear, however, how the presence of the watch and stick-pin in the river is to be explained, and there is a bit of what might be called " expert testimony" introduced which cannot be regarded as sound. The jeweler stated that the watch had not been wound since it had been in his shop that afternoon, and that it had run down before being thrown in the water. It does not appear to me that sufficient details can be adduced to justify any such decisions. It is possible that the statement is of the type denominated by Mr. Walters "false lights," and that in the development of the plot it would appear that Jasper had kept the jewelry for a little while and thrown it into the river when occasion offered. It cannot be supposed that Drood was murdered near the river, for Mr. Landless, when asked what happened when they went down to look at the river on the night of the disappearance, said that they stayed on the bank about ten minutes and then walked back together to Mr. Crisparkle's house, where Drood took leave of him, saying he was "going straight back." This expression "straight back" means back to Mr. Jasper's house. It is not at all likely that Mr. Jasper would then lure him to the river to murder him and have the trouble of dragging the body all the way back to the Sapsea vault. Drood was probably murdered in Jasper's house or near the cemetery.
Conceding, then, that one phase of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," namely, Drood's disappearance, was due to his murder and the hiding of his body, it is necessary to consider the course of events which would have led up to the discovery of the crime and the detection of the criminal. Fortunately for these inquries, the novel progressed far enough to introduce an important agent in this work. A person evidently on detective duty suddenly appears in Cloisterham. The identity of Mr. Datchery has been one of the questions actively, and, one might almost say, even acrimoniously, debated. Several suppositions may be made. In the first place, is he an entirely new character or is he one of the familiar persons of the story in disguise? So far as the latter feature of the supposition is concerned, it may be said with confidence that we are limited to Bazzard and Helena Landless. In recent publications on the subject, each of these solutions finds a strenuous champion. Mr. Walters is thoroughly satisfied that the detective is Helena Landless; Mr. Charles is just as thoroughly satisfied that he is Mr. Bazzard.
Each theory has its difficulties and its advantages. It seems as if the existing chapters of Edwin Drood have been sprinkled more liberally than usual with remarks suggestive of the course of the plot, but it is a question how far these apparent lights, true and false, are the product of intense critical examination, or intentional suggestions by the author. In all departments of the so-called "higher criticism" the influence of the "expected" is very apt to mislead. What we expect to find is apt to be found. We are like FitzJames wandering through the woods, where "Still from copse and heather deep Fancy saw spear and broadsword peep."
Taking up the theory that Datchery is Miss Landless, we find the several reasons in its favor to be her stalwart, almost masculine nature; her deep dislike and mistrust of Jasper; the necessity of active service to acquit her brother of the suspicion which she knows to be unjust; and her friendship for Rosa. Early in the story her brother tells of how the two of them had run away from home in Ceylon, she dressing for concealment in male attire. This is supposed to be one of the strongest indications on the part of the author of the ability of Miss Landless to pose as a man, but if Dickens intended this plan, he surely overlooked some grave, practical objections to its execution. There is no comparison between the disguises of a young girl in the loose male attire of the natives of Ceylon and the close-fitting dress of an English cathedral town. Furthermore, in Ceylon the disguise, even if insufficient to conceal the sex, would have excited no particular attention among a large proportion of the population, who have nothing like the standards of propriety that exist in the settled social circles in which the detective work was being done. We have to imagine that a young woman, fully developed, was able, for a considerable period, to masquerade as a man in the midst of people who had known her for some months. It seems impossible that she could have escaped discovery for even an hour. Mrs. Tope would surely have detected her sex, if not her identity. Her voice would have betrayed her to those who had met her previously. Mr. Walters is fully aware of this difficulty in his theory, and he meets it by the statement (page 85) that "so far as the records in the story go, Helena and" Jasper only met once face to face, and it is of the "utmost significance that Dickens does not represent them as exchanging a single word."
This is, however, not justified by the text. It is true that during the dinner, at which, under ordinary circumstances, there would have been ample opportunity for conversation, the extraordinary Mr. Honeythunder monopolized the conversation to such an extent that, as Mr. Crisparkle said, Mr. Neville did not even get a chance to speak to his sister. Later, however, the philanthropist was hurried off to the omnibus. It was five minutes' walk from the house to the omnibus station, and Mr. Crisparkle and Mr. Landless not only walked there and back, but took several extra turns to complete their conversation, and prior to the last stroll stood at the house door and heard "a cheerful sound of voices and laughter." We must assume at least twenty minutes of time for their absence, and it does not seem at all likely that Helena Landless was silent. Mr. Jasper must have heard her voice and seen the play of expression on her features quite sufficiently to recognize her under such disguise as that which Mr. Datchery assumed. There is nothing in the character of Helena Landless which would lead us to assume that she could act successfully the masculine part in the sense in which she is supposed to have done. That she had unusual courage for a woman, great self-control, great capacity for sacrifice and devotion, is undoubted, but these do not give masculinity of deportment. All that we see of her is that she retained fully her womanliness. There is no reason to suppose that in the disguise which she assumed in childhood, she had successfully imitated the masculine manners. According to the story, these masqueradings occurred between the ages of 7 and 13, and there is a great difference, as I have said, between such a girl putting on male attire in Ceylon and a woman of 21 attempting the same in an English city. That Helena Landless was 21, we know from the observations of Mr. Honeythunder that his wards were of age and had been dismissed from his control. Concerning the recognition of the voice, it must be borne in mind that Mr. Jasper is credited with especial acuteness in such matters; he was able to distinguish Durdles' keys by sound.
Incidental objections have also appealed to Mr. Walters, particularly that on page 80 of his book, concerning the meals that Datchery ordered. He dismisses this objection briefly, but his explanation does not appeal to me. Nor is his argument concerning the peculiar method of keeping the record of investigations at all satisfactory. We may understand the significance of the chalk marks, but the difficulty is how could Miss Landless acquire any knowledge of that method. Nor is there any necessity for it, since she could keep to herself the memoranda, and the handwriting consequently would be of no significance. Mr. Walters' idea is that it was necessary to have some method by which the handwriting should be concealed, but it does not appear that there would be any necessity for the detective to write down anything. It seems more likely that this chalk-mark system of keeping scores was intended to be brought in at a later period of the novel in a relation that cannot be determined from the existing text. In a recent communication in The Dickensian, Mr. Walters has reiterated his confidence in his theory, and antagonizes that of Mr. Charles, who holds that Datchery was Bazzard. Mr. Walters dismisses the Bazzard theory with the statement that most of the indications upon which Mr. Charles relies are false lights intended by the author to lead to just such an erroneous opinion. It seems to me, however, that it is not sound criticism to thus make fish of one set of statements and flesh of the other. We are perfectly at liberty to regard some of the clues that Mr. Walters offers in support of his theory as false lights. I repeat here the caution that viewing these texts with such minutely critical methods, with, as Mr. Samuel Weller would have said, "A pair of patent, double million, magnifying gas microscopes of hextra power," we see many things that the author did not intend. Dickens was representing, in accordance with his methods, live people, dealing with the serious issues of life, and moving and having their being in an English town. Not every utterance is pregnant. Much of the conversation is framed to meet artistic requirements; every character of importance must be given such a part to play as shall clearly indicate to the reader the temperament and moral principles represented. Some of the account, therefore, which Mr. Landless gives to his tutor concerning his sister may not have so deep a significance as that which Mr. Walters attaches to it.
Nor can I accept the view, upon which Mr. Walters insists so strongly, that Bazzard is a stupid person merely put in to be an object of ridicule. I think it not at all unreasonable to suppose that the facts of the unproduced play and its title, "The Thorn of Anxiety," were introduced to be made part of the later developments of the plot. The subordinate position of Bazzard need not be regarded as rendering him unavailable for detective duty. Mr. Nadgett is merely a man kept "at a pound a week" to investigate the persons applying for protection in Mr. Tigg's company. However, it must be said that, in spite of all that has been written, the identity of Datchery is in doubt, and it is as likely as not that he was not any character so far presented in the book.
Other phases of the novel deserve consideration. I have been interested in comparing it with "Our Mutual Friend, "which as its immediate predecessor will be worth while studying to see if the two works possess any peculiarities in common.
We find at once striking resemblances, all the more so because they are features that do not appear in the other novels. Both novels have for a prominent motive the betrothal of a couple by the "dead hand." Differences of detail are, of course, noted, but the motive is not found in any of the other great stories. Further, in each of them a murderous rivalry for the love of a woman forms a prominent feature. Here again the details differ; the betrothed heroine of "Our Mutual Friend" is not the object of this rivalry, but the heroine of "Edwin Drood" is. The point is that Dickens had never before introduced into his novels a manifestation of love so strong as to lead to a great crime. It is of no importance that the attempt on Wrayburn failed. It was intended to be a murder. Rivalries in love are to be found in the earlier novels, but most of them are little more than nominal, and lead to comedy not tragedy. Simon's love for Dolly; Uriah's thoughts of Agnes; John's fondness for Amy; Bob's intentions towards Arabella; all these are of secondary interest, and almost always when brought to notice are used for producing amusing situations. Even in the deeper touches of passion, as in the cases of Carker, Maiden, Harthouse and Steerforth, the tragic feature that so often in real life follows upon such relations is kept out by special methods.
It is matter of some little wonder to the American mind that Dickens' novels show so little of the personality of the Anglican clergy. From other English literature it would seem that its hierarchy is numerous and that it influences profoundly English society. The clergymen of the novels of Dickens are generally non-conformists and are held up to ridicule. He did not seem to see any possibility of sincerity or philosophy in them. In "Our Mutual Friend," the Reverend Mr. Milvey appears. He is but a faint figure in the story, but he is given an attractive personality. In "Edwin Drood" a clerical figure is given great prominence. Yet it is to be noted that the author's wonderful capacity for seeing character compelled him to present the higher dignitary — the Dean — in a decidedly unattractive light. The conversation between the Dean and the Minor Canon relative to the relinquishment of the latter's tutorship of Neville is one of the most dramatic paragraphs in the work, and shows that, however strong had become the author's interest in the church, he could not overlook the deference to convention often noted in its more favored dignitaries.
It is conceded also that in the last novel Dickens professedly undertook to develop an intricate plot. It is doubtful, however, if he would have succeeded. Unless the later chapters of "Edwin Drood" were to follow a different course from those that are before us, the outcome of the main action of the novel would have been detected long before the last chapter appeared. We have, however, quite enough of the text to show that the great author's tendencies had undergone material change, and that had he lived the full period of threescore and ten, he would have probably added several stories that would have contrasted strongly intone and method with his earlier work. Yet it must not be overlooked that in the earliest period of his career he had given evidence of great versatility, for Pickwick was immediately followed by "Oliver Twist." It would be difficult to find two novels as different in motive and phase as these.
Another interesting inquiry suggests itself. What part was it intended that Mr. Honeythunder should play? Is he merely a passing figure, introduced to enable the author to express views on one phase of the movement for social reform in England, or would he have been used later to assist or delay the realization of the plot? He dominates the story whenever he appears, and from the acrimonious discussion with Mr. Crisparkle it seems that the especial object of Dickens' disapproval was the temperance movement. I see in the character of Honeythunder a symptom of the changing point of view as to sociology that had been brought about by the increasing years and increasing satisfaction with life, the usual result when life has been successful both as to fame and fortune.
We can feel tolerably sure as to the main course of the novel, but the details are unobtainable. We must say of the work, as Longfellow said of Hawthorne: