Dr. Beachcombing: Edwin Drood and Spirit Resolution

Original at Beachcombing's Bizarre History blog


HE Mys­tery of Edwin Drood is Dick­ens’ un­fin­ished novel. Half way writ­ten when the au­thor died in 1870, it has long of­fered an op­por­tu­ni­ty to pot boil­ers to fin­ish off the novel for them­selves – it is es­sen­tial­ly a mur­der mys­tery – some­thing many have tried, im­pos­si­ble as it is to judge Dick­ens’ plans for the char­ac­ters. This piece by Conan Doyle tick­led Beach be­cause it de­scribes an at­tempt to re­solve mat­ters by turn­ing to the spir­it world.

In the orig­i­nal form of this essay, which ap­peared in the ­Fort­night­ly Re­view, I de­vot­ed some space to con­sid­er­ing a con­tin­u­a­tion of Edwin Drood, which pro­fessed to come from Charles Dick­ens through the hand of one James who was fore­man in a print­ing of­fice in Brat­tle­bor­ough, Ver­mont. No one who reads it can deny that it is an ex­cel­lent im­i­ta­tion of the great au­thor’s style, but the most un­con­vinc­ing part was the nar­ra­tive it­self, which was clum­sy and im­prob­a­ble. My con­clu­sion was ‘that the ac­tu­al in­spi­ra­tion of Dick­ens is far from being ab­so­lute­ly es­tab­lished.’ I added, how­ev­er, ‘No one with any crit­i­cal fac­ul­ty would say that the re­sult was an en­tire­ly un­wor­thy one, though if writ­ten by the liv­ing Dick­ens it would cer­tain­ly not have im­proved his rep­u­ta­tion. It reads,’ I added, ‘like Dick­ens gone flat’.

How­ev­er, there was a se­quel.

Short­ly after I had writ­ten as above I had a sit­ting with Florizel von Reuter the cel­e­brat­ed vi­o­lin vir­tu­oso, and his moth­er. Their (or rather her) medi­umship is of a most con­vinc­ing na­ture, as its tech­nique is in it­self of ab­nor­mal power. She sits with her eyes tight­ly ban­daged, and her hand upon a small point­er which darts very rapid­ly at the let­ters of the al­pha­bet, while her son writes down the re­sult. There is no ques­tion at all about the ban­dage being ad­e­quate, and she does not turn her face down to the board. The let­ters too, are so close to­geth­er that she could not learn to touch them with ac­cu­ra­cy. Yet the mes­sages come through with ex­treme speed. What­ev­er their value there is no ques­tion that they come in preter­nat­u­ral fash­ion. Imag­ine us there, seat­ed, these two at the cen­tre table, my wife and I in the cor­ner of our cot­tage room. Dick­ens and Drood had been in my mind, but our vis­i­tors had no means of know­ing that.

Un­less, of course they had read Doyle’s ar­ti­cle in the Fort­night­ly Re­view…

Florizel von Reuter had never read Edwin Drood. His moth­er had read it years ago but had a very vague mem­o­ry as to the book. Sud­den­ly the point­er be­gins to dart fu­ri­ous­ly and Florizel reads off each sen­tence as he notes it down Some of them, I may add, came in look­ing-glass writ­ing and had to be read back­wards. The first was, ‘Boz is buzzing about’. Boz, of course, was the nom-de-plume of Dick­ens, so I asked if it was he. He ea­ger­ly de­clared that it was. After a short in­ter­change of di­a­logue I said, ‘Will you an­swer some ques­tions?’ ‘I hope I know enough,’ was the an­swer. ‘Was that Amer­i­can who fin­ished Edwin Drood in­spired?’ ‘Not by me,’ was the in­stan­ta­neous and de­cid­ed an­swer. Now von Reuter knew noth­ing of this mat­ter, and my own opin­ion was, at the ut­most, neu­tral, so that this pos­i­tive an­swer re­flect­ed none of our own thoughts. Then came a fur­ther mes­sage. ‘Wilkie C. did’ [or would have done] ‘bet­ter.’ There was, I be­lieve, some talk after Dick­ens’ death of Wilkie Collins fin­ish­ing the book. So far as I know he did noth­ing in the mat­ter. The von Reuters knew noth­ing of this. ‘Was Edwin Drood dead?’ ‘No, he was not.’ That was cer­tain­ly my own opin­ion so I make a pre­sent of it to the telepathist. Then after a pause, the mes­sage went on: ‘I was sorry to go across be­fore I got him out of his trou­ble. The poor chap has had a hard time. I don’t know which is bet­ter, to solve the mys­tery in your note-book or let it re­main a mys­tery for ever. If you make good with Con­rad I will put you on to Edwin.’ ‘I shall be hon­oured, Mr. Dick­ens.’ ‘Charles, if you please. We like friends to be friends.’ The read­er will smile at this. So did I. But facts are facts and I am giv­ing them. I asked: ‘Have you a clear rec­ol­lec­tion of the plot?’ ‘I have.’ ‘Who was Datch­ery?’ ‘What about the fourth di­men­sion? I pre­fer to write it all out through you.’ What the fourth di­men­sion has to do with it I can­not imag­ine. I think it was meant as chaff, since the fourth di­men­sion is what no one can un­der­stand. Now comes the im­por­tant sen­tence: ‘Edwin is alive and Chris is hid­ing him.’

This so­lu­tion con­vinced Doyle for rea­sons he goes on to ex­plain.

Some of the best brains in the world have oc­cu­pied them­selves over the prob­lem as to whether Drood was dead, and if not where he could be. Nu­mer­ous so­lu­tions have been sug­gest­ed, but though I am fair­ly well post­ed in the mat­ter this is an en­tire­ly new one. Chris is the Rev. Crisparkle, who in the novel is a kind­ly and en­er­get­ic, mus­cu­lar Chris­tian. Cer­tain­ly if he played the part in­di­cat­ed it is well con­cealed. But then it was the au­thor’s duty to con­ceal it well. There are sev­er­al sub­tle touch­es which might point to the truth of it. On re-read­ing the frag­ment with this idea in my mind I can say with cer­tain­ty that up to a point Crisparkle cer­tain­ly knew noth­ing about it. He has a so­lil­o­quy to that ef­fect, and what­ev­er means are le­git­i­mate by which an au­thor may mis­lead a read­er, a false so­lil­o­quy is not among them. But after that point in the story there is no rea­son why Crisparkle may not have sur­prised Drood’s se­cret, and helped him. There was a huge cup­board in Crisparkle’s room which is de­scribed with a de­tail which seems un­nec­es­sary and ex­ag­ger­at­ed if noth­ing is to come from it. There again the artist drew his fron­tispiece under Dick­ens’ very par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion, and it con­tains small vi­gnettes of var­i­ous scenes. There is one which shows Drood stand­ing in a sort of vault, and some­one who has some in­di­ca­tions of cler­i­cal garb com­ing in to him with a lantern. Is this not Crisparkle and is it not some cor­rob­o­ra­tion of the spir­it mes­sage? We got no more mes­sages at that time. Let us for a mo­ment, how­ev­er, con­sid­er the case. Is it not clear ev­i­dence of an in­tel­li­gence out­side our­selves? I do not in­sist upon Charles Dick­ens. If any­one says to me, ‘How can you prove that it was not an Im­per­son­ation?’ I would admit frankly that I can­not prove it. There is none of that cor­rob­o­ra­tion from style which I get in the case of Wilde and of Lon­don. I put it on the broad­er basis, ‘Was it not an In­tel­li­gence apart from our­selves?’ Whence came an in­ge­nious so­lu­tion of a mys­tery which in­volved a char­ac­ter of which nei­ther of the von Reuters knew any­thing with a so­lu­tion en­tire­ly new to me. I claim that it was a most ev­i­den­tial case of In­tel­li­gence out­side our own phys­i­cal bod­ies. I may add that on the same evening we had a num­ber of mes­sages in Ara­bic which none of us could un­der­stand. When, how­ev­er, I sent them to my friend, Major Mar­riott, who is a com­pe­tent Ara­bic schol­ar, they proved to be quite cor­rect. This re­in­forces the ar­gu­ment that the Dick­ens’ mes­sages were quite apart from our­selves.

January 16, 2013