First published at "Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review", Vol. 5, No. 19
HARLES Dickens died in June 1870, leaving one half of his last book written, and nothing on record as to how it was to be finished. This is the more unfortunate, as the fragment holds out hopes of being one of the novelist's greatest masterpieces. It is impossible to condense the complicated plot, so far as it goes, in order to shew one who had not read the fragment the whole course of the story and the relationships of its numerous characters; in fact, I must assume that the readers of this essay are already familiar with the novel. Let the barest outline of the tale suffice. John Jasper is a cathedral choirmaster, who, though a young man, has a grown-up nephew, Edwin Drood. The latter was betrothed in childhood to a girl whom Jasper loves. Jasper hates and plots to kill his nephew, while expressing the most extravagant affection for him. Jasper is a victim of the opium habit, and periodically visits a disreputable woman who keeps an opium den in London. Drood mysteriously disappears. Just as the story in its unfinished state ends, a character called Datchery, apparently in disguise, makes his appearance, evidently with the purpose of finding out what has become of Drood.
The story was to have been finished in twelve monthly parts, of which six were completed ; and it is clear that the problem has been put before the reader in the extant half, and that the working-out of the solution is just beginning when the tale breaks off. The three chief questions which are left unsolved are — (1) Was Drood really murdered? (2) Who was masquerading as Datchery? (3) What were the real relations between Jasper and the opium woman? — they were evidently closer than that of mere purveyor and customer. Various writers have applied themselves to these questions; the chapters existing have been scrutinised for clues with the most meticulous minuteness, and numerous different solutions have been proposed. To review all of these (many of them are obviously ridiculous) would be unnecessary; it has been done already by Mr. Cuming Walters, in his book, The Complete Edwin Drood. In Sir W. It. Nicoll's The Problem of Edwin Drood a bibliography will be found. In fact, by now everything that can with profit be said about these questions has been said, and I content myself with stating the solutions that I assume to be true. I am writing principally to bring forward a few minor points which I have not seen mentioned in any of the writings that I have consulted.
(1). I can see no reason to doubt that Drood is really dead, strangled in the cathedral precincts by Jasper with his black scarf, and most probably buried in lime inside the Sapsea monument. It has been suggested [In Dr. Jackson's About Edwin Drood] (from a false reading of one of the vignettes on the cover of the monthly parts, coupled with an exclamation of Jasper's when under the influence of opium) that the cathedral tower was the scene of the murder; but anyone who has ascended a church tower in even a moderately high wind will understand that the cathedral tower would not be inviting — it might be positively dangerous — on the night of the murder, which was marked by a great storm.
(2). As to Datchery, the arguments of Mr. Walters and Sir W. R. Nicoll have convinced me that he is the wild Ceylon girl, Helena Landless, in disguise. This may be bad art, as some have objected; that is a matter of opinion. It may also be a physical or psychological impossibility, as others have maintained. But so is the "spontaneous combustion" of Krook in Bleak House, a physical impossibility. So, in the book before us, is Durdles's alleged power to detect a hollow in a solid in a hollow in a solid by tapping on the outer shell of the complication! If we accept these and other impossibilities without demur, we may accept this also. The rather too obvious clues pointing to Bazzard, the playacting clerk, which some of the "detectives" have laid hold upon, are clearly meant to draw the inquisitive reader off the scent. Of course the unmasking of Datchery would have been one of the great dramatic moments in the book, and would have been spoiled had the secret been prematurely guessed. It should be remembered that the existing chapters would not have been so minutely scrutinised as they have been had the book been complete. Most readers would have placidly read on, accepting Datchery as a new character till the moment of revelation; others, more astute, would have suspected some mystification, and Bazzard's function is to act for their benefit the part of the essential red herring.
(3). As to the opium woman, her secret was evidently to be an even greater surprise than Datchery's, and so it is the more carefully concealed. The surmise that she was Jasper's mother is by far the most probable of the guesses that have been made on the subject. It is due to Mr. Walters, though he does not notice that the cathedral scene, with which the book breaks off, seems vaguely written round some such idea. The point of this incident surely is, that Jasper and the opium woman are so placed that they can be compared, and a physical resemblance traced between them. Datchery notes the woman's hostility to Jasper. The more important discovery, of the relationship between the two, is probably to be laid to the credit of the precocious Deputy, who is introduced, otherwise quite unnecessarily, looking "astonished" from the one to the other, through the choir screen. [Some sort of parallel may be drawn between this scone and the recognition of Esther and Lady Dedlock (Bleak House), which likewise takes place in a church.]
It is true, earlier in the book, Edwin has a flash of a similar intuition: "How like Jack that night," he exclaims when he meets the woman in the street. [The reader at this stage of the book assumes that the resemblance is caused by the similar action of the opium; but it is probably based on a deeper foundation.] All the details of the connexion between Jasper and the opium woman are sedulously kept in the background, and nothing would have been allowed to come out, we may be sure, till the very end of the book when complete. Speculation on the cause of the woman's enmity towards Jasper is, therefore, perfectly futile. It is, however, not unreasonable to surmise that a painful scene had taken place between the two in the precincts, a year before the story opens. Durdles relates to Jasper how he had heard what he called the "ghost of a cry" and the howling of a dog: and Jasper is evidently much disturbed to learn that Durdles has heard these sounds. That incident is one of the minor mysteries of which we were surely destined to hear again, as otherwise it would be, to use Jasper's expression, "unintelligible."
As materials for determining the conclusion of the tale we have the synopsis of the plot communicated by the novelist to' his biographer, Forster, and one of the five vignettes on the cover of the monthly parts. The tale follows Forster's abstract exactly so far as it goes, and we have no right to suppose that it would have deviated from it in the unwritten parts. We may, therefore, suppose that Drood's body is to be completely consumed by the lime in which it has been deposited, but that it will be identified by means of a ring which was in his possession unknown to the murderer; that Jasper is to be unmasked and seized with the help of Tartar and of Neville Landless, the latter of whom is to lose his life in the struggle; that Tartar is to marry Rosa, Drood's quondam fiancée, and that the minor canon Crisparkle is to marry Helena ; and that Jasper is to write a review of his career in the condemned cell. These were to be the main points of the story; if it fell short of the length agreed upon between author and publishers it would be expanded by the introduction of subsidiary incidents, relating to the characters in the book, but aside from the chief current of the plot. A disconnected fragment, headed "How Mr. Sapsea ceased to be a member of the Eight Club," found among Dickens's papers after his death, was perhaps the draft for one of these side-studies.
In the case of a book like Drood, with a very complex and nicely adjusted plot, all the major details, and not a few of the minor, must have been thought out in the mind of the author before the actual writing began. In this it contrasts with such a work as Pickwick, which meanders formlessly from incident to incident as the writing proceeds. It follows from this that the vignettes on the cover of Pickwick could not in the nature of things have more than a vague connexion with the finished work; whereas we might expect the cover-vignettes of Drood to have a direct reference to some of the important scenes contemplated; those scenes having been planned out before the cover was designed, as it was, under the direct supervision of the author. We must not expect, however, accuracy in minute details. Thus, while the scene between two lovers on the left-hand side of the cover must represent one of several love-scenes in the book, it is futile to try to find out which, from the costume and attitude of the characters. On such points of detail, which might not have been thought out at the time when the cover was designed, it is reasonable to suppose that the artist would have been left to follow his own devices.
None of the critics of the cover, [The cover has been reproduced in most of the books on the subject] so far as I can find, have noticed one obvious point. The artist would be almost certain to draw the vignettes on the left-hand side first. In fact, he has clearly done so, and has then drawn the right hand side as nearly as possible symmetrical with them. The constrained attitudes of the figures on the staircase, in the right-hand vignette, have therefore nothing to do with the action of the story; they are simply and solely dictated by the desire to make them balance the far less unnatural attitudes of the figures on the left-hand side. Thus it is futile to see in the man pointing over the stair- rail any reference to Jasper's exclamation, "Look down, look down!" We are not entitled to see in this picture anything more than three young men ascending a winding stair; and reduced thus to its lowest terms, the vignette becomes a symbol, so to speak, of the thrice repeated sentence "And so he goes up the postern stair," in the chapter describing the circumstances of the murder. This sentence is the pivot of the whole book, and stares the most careless reader in the face; I cannot understand how so many far-fetched readings have been given of this vignette with this obvious explanation at our disposal.
Thus there remains only one vignette to illustrate the unwritten pages; the other four all refer to incidents in the extant portion. This is the much-discussed vignette at the bottom of the cover. Everyone, so far as I can find, explains this as representing Jasper, entering — for some unexplained reason — the vault where he has placed the body, and there opportunely finding someone, man or ghost, Drood or Datchery, waiting to denounce him. Apart from the evident improbability of such a scene actually taking place, however, we have testimony that shews that this explanation cannot be right. Forster tells us that Jasper is not to be unmasked in this secret way; Tartar and Neville, at least, are to be present. In fact a scene is foreshadowed resembling that in Martin Chuzzlewit, where all the virtuous characters in the book are assembled together to witness the discomfiture of Pecksniff. More exactly, perhaps, we may compare that curious chapter in the same book in which there is a sort of informal amateur rehearsal of the trial of Jonas. Thus there is no room in the scheme for this interview between Jasper and the mysterious stranger; for the exposure would lose half its force if Jasper were thus forewarned.
It follows that the man with a lantern entering the vault cannot be Jasper. The only other person that this middle-aged and clerically attired figure could represent is Crisparkle. The second figure is certainly Datchery; and with these identifications we may outline the course of the denouement with some probability.
After the book breaks off, Datchery will have another talk with Deputy, and will get from him the opium woman's address. It is to be noticed, by the way, that throughout the book the opium woman's name is carefully withheld. When Datchery asks for it, Deputy improvises an absurd nickname. If it was the same as Jasper's, there was a reason for this reticence. Deputy may perhaps hint at what he has observed in the cathedral (see above). Datchery goes to town, sees the woman, and learns what she has to tell about Jasper's ravings under the drug, with perhaps some other facts as well.
Returning to Cloisterham, Datchery will interview Durdles, and will get from him the story of the mysterious night expedition to the cathedral. Some critics do not seem to understand why Jasper took the trouble to ascend the tower on that night. Clearly it was to obtain a bird's- eye view of the whole precincts, so as to decide on the best spot for the commission of the murder, with a view to secrecy and to the convenient disposal of the body afterwards. Durdles will not be able to tell the whole story, since he was for a while under the influence of the drugged drink that Jasper had given him. But Deputy will be at hand to fill in the lacuna; for, of course, in spite of his denial, he was spying on that night, and doubtless saw some interesting things.
A momentous conversation is to take place with Sapsea. Sir W. R. Nicoll has told us [The Problem of Edwin Drood, p. 9.] that Dickens wished to excise most of the recorded conversation between Datchery and that worthy. Surely the only reason why the world was to lose this brilliant bit of writing (which in the actual state of the book is almost essential to complete our picture of Datchery) was the fear of taking off the freshness of something more important of the same kind that was in store. In any case Datchery must interview the mayor; for he must somehow get permission from him to visit the vault, and must borrow from him the key for that purpose. In the conversation Sapsea will probably, by a bit of Sophoclean irony, let slip unconsciously a clue that will still further involve his friend Jasper.
Datchery, in short, has by now accumulated almost enough circumstantial evidence to hang Jasper — if only the body could be found. Durdles has noticed, by his preposterous tappings, that there is something unaccounted for in the Sapsea tomb, and other facts that have come to light will have called Datchery's attention to that moment of marital devotion. He determines to glance into it, to see if by any chance Edwin's body has been laid within it. He does this by night, so as not to attract attention; and for the same reason he brings with him no light, except, probably, a few matches. It is noteworthy, and perhaps important, that in the vignette the vault is represented unlighted, save by the lantern of the intruder.
Datchery is disappointed. He finds nothing but a heap of lime, which, as we are to believe, has by now completely destroyed all that was mortal of Edwin. As a matter of mere fact, it would not have done so; the Euston Square murderer (in 1879, if I remember aright) deposited the body of the victim, one Miss Hackett, in a cellar of lime, possibly taking the hint from this very book; and the only effect was that the body was dried and mummified and so preserved for the benefit of the police 1 However, we must admit the postulate that there is nothing but lime to be seen. As Datchery turns disconsolately away, in comes Crisparkle with a lantern. It is not difficult to guess what brings him there. We are always being given to understand that in his over-» flowing energy he is in the habit of prowling about at unseasonable hours ; and certainly if in a night stroll he happened to observe the door of a vault standing open, he would not hesitate to borrow a lantern from the nearest house and investigate what was going on.
With the arrival of Helena's lover, the way is obviously paved for a dramatic recognition scene, in which Crisparkle is to learn, apparently for the first time, the true nature of Jasper and the suspicions gathering around him; and the reader is to learn the truth about Datchery. The interview is to culminate in a betrothal, at the critical moment of which the "hawk's eyes" of Crisparkle, which are so much insisted on (and which, strange to say, do not seem to suffer any hurt from his genial playacting with spectacles for his mother's benefit!) catch the glitter of the ring shining by the light of his lantern amid the heap of lime. Datchery with his imperfect light has missed it; this is the raison d'etre of Crisparkle's lantern.
It is especially to be noticed that this discovery tells the finders nothing. No one living except Grewgious knew that Drood had in his possession such a ring. Unless they submit it to him, its vital importance as the key to the whole mystery must remain unknown; and as they do not yet realise that Drood's body has been placed in the lime and is consumed to nothing, there is no reason in the world why they should submit the ring to Grewgious; they would be far more likely to hand it to Sapsea. Now, if Datchery alone had found the ring, he might conceivably have slipped it on his finger for a moment, but remembering his disguise he would certainly have taken it off again. But if Crisparkle finds it at the "psychological moment" of his betrothal, and obeying a not unnatural impulse puts it on Helena's finger, she will allow it to remain. That is why Datchery cannot be permitted to enjoy the sole credit of discovering the ring; some device must be found to compel them to bring the ring to Grewgious's notice.
The rest follows naturally. Helena, no longer disguised, but still wearing the ring, goes to Grewgious at his chambers. She lays before him the evidence she has collected, but has to report her failure to find any trace of the body. In the course of the interview, however — perhaps in handing him some document — she allows Grewgious to see the ring, which he at once identifies and thus completes the last link of the chain. Most likely Grewgious will summon all the persons concerned to his chambers, and it is there that the arrest of Jasper will take place.