Prof. R. A. S Macalister: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Some Suggestions

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.