The Spectator: The True Story of "Edwin Drood"

First published: The Spectator, 28 July 1888 - Page 13


R. PROC­TOR has done him­self in­jus­tice by the title he has given to his lit­tle essay on "Edwin Drood." He has given us noth­ing sen­sa­tion­al, but a con­vinc­ing demon­stra­tion of what the real plot of "Edwin Drood" was in­tend­ed by Dick­ens to be. Mr. Proc­tor is right in say­ing that a per­cep­tion of the real idea un­der­ly­ing this plot is what is chiefly need­ed for rais­ing the book from a com­mon­place and unim­pres­sive story of mur­der, out of which all the Dick­ens was, as Mrs. Cur­del in "Nicholas Nick­le­by" said of the drama, pos­i­tive­ly gone, into an ex­ceed­ing­ly strik­ing and en­tire­ly novel form of Dick­ens's favourite theme, thus form­ing the pow­er­ful con­clu­sion of an as­cend­ing cli­max. This was the rea­son for Dick­ens's ex­treme anx­i­ety, no­tice­able in Forster's Life, not to re­veal the plot to any one pre­ma­ture­ly. He writes to Forster that he has "a very cu­ri­ous and new idea — not a com­mu­ni­ca­ble idea, or the in­ter­est of the book will be gone." Dick­ens, in fact, meant to keep the se­cret even from Forster, for fear of ru­in­ing the in­ter­est of his book:

"From what we know of Forster's rest­less in­quis­i­tive­ness in re­gard to Dick­ens' plans," Mr. Proc­tor re­marks, "we learn with­out sur­prise that im­me­di­ate­ly after he had been told that the idea was not com­mu­ni­ca­ble, he asked to have it com­mu­ni­cat­ed to him. Nor does it seem to have been re­gard­ed by Forster, as at all strange that 'im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter­wards' Dick­ens com­mu­ni­cat­ed to him the idea which had been de­scribed as in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble,' or that the new and cu­ri­ous idea should be both stale and com­mon-place — noth­ing, in fact, but the oft-told tale of a mur­der de­tect­ed by the pres­ence of in­de­struc­tible jew­ellery in lime into which the body of the mur­dered man had been flung. Forster's van­i­ty blind­ed him in such sort that the patent ar­ti­fice was not de­tect­ed. Yet even he asked where the orig­i­nal­i­ty of the idea came in. Dick­ens ex­plains, he naive­ly adds, that it was to con­sist in the re­view of the mur­der­er's ca­reer by him­self at the close, when its temp­ta­tions were to be dwelt upon as if not he, the cul­prit, but some other man were to be tempt­ed.'" 

A new and cu­ri­ous idea, truly! Lit­tle did Dick­ens think that in thus keep­ing at bay for the time his gar­ru­lous and ir­re­press­ible bi­og­ra­pher, he was mak­ing all but his more ob­ser­vant read­ers be­lieve that the Dick­ens they knew was al­ready gone be­fore he died.

But the real plot of the story was ex­act­ly what Dick­ens him­self de­scribed it: "a very cu­ri­ous and new idea, and a very strong one, though dif­fi­cult to work." It was also, as Mr. Proc­tor suc­cess­ful­ly shows, though this was prob­a­bly not per­ceived by Dick­ens him­self, only the fullest de­vel­op­ment of an idea which runs through every one of his nov­els after Pick­wick. That theme, in its sim­plest form, is noth­ing more than that of a per­son — gen­er­al­ly, but not al­ways, a crim­i­nal — watched at every turn by some one for whom he feels noth­ing but con­tempt. In "Oliv­er Twist," "The Old Cu­rios­i­ty Shop," "Dombey and Son," "David Cop­per­field," "Bleak House," "A Tale of Two Cities," and "Great Ex­pec­ta­tions," only the sim­pler form of this theme ap­pears, and then only as a sub­or­di­nate part of the plot. But even a care­ful read­er of Dick­ens may be some­what sur­prised to find on ex­am­i­na­tion that in all the other books, in­clud­ing the more im­por­tant of his short­er tales, the same idea reap­pears as a cen­tral part of the plot, with a reg­u­lar­i­ty which in other hands could scarce­ly have failed to seem monotonous but for the ex­traor­di­nary va­ri­ety of forms in which it is pre­sent­ed, to­geth­er with the com­plex­i­ty of plot which is at once a merit and a fault in Dick­ens's method of con­struc­tion. And it is very cu­ri­ous to no­tice how many of the char­ac­ter­is­tic points in the plot of "Edwin Drood" are "blocked in" in the ear­li­er sto­ries. Thus, in "Lit­tle Dor­rit," Mon­sieur Blan­dois (though here it is the vil­lain who does it) dis­guis­es him­self, just like Datch­ery, as an old man with white hair, watched 'pa­ti­en­tis­sa­men­tal­ly' by Cav­alet­to. In "Hunt­ed Down," a pow­er­ful short story, Meltham, or Beck­with, sup­posed to be dying by slow mur­der, turns sud­den­ly upon the vil­lain Slink­ton, whom he tracks to death. And in the part of "No Thor­ough­fare" writ­ten by Dick­ens (the rest was by Wilkie Collins, who seems to have worked in ad­mirable sym­pa­thy with him), where the cir­cum­stances of the mur­der have a strik­ing re­sem­blance in more than one point to that of "Edwin Drood," the dead man sud­den­ly comes to life in order to con­front the mur­der­er.

Mr. Proc­tor thus, with great lit­er­ary skill, and with an am­pli­tude of il­lus­tra­tion which we, of course, can only in­di­cate, shows at least an an­tecedent prob­a­bil­i­ty that the plot of "Edwin Drood" would be some va­ri­ety of Dick­ens's favourite plot, — that Edwin, in short, was not dead when Jasper be­lieved that he had mur­dered him, and that he was con­tin­u­al­ly watch­ing Jasper under a dis­guise until the mo­ment ar­rived for a dra­mat­ic de­noue­ment. The dis­guise, of course, is that of Mr. Datch­ery, the "white-haired per­son­age with black eye­brows," who ap­peared sud­den­ly in Clois­ter­ham. That this is un­doubt­ed­ly the truth had al­ready been con­jec­tured by many, per­haps by most, of the care­ful read­ers. But the most strik­ing and novel fea­ture in Mr. Proc­tor's ar­gu­ment is that the ac­tu­al de­noue­ment was to have been one of the most dra­mat­ic in all Dick­ens — per­haps the most sen­sa­tion­al in all fic­tion. It is that Jasper was not mere­ly to be con­front­ed with Edwin Drood alive again, but that he is to be grad­u­al­ly forced to Mrs. Sapsea's mon­u­ment into which, in quick­lime, he be­lieves he has cast Edwin's dead body, there to grope in hor­ror for the di­a­mond ring which he fan­cies now to be the sole ev­i­dence of his ter­ri­ble crime, when —

"As he holds up the lantern, shud­der­ing at the thought of what it may re­veal to him, he sees his vic­tim with stern look fixed on him — pale, silent, re­lent­less! With a shriek of hor­ror (the 'ghost' of that awful cry had been heard be­fore by Dur­dles) Jasper casts down the lantern, and flies from the tomb. But even as he rush­es forth he is faced by two men, from whom he turns, ut­ter­ly un­nerved by the hor­ror of the tomb, to seek the only path of es­cape — the wind­ing stair­case of the tower. They fol­low him close­ly, Neville first, Tar­tar close by him, Drood him­self a few steps be­hind Tar­tar, and Crisparkle fol­low­ing. Seized by Neville at the top of the stair­case, Jasper turns and strug­gles fierce­ly with the man he hates. Neville re­ceives his death-wound, but lives long enough to know that his name has been cleared; Tar­tar, Drood, and Crisparkle cap­ture Jasper, and the vil­lain is cast into prison, but not until he has been con­front­ed by his sup­posed vic­tim and by Grew­gious, and made to feel how, while he sup­posed him­self safe, every move­ment of his had been known to them and watched by them. In the knowl­edge that Tar­tar loves Rosa, and is loved by her, Jasper's pun­ish­ment is com­plete."

Now, slight as the ma­te­ri­als may seem to an or­di­nary read­er for a close to the story to be sug­gest­ed with such pre­ci­sion of de­tail, Mr. Proc­tor is per­fect­ly jus­ti­fied in say­ing that lit­tle of it needs to be in­vent­ed at all. It was near­ly all told by Dick­ens him­self; first, in what the ex­ist­ing torso of the story dis­clos­es gen­er­al­ly, un­der­neath its pur­pose­ly mis­lead­ing sug­ges­tions, such as that of the quick­lime ; sec­ond­ly, in the very few hints, dropped jeal­ous­ly even to Forster and Miss Hog­a­rth, of which the most im­por­tant is his own phrase, "the Datch­ery as­sump­tion;" last­ly, and per­haps most in­con­tro­vert­ibly, in the small pic­tures on the orig­i­nal green cov­ers, which have un­for­tu­nate­ly be­come some­what rare. These pic­tures, which are rather coarse­ly drawn, and scarce­ly wor­thy of Mr. Fildes's del­i­cate il­lus­tra­tions to the book it­self, were done by Mr. Fildes under Dick­ens's di­rect in­struc­tions, but with­out ex­pla­na­tion of their mean­ing, and hence are of unique in­ter­est. And the con­clud­ing scene of these, where Jasper is seen en­ter­ing a cell or vault with a lantern, and con­fronting the pale, res­o­lute fig­ure of Edwin Drood, who is wait­ing for him, en­tire­ly fits in with the con­clu­sion above sketched, and at once de­stroys any pos­si­bil­i­ty of a con­clu­sion based on the idea that Edwin has re­al­ly been mur­dered.

It is un­nec­es­sary to apol­o­gise for this de­tailed anal­y­sis of so slight an essay, — hard­ly more than a pam­phlet in form, but full of in­ter­est­ing and valu­able ma­te­ri­al for every stu­dent of Dick­ens, and, in­deed, of En­glish lit­er­a­ture. Even as a mere care­ful study of the un­fin­ished work of the great nov­el­ist by an em­i­nent lit­er­ary and sci­en­tif­ic man, this lit­tle work would de­serve no­tice. But it does much more than that. The right un­der­stand­ing of the plot of " Edwin Drood" jus­ti­fies the re­mark­able opin­ion ex­pressed by so good a judge as Longfel­low, dis­sent­ing at the time from the great ma­jor­i­ty of crit­ics, that it was " cer­tain­ly one of Dick­ens's most beau­ti­ful works, if not the most beau­ti­ful of all." It demon­strates, in our opin­ion, con­clu­sive­ly that Dick­ens, so far from falling back from decay of power upon a thread­bare plot-of-mur­der, was re­al­ly work­ing out with his most ma­tured skill by far the bold­est and most orig­i­nal vari­a­tion of the favourite theme which un­der­lies every one of his plots.