Today, I am celebrating the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth by posting my review (the last one for the Dickens Project!) of his last novel, cut short by his death.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the last novel of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, Dickens did not live to finish it. He would have saved many people a lot of trouble if he had just completed it before he died — or had at least left more extensive notes on how he intended it to be finished. Given the lack of conclusive evidence for how it was to end, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of Dickens’s most intriguing novels. Numerous completions and books discussing clues as to the outcome have been written. Personally, I wish that Dickens had been able to finish his last novel, as I enjoyed its development. I think Dickens could have made a good “mystery” writer.
Drood has a fascinating cast of characters. Like Dickens’s preceding novel, Our Mutual Friend, it contains an outwardly respectable, but murderous man (Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend and John Jasper in Edwin Drood), obsessed with love for a woman. Also like Our Mutual Friend, it has a spoiled girl who is willed away. Unlike the spoiled Bella Wilfer who is mercenary, young Rosa Bud is “an amiable, giddy, wilful, winning little creature; spoilt, in the sense of counting upon kindness from all around her; but not in the sense of repaying it with indifference” (ch. 9).
The fathers of Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud wished for their children to love each other and so planned their marriage in their wills — and then died, leaving their children in a rather awkward situation. Growing up with this arranged betrothal leaves Edwin and Rosa’s love-making rather flat, with each feeling as if they have been forced on the other, and, as a result, they are perpetually quarreling with one another. To further complicate matters, Edwin’s uncle, John Jasper, who is only six or so years older than his nephew, is madly in love with Rosa (unbeknownst to Edwin). Jasper’s feelings of jealousy are aggravated by the careless way in which Edwin takes Rosa for granted.
The story takes place mainly in Cloisterham. There John Jasper is choirmaster at the cathedral. He is devoted to his nephew Edwin, discontented with his monotonous, dull life, and addicted to opium. The Reverend Mr. Crisparkle lives in Cloisterham with his mother. He is good, active, and boy-like. He is charged with the education of the newcomer, young Neville Landless. Neville’s twin sister, Helena, comes with him to be educated at the Nuns’ House, where Rosa Bud is border. Neville and Helena are but newly come from Ceylon to England after the death of their abusive step-father. They are dark and handsome, uneducated, keenly aware of their disadvantages, with “something untamed about them both”. Neville soon gets a reputation for being violent, but they are both amenable to the kind Mr. Crisparkle who quickly earns their trust and regard. A pompous auctioneer and later mayor, Mr. Sapsea, is another resident of Cloisterham. Jasper flatters Sapsea’s absorption with himself for his own purposes. Durdles is a stonemason, dirty and deep in any secrets that the cathedral may happen to contain. Deputy is a street-urchin always prowling about (often where he is not wanted), hired by Durdles to “stone” him home if he catches him out late.
Outside Cloisterham, there are a few characters who reside in London. First introduced is the “Princess Puffer”, an opium woman who mixes for Jasper, and secretly follows him to Cloisterham. Next is Rosa’s guardian, the angular and conscientious Mr. Grewgious, also a receiver and agent to two rich estates. He has a morose clerk named Bazzard, who has written a play — a tragedy. Later on, an ex-sailor, Mr. Tartar, is introduced. A strong, brown man, he retired from the navy to inherit an estate and takes up lodgings near Mr. Grewgious.
Jasper, chafing at the engagement that stands in his way to Rosa, encourages a quarrel between Edwin and Neville. (Neville, unknown to Jasper, has also fallen in love with Rosa and resents Edwin’s treatment of her.) Then, on Christmas Eve, Edwin and Neville meet at Jasper’s for a reconciling dinner. Afterwards, the two young men walk out together. The next morning, Edwin is discovered to have disappeared, but no body can be found. Suspicion surrounds Neville, who becomes an outcast and is forced to move to London. Jasper faints when Mr. Grewgious informs him that, prior to Edwin’s disappearance, Rosa and her fiancé had agreed to dissolve their engagement, and had left Mr. Grewgious to inform Jasper (who is Edwin’s guardian) of the development. Half a year passes, and Helena will soon leave Cloisterham to join her brother in London.
“At about this time a stranger appeared in Cloisterham” — a man with a tight coat, a big head, and unusually thick white hair. Mr. Datchery describes himself as “a single buffer, of an easy temper, living idly on his means”. He covertly gathers information about Jasper.
Helena leaves the Nuns’ House and Rosa is left alone. Jasper tries to force his love on her, threatening her with Neville’s destruction if she refuses him. Helena has become Rosa’s beloved friend and Jasper’s threat is to hurt Helena through her brother (who he has by now learned is also in love with Rosa). Rosa flees to her guardian. Jasper goes to the “Princess Puffer” for the first time since Edwin’s disappearance. (Edwin is generally considered dead now and both Jasper and Rosa wear mourning for him.) She secretly follows him back to Cloisterham a second time (after a former unsuccessful attempt to find where he lives) and is discovered by Mr. Datchery. She tells him that she knows Jasper “[b]etter far than all the Reverend Parsons put together know him.”
And thus the story ends.
Edwin is a young man with potential. He starts out selfish and flippant, but he likes his work and has youth and excitement. He is capable of being earnest, as shown by his behaviour to Rosa when they wisely choose to end their engagement. And then, he disappears. The question is left open, whether or not he is actually murdered. That his life was at least attempted is obvious, but whether he survives cannot be unequivocally determined in the absence of a corpse. For myself, much as I would prefer it to be otherwise, I incline to the belief that he is actually dead. His being alive would put him in the position of allowing the life of an innocent man to be blighted by accusations of murder. And if anyone else was aware that Edwin was still alive, they would be in the same position. On the other hand, I’m not sure that consideration would weigh as much with Dickens as it does with me. Still, there is the fact that, if Jasper is to retrieve the ring which Mr. Grewgious gave to Edwin (to be given to Rosa if they marry) from the body, there must be a body to retrieve it from. If Edwin is alive, no ring would be necessary to identify him.
Jasper is a complex character. It is unlikely that his affection for Edwin is feigned. He passionately loves his nephew, but when fantasizing about his murder, under the influence of opium, he complains that “this [vision] is the poorest of all. No struggle, no consciousness of peril, no entreaty” (ch. 23). His love for Rosa is twisted and cruel, his actions are cool and calculated. The contrast between Jasper’s beautiful voice and glorious singing and his wild pursuit of Rosa and ruthless murder of his nephew alone is striking.
Rosa is a sweet, though slight character. It is quite obvious that she is to marry Mr. Tartar, a man she feels safe and protected with. Helena is to marry Mr. Crisparkle. She is unmistakably in love with him and they would have made a delightful couple! Another certain is that Jasper is a murderer. Whether or not his murder succeeds is less certain, but that he at least intended to murder Edwin is obvious, both from internal evidence from the novel and from what Dickens said of his story. When Rosa’s suspicions of Jasper are related, she thinks she must be mistaken: “Surely these facts were strong against a fancy that scarcely dared to hint itself. And yet he was so terrible a man!” But, it is added, “what could she know of the criminal intellect”? Jasper obviously set Neville up to be suspected of the crime and does sleuthing out beforehand with Durdles. One chapter (the tenth) is titled “Smoothing the Way” — very suggestive. Furthermore, Jasper is constantly plotting, weighing his actions, considering how various happenings would affect something, greeting news with “some close internal calculation” (ch. 10).
In the end, Edwin Drood leaves us with many mysteries. Is Edwin really dead, or did he somehow escape? Who is Datchery — is he a new character, or an already known but disguised character? What part does Helena play? It is obvious that Dickens intended her for some significant part, with her daring and strength of character, her lack of fear of Jasper, her past of dressing as a boy, and the lines, “There was a slumbering gleam of fire in the intense dark eyes …. Let whomsoever it most concerned look well to it!” (ch. 7). What is Durdles significance, with his ability to sound out bodies in the cathedral and his intimate knowledge of the place? What is the explanation for his “ghost of one terrific shriek … followed by the ghost of the howl of a dog: a long, dismal, woeful howl, such as a dog gives when a person’s dead” (ch. 12)? How much, if anything, did Deputy see? What does Mr. Grewgious know? He obviously knows something, for he is very calculated in his relation of the broken engagement to Jasper and not in the least surprised by Jasper’s reaction. What was to be the use of the ring Mr. Grewgious gives to Edwin? The fact that the only jewelry Edwin would usually have had on him were his watch and shirt-pin, and that Jasper is aware of this, is particularly noted. When Edwin chooses not to give the ring to Rosa, Dickens records that “there was one chain forged in the moment of that small conclusion, riveted to the foundations of heaven and earth, and gifted with invincible force to hold and drag” (ch. 13). Of what is Jasper speaking when, in his last recorded opium trance, viewing the same journey he has seen “hundreds of thousands” of times, he is surprised and says “I never saw that before” (ch. 23)? How does he murder Edwin (or at least try to) and what does he do with the body? What does the Princess Puffer know about Jasper and why does she hate him?
John Forster related that Dickens said of his story, “I … have a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work”, but almost nothing is known as to what this “new idea” was. For what it is worth, I find Montagu Saunders’s theory, recorded in his The Mystery in the Drood Family, that Jasper goes back to retrieve the ring from Edwin’s body, not to avoid discovery, but to plant evidence on Neville Landless, very convincing. Also, his idea that the “new idea”, the mystery, was “a murderer attempting and intending to fasten his crime on to another, but in reality tracking himself, and involuntarily putting the noose round his own neck” (TMitDF, ch. 1) is intriguing. He based this theory partially on Jasper’s own diary, in which he writes, “I now swear, and record the oath on this page, … That I will fasten the crime of the murder of my dear dead boy upon the murderer. And, That I devote myself to his destruction.” (ED, ch. 16). It fits right in with what is known of Dickens’s intentions and conflicts with nothing in what exists of the novel.
I incline to the view that Datchery is a new character. None of the existing characters are convincing as Datchery, and he appears to be unacquainted with Cloisterham (when informed which is Jasper’s dwelling, he looks at it again “with a second look of some interest” — ch. 18). He makes no attempt to seclude himself from observation, as a disguised inhabitant probably would have done. I don’t believe he is Helena. It is possible that he arrives in Cloisterham before Helena leaves it and he is described as “[b]eing buttoned up in a tightish blue surtout”, which would have been revealing if he were actually a woman. Also, his manner is, I think, different than anything that Helena could have assumed. And how could Helena be with her brother in London and yet so constantly in Cloisterham at the same time? If Datchery were Edwin himself disguised, how could Jasper have failed to recognize him? Jasper closely studied Edwin. Edwin himself observed, “If I were to make an extra crease in my neckcloth, he would think it worth noticing!” Jasper is a singer, so tones would be very clear to him. How could he fail to not detect Edwin’s voice? When Rosa flees to her guardian, he informs her that his clerk Bazzard “is off duty here, altogether, just at present” (ch. 20). But Bazzard’s sullenness and egotism are so very opposed to Datchery’s whimsical bluffness that I cannot believe them to be the same person. Mr. Tartar has also been suggested as Datchery, but his appearance is, I think, too distinctive to be compatible with that of Datchery. Tartar is described as being “so extremely sunburnt that the contrast between his brown visage and the white forehead shaded out of doors by his hat, and the glimpses of white throat below the neckerchief, would have been almost ludicrous but for his broad temples, bright blue eyes, clustering brown hair, and laughing teeth” (ch. 17). Datchery seldom wears his hat, so his white forehead would have been conspicuous. Also, Helena suggests that Mr. Tartar befriend her brother and visit him “almost daily” (ch. 22) — something which Mr. Tartar declares himself very ready to do.
In the second chapter of his book, Mr. Saunders makes a convincing argument for Datchery’s being a lawyer. I think it not unlikely that Datchery was known to Mr. Grewgious, given the latter’s fancy for having Jasper (“our local friend” — ch. 17) under his eye. Datchery obviously has some foreknowledge of the inhabitants of Cloisterham, as evidenced by his treatment of Mr. Sapsea. I think that Datchery’s behaviour indicates some personal interest in sleuthing out the mystery (not just as the unconcerned agent of another), so it is possible that he is related in some way to someone or another of the characters. The description of Mr. Datchery suggests, but not conclusively, I think, that he is in disguise. Thus much for Datchery.
It is widely believed that Neville Landless is killed in trying to take Jasper. In his biography of Dickens, John Foster wrote what he could remember of Dickens’s plans for Edwin Drood. “Landless, … I think, [was] to have perished in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer.” I consider this as quite likely, given Dickens’s style. His presentation of Neville is consistent with him being a doomed man. Besides which, Neville loves Rosa. As Rosa falls in love with the strong, kindly Tartar, and as Neville isn’t one of those simple, saintly sufferers (such as Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit), he must be gotten out of the way somehow.
I won’t even venture to guess what the Princess Puffer knew of Jasper, or what part Helena Landless was to play in the story. So many things in Edwin Drood must remain mysteries. Had he lived, Dickens could never have written a greater mystery than he accomplished simply by dying before finishing his last work. As it stands, I count The Mystery of Edwin Drood among my favorites of the novels of Charles Dickens.
I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood November 28, 2013 – January 1, 2014. This completes the Dickens Project, which I began in June 2012.