This past Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. The first general fact to emerge from the discussion was that each of us experienced varying degrees of difficulty getting through this novel. Some had expected a struggle; others hadn’t. I was of the latter camp. I have long loved the works of this great writer, my favorite among them being David Copperfield. In addition, having recently re-read and greatly enjoyed Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, I considered that I was intellectually and emotionally equipped to take yet another plunge into the classics.
In this particular case, however, this presumption proved false. As regards Edwin Drood, I found Dickens’s sentence structure baroque, and his vocabulary antiquated. A large number of characters were introduced one after the other, and I had trouble differentiating among them. Added to these difficulties was my irritation with the character of Rosa Bud. Not only is she called, inevitably, Rosebud, but Edwin Drood calls her by the nickname Pussy – a most unfortunate appellation, in my view. Rosa Bud is one of those excessively sweet, rather simple female types that one encounters from time to time in Dickens’s fiction. (Others, if memory serves, would be Dora in David Copperfield and Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities.)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a fragment; Dickens died before completing the novel. Part way through the existing narrative, the eponymous hero disappears. Carol asked us to speculate on a number of questions, in particular: Is Edwin Drood alive or dead? If dead, then was it a natural death or murder? If the latter, who killed him? My chief problem with these questions was that I did not very much care one way or the other.
At any rate, several us admitted getting valuable help from the Edwin Drood entry on Wikipedia, with its lucid exposition of the plot, comprehensive list of characters, and other helpful information.
As it happens, I had just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Rodway,” a story by Wilkie Collins. This tale is included in an anthology called The Dead Witness, about which I’ve recently written. As its title implies, Collins’s story takes the form of diary entries. Anne Rodway lives in a boarding house and earns her keep as a seamstress. Her dear friend Mary lives there too, and plies the same trade for her living. Mary is despondent about her lot in life. It’s obvious that although she has a good heart, she does not possess Anne’s robust constitution nor her keen intelligence. Mary’s fate, and Anne’s determined resourcefulness and unflagging loyalty, make up the substance of this story. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was written in 1870; “The Diary of Anne Rodway” dates from 1856. I found the latter to be the more readable and compelling of the two. Wilkie Collins writes in the kind of spare, unadorned prose style that later proved so effective in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Also I appreciated Collins’s laser-like focus on the plot’s forward momentum, a quality I expected to encounter in Edwin Drood, but did not.
(Ann, the group member who graciously makes her premises available for our meetings, also attends a Victorian Book Club. She told us they had recently read Barnaby Rudge, a Dickens novel of prodigious length. Getting through it, she averred, took perseverance. Indeed – I just checked the Everyman’s Library edition on Amazon: it clocks in at a whopping 920 pages!)
In his Introduction to Dickens, Peter Ackroyd says of The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
It is written in a spare, almost elliptical prose and there is an economy or restraint about the whole narrative which suggests that [Dickens] was consciously harbouring his strength. Nevertheless none of his imaginative power has diminished and, indeed, he was creating quite a new thing in his own fiction….It is a book about doubles, about unmotivated aggression, about murderous impulses, and there is such an atmosphere of dread and fate around it that it must rank as Dickens’s strangest achievement. The dialogue is different here, also, and is at once so precise and so complex that it bears all the marks of Dickens’s constant, meticulous attention to the effects of his story.
I found this commentary both helpful and frustrating: helpful in that it named at least one source of my difficulty – the dialogue – and frustrating in that Ackroyd got so much more from the novel than I did. I believe a re-reading is in order.
Carol, who read this novel twice, did a terrific job as presenter. Her backgrounder on the life and works of Charles Dickens was a model of clarity. The facts set forth concerning Dickens’s life were fascinating in and of themselves; the portrait they painted of the man himself was not very flattering. When he was twelve years old, his father John Dickens was throw into Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison (like the one so vividly portrayed in Little Dorrit). Young Charles was sent to work in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. This was such a terrible experience that it seems, at some level at least, to have embittered him for the rest of his life. His marriage to Catherine Hogarth was an unhappy one, despite the numerous children it produced. His conduct toward her was at times reprehensible.
In short, despite the compassion and empathy so evident in his novels, Charles Dickens appears to have been a rather hardhearted man.
But as with most lives, whether the person in question is famous or obscure, the truth is more complex than would appear at first glance. Dickens genuinely cared about the poverty and depravity that existed beneath the genteel veneer of Victorian London. In that day (as in this) it was easy to look the other way until someone took hold of you and made you stare straight at the appalling truth. (Dickens did this with devastating impact in Oliver Twist; after reading it, people could no longer ignore the horrors of the workhouse.) And the fact is, we are eternally indebted to this author for bequeathing to us the astonishing products of his own prodigious imagination. Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Micawber, Fagin, Peggoty, Pip, Scrooge, and dozens more – they belong to us all now, and forever. (And let us not forget that Dickens achieved this apotheosis with almost nothing in the way of formal education.)
Now, to return to Edwin Drood….
Have I nothing to say in praise of this work? Actually, there’s quite a bit. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is studded with memorable descriptive passages. To wit:
There’s this description of Mr. Grewgious, Rosa Bud’s guardian:
Mr. Grewgious had been well selected for his trust, as a man of incorruptible integrity, but certainly for no other appropriate quality discernible on the surface. He was an arid, sandy man, who, if he had been put into a grinding-mill, looked as if he would have ground immediately into high-dried snuff. He had a scanty flat crop of hair, in colour and consistency like some very mangy yellow fur tippet; it was so unlike hair, that it must have been a wig, but for the stupendous improbability of anybody’s voluntarily sporting such a head. The little play of feature that his face presented, was cut deep into it, in a few hard curves that made it more like work; and he had certain notches in his forehead, which looked as though Nature had been about to touch them into sensibility or refinement, when she had impatiently thrown away the chisel, and said: ‘I really cannot be worried to finish off this man; let him go as he is.’
Then there’s this description of the contents of a pantry:
The upper slide, on being pulled down (leaving the lower a double mystery), revealed deep shelves of pickle-jars, jam-pots, tin canisters, spice-boxes, and agreeably outlandish vessels of blue and white, the luscious lodgings of preserved tamarinds and ginger. Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles, in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine caligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach. The scene closing on these charmers, and the lower slide ascending, oranges were revealed, attended by a mighty japanned sugar-box, to temper their acerbity if unripe. Home-made biscuits waited at the Court of these Powers, accompanied by a goodly fragment of plum-cake, and various slender ladies’ fingers, to be dipped into sweet wine and kissed. Lowest of all, a compact leaden-vault enshrined the sweet wine and a stock of cordials: whence issued whispers of Seville Orange, Lemon, Almond, and Caraway-seed. There was a crowning air upon this closet of closets, of having been for ages hummed through by the Cathedral bell and organ, until those venerable bees had made sublimated honey of everything in store; and it was always observed that every dipper among the shelves (deep, as has been noticed, and swallowing up head, shoulders, and elbows) came forth again mellow-faced, and seeming to have undergone a saccharine transfiguration.
Here, a storm, after reaching its violent zenith, suddenly ceases:
The Precincts are never particularly well lighted; but the strong blasts of wind blowing out many of the lamps (in some instances shattering the frames too, and bringing the glass rattling to the ground), they are unusually dark to-night. The darkness is augmented and confused, by flying dust from the earth, dry twigs from the trees, and great ragged fragments from the rooks’ nests up in the tower. The trees themselves so toss and creak, as this tangible part of the darkness madly whirls about, that they seem in peril of being torn out of the earth: while ever and again a crack, and a rushing fall, denote that some large branch has yielded to the storm.
Not such power of wind has blown for many a winter night. Chimneys topple in the streets, and people hold to posts and corners, and to one another, to keep themselves upon their feet. The violent rushes abate not, but increase in frequency and fury until at midnight, when the streets are empty, the storm goes thundering along them, rattling at all the latches, and tearing at all the shutters, as if warning the people to get up and fly with it, rather than have the roofs brought down upon their brains.
Still, the red light burns steadily. Nothing is steady but the red light.
All through the night the wind blows, and abates not. But early in the morning, when there is barely enough light in the east to dim the stars, it begins to lull. From that time, with occasional wild charges, like a wounded monster dying, it drops and sinks; and at full daylight it is dead.
There’s plenty more. Reading passages like these, I thought to myself, Could anyone have written this but Charles Dickens?
A site on British Studies has this to say about Victorian England: “There are great periods that people will always be interested in, such as Ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance. Victorian England belongs on this list. It was one of those epochs whose look, literature, and culture will always appeal to a substantial number of thoughtful and curious people.”
Finally, I’d also like to recommend Victorian Web, a pioneering site with a fascinating section on Dickens, as well as many other themes, artists, and writers of that era. The following are samples of the original illustrations by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
This was the first meeting of the Usual Suspects since the loss of our friend Barb. We will be making a donation to the library in her honor, with an accompanying request to purchase books by some of her favorite authors, such as Laura Lippman, Donna Leon, Sara Paretsky, and Andrea Camilleri. In addition, the knitters among the group are knitting scarves to donate to a project called Survivors Offering Support.