When not fighting moral injustice, Dickens was having to fight pirates – no, sadly not the “ah-har Jim lad” variety, but literary pirates launching unauthorised versions of his tales while they were first appearing in print. All of Dickens’s novels were published initially in a serial format of either monthly or weekly instalments, which allowed plenty of time during the course of the print run for enterprising scamps to launch their own versions of the story to sell at a cheaper price. Sometimes these books and plays would try to anticipate the ending before Dickens had published it; other times they would await the release of the official instalment to find inspiration for their own.
Such was the case with The Cloven Foot written by Robert Henry Newell under the glorious alias of “Orpheus C. Kerr” in 1870. Newell, writing in America, based his weekly instalments on the monthly instalments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Believing that “the first rightly-directed step toward effective novel-writing in America must be inspired by a determination to discard all existing foreign models as thoroughly impracticable”, his intentions were to show the disparity of American and English literature by relocating the work of the latter to the location of the former, highlighting in doing so the contradiction between the legend, romance and tradition of England with America’s fascination with money and commodity; to prove that American literature should not model itself upon English literature. This all sounds rather lofty, but the finished article was a farcical romp, parodying the tortured John Jasper into John Bumstead, of Bumsteadville, who takes alcohol rather than opium, and in very large doses too, along with cloves which give him a rather unique aroma. His double vision resulting from his perpetually drunk state leads to a recurring gag of his dear nephews, and the wicked Nevilles who took them away from him.
But there was a sting in the tale for poor Newell, when Dickens inconveniently died before finishing Drood, leaving our American parodist with no original to parody anymore. The consequence is that we have our first completion of Edwin Drood – reluctantly. The end is wrapped up in four chapters, and with little pomp or fanfare – little wonder then, that later Drood scholars would dismiss The Cloven Foot as a silly thing. Yet there it stands, the first of its kind and predecessor to the many wild and wonderful solutions to follow. Scholars have begrudgingly admitted that The Cloven Foot actually predicts many resolutions which later, more serious, solutionists would suggest, and it is in this capacity that the tale is remembered, when at all – for the contribution it makes despite its comedic form.
On the contrary however, Kerr’s story is vitally important to Drood studies precisely because it is a comedy. If Kerr’s story has anything to teach to the Droodists, it is the value of laughter and not taking the mystery of Drood too seriously. And comedy need not be irreverent. Consider this scene from Dickens, taken from chapter two, “A Dean, and a chapter also“ (presented in bold type) and then the same scene in chapter two of The Cloven Foot, “A Dean, and a chap or two also“ (presented in italics), which depicts John Jasper/ Bumstead with Edwin as they discuss the nephew’s engagement to Rosa Bud/Flora Potts, affectionally known as Pussy/Sissy.
At length the cloth is drawn, and a dish of walnuts and a decanter of rich sherry are placed upon the table.
At length the cloth is drawn, Edwin produces some peanuts from his pocket, and passes some to Mr Bumstead, and the latter, with a wet towel pinned about his head, drinks a great deal of water.
Crack. On Edwin Drood’s part. Crack. On Mr Jasper’s part.
Crack. On Mr Edwin’s part. Hic. On Mr Bumstead’s part.
“isn’t it unsatisfactory to be cut off from choice in such a matter? There Jack! I tell you! If I could choose, I would choose Pussy from all the pretty girls in the world. My dead and gone father and Pussy’s dead and gone father must needs marry us together by anticipation. Why the – Devil, I was going to say, it it had been respectful to their memory – couldn’t they leave us alone?”
“And, if our respective respected parents didn’t bound us by will to marry, I’d be mad after her.”
“Yes Jack, it’s all very well for you. You can take it easily. You have no uncomfortable suspicion that you are forced upon anybody, nor has anybody an uncomfortable suspicion that she is forced upon you, or that you are forced upon her. You can choose for yourself. Life for you is a plum with the natural bloom on; it hasn’t been over-carefully wiped off for you-”
“Nobody’s dictated a marriage for you Jack. You can choose for yourself. Life for you is still fraught with freedom’s intoxicating-”
“Don‘t stop dear fellow. Go on.” “Can I anyhow have hurt your feelings Jack?
“Good Heavens Jack! I haven‘t hurt your feelings?”
“I have been taking opium for a pain – an agony – that sometimes overcomes me. The effects of the medicine steal over me like a blight or a cloud, and pass. You see them in the act of passing; they will be gone directly.”
“Don’t mind me, my dear boys. It’s cloves; you may notice them on my breath. I take them for my nerv’shness.”
“Take it as a warning then”
“Lemme be a mis’able warning to you, Edwin”
“Shall we go and walk in the churchyard?”
You want cheering up,” says Edwin Drood kindly. “Yeah – cheering up. Let’s go and walk in the graveyard”.
This is a very reverent parody – Kerr’s book closely follows Dickens’s own, the joke relying upon a knowledge of the original: it is not trying to supplant the original Drood but draw from it. Kerr does not pretend, as his predecessors would in droves, that his is the authoritive setting, but instead he wears his lack of authority on his sleeve, honouring and referencing the original while simultaneously getting to have a lot of fun playing around with it. And that is a combination many a Drood scholar would do well to learn from.
(Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can read the full text of this strange but faithful parody at http://www.archive.org/stream/clovenfootbeinga00neweiala#page/n7/mode/2up – but remember, those who are following our readalong, not to read ahead!)