Picturing John Jasper

Dickens’s letters testify to the close relationship he had with his illustrators and the minute directions and corrections he would make to ensure the graphical depictions of his characters matched the images in his head. So it’s been a terrifying prospect to try to render the people of Cloisterham into new artwork for www.droodinquiry.com. Rest assured, we’ll be showing you some of the character portraits over the coming weeks as we set the site up, but one of the more startling realisations that approaching the text in this way has already resulted is how little description Dickens provides of the majority of his characters in this text. Granted, there are some who have a great deal of physical description but the great majority are barely described at all; and often the level of description is inversely proportionate to the importance of the character: Grewgious and Bazzard both enjoy quite specific descriptions, as does Tartar’s man, Mr Lobley, who is graphically portrayed by Dickens as “a jolly-favoured man, with tawny hair and whiskers, and a big red face […] the dead image of the sun in old wood.cuts, his hair and whiskers answering for rays all round him”, whereas Edwin Drood himself is described simply as “a young fellow”. In the majority of cases the depiction of a character focuses more upon their personality than physical characteristics, so in trying to illustrate these characters we have been given a giddying amount of freedom that is both thrilling and terrifying: without specific instructions from Dickens, one person’s image of the “young fellow” Drood can differ radically from that of their neighbour.

However, by far the most difficult character to draw so far is John Jasper. Such a pivotal role needs exactly the right depiction given the scrutiny he will be under. Jasper is described in the book as “a dark man of some six-and-twenty, with thick, lustrous, well-arranged black hair and whisker”, which appears detailed enough until you actually try to render that as an image. How thick is thick? And what precisely does “whisker” refer to? Are these sideburns alone or are we talking Wolverine or even – perish the thought – Geoff from Byker Grove?



  Will the realJohn Jasper please stand up?

If comparing Jasper to contemporary bewhiskered fellows seems churlish, it is only resorting to Dickens’s own tactics.  There is an intriguing hint left behind by James Bain in A Bookseller Looks Back written in 1940, in which he in turn recounts the remembrances of his grandfather, also called James Bain, who in turn recounted something (stick with me) told to him by Sir Luke Fildes. Fildes was of course the illustrator for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he was instructed by Dickens that “My notion of Jasper is that he is something like Mr Matthew Arnold”. So here we can see Mr Arnold’s thick, lustrous hair and whiskers:

And then here is Fildes’s consequent depiction of Jasper/Arnold, presumably lecturing Rosa on the finer points of Shakespearean criticism:

What all of this brings to mind is the relationship between the illustrations and Dickens’s text, the extent to which we should see the illustration above as definitive or merely one interpretation. Dickens had originally appointed his son-in-law Charles Allston Collins to illustrate Drood, but Collins left the project due to ill-health, his contribution ending at the cover for the monthly parts and some initial sketches (of which much analysis has been made for further “clues” to uncover the end of the story). Collins was told by Dickens to look over previous illustrations by Dickens’s long-term collaborator H. K. Browne (Phiz) before drawing the cover, which is ironic given that Dickens had stopped working with Browne and was turning to more realistic illustrators that better depicted the darker tones of his later works. So we have one illustrator who is not Dickens’s first choice, and another who is told to emulate another illustrator who Dickens has ceased working with. Not the most inspiring source of definitive illustrations for these characters.

But then should we be seeing anyone’s drawings as the ultimate realisation of Dickens’s characters? After all, we are happy to reinterpret his characters again and again on screen and stage, so why not in print as well? So, for The Drood Inquiry, we have tried to find a balance between honouring Dickens’s descriptions and presenting new and thought-provoking renderings of these characters. We hope you’ll like them.





Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com). My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: