Some specialisms get all the fun when it comes to field trips. Studying Spanish? Off to Barcelona with you! Marine studies? Caribbean it is! Archeology? Go to a car park in Leicester (hang on…). But studying English invariably involves trips to the library and no further. So when the chance for a field-trip to Cloisterham came up, of course I jumped at it.
The prevailing interests of early Dickens enthusiasts were 1) solving Edwin Drood, obviously, and 2) locating the real-life inspirations for his characters and locations. The two interests thus combine in the identification of Rochester as the inspiration for the fictional Cloisterham. Imagine the possibilities this offered to eager Droodians, for what better way to solve the mystery than by visiting the scene of the crime? I arrived there myself not knowing quite what to expect. I had a dog-eared copy of the book with me, along with a map I’d downloaded of a Dickens walk through Rochester (Drood not being the only book to have roots in the city). The day was a mixture of bewilderment and childish joy. Look, look – there’s the nun’s house where Rosa lived! And over there is the river where Neville and Edwin walked that fateful night! The cathedral and – gasp – inside, the crypt, open to visitors (though no sign of any one tapping the walls, alas).
It’s rather an eerie sensation to walk the streets of a fictional location. Dickens’s use of vivid descriptions to ground his stories are further enhanced by seeing the original inspirations themselves, to gain a sense of space and location, to map out where events might take place and how one scene links to another. It’s a theme park resort for Droodians; and I can’t fully convey the unbridled pleasure of reading a scene set in Cloisterham cathedral whilst actually sat in Rochester cathedral; or those moments in between buildings when you accidentally fall upon a key location, such as the grounds where Rosa and Edwin walk and talk: it’s all there for you to see. Behind the Nun’s House lie the gardens where Jasper would have confronted Rosa with his feelings for her. And of course there is Jasper’s lair, the gatehouse, standing for all to see on the high street yet being passed by with little regard for its significance (cue that awkward moment when you’re feverishly taking photos of a building that no-one else is excited about).
It is a phenomenon that Rochester, quite rightly, has leapt upon. Several tour maps are available, while plaques inform the passer-by that this building is both the site of The Nun’s house and a Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers. Elsewhere the location of Mr and Mrs Tope’s abode is made further apparent by it now being a restaurant called, you guessed it, Topes. Literary tourism abounds. And again, there is the plaque informing us that “This was the home of Mr Tope” – it seems poor Mrs Tope must have been out on the streets, or there may have been no space left for her given the rather large elephant in the room, namely, that whatever inspiration Rochester provides, Cloisterham remains a fictional place, and Tope a fictional character. He no more lived in that building than Mickey Mouse. The previous week I had been on a very different trip to the Isle of Wight, where my eldest son – a dinosaur expert in the making – was thrilled by the presence of several “meteorites” dotted around the island. With the help of an app, you could point your smartphone at these meteorites and voila, on your screen a CGI dinosaur would appear walking around the very landscape in front of you. By moving your phone around you could take pictures of the scenery, enhanced by this fictional addition of a prehistoric reptile, there on your camera but not there in real life:
A week later and I was doing the Dickensian equivalent, snapping away with my camera at real locations with fictional significance, characters who are there yet not there. During my tour of Minor Canon Row, “home” to the Crisparkles, I was stopped in my tracks by a blue plaque informing that Russell Thorndike had lived there: it was an odd confrontation of actual history with imagined history, an intrusion of fact into fiction. Rochester/Cloisterham is a wondrous theme park, but theme parks are just fantasies, a chance to play make-believe. Has it given me a deeper understanding of Dickens’s book? To a degree, yes, of course. It allows perhaps an opportunity to see what Dickens himself was imagining rather than our own interpretations of his word. Although caution is of course required here; Rochester is an inspiration, not a blueprint, and Dickens changed and merged topography as required for his plot. There is a further danger in assuming that by visiting these locations we are seeing the definitive Cloisterham, as problematic ass the issue discussed last week of seeing Fildes’s illustration as the final word. Leaving Drood for one moment, Rochester also contains Restoration House, the original for Miss Havisham’s Satis house: and it is tiny. Well, not tiny, but certainly not the sprawling mansion we have come to imagine from the several adaptations or indeed our own ethereal reconstructions of Dickens’s text – Great Expectations indeed, and there is a mini-tragedy in containing our imaginations within the boundaries of reality.
Walking the streets of Cloisterham was most certainly an enjoyable experience (I’m a little embarrassed at exactly how much I did enjoy it), and the chance to play at make-believe is one to be seized at, but ultimately the Cloisterham we need to be visiting is not this tangible but all too distant version, but rather the ever-changing, uncontainable streets of Dickens’s mind. My day ended not in Rochester, but in nearby Gad’s Hill, and more specifically Dickens’s study (rather fittingly my camera battery had failed by this point – too many photos of fictional locations – thus preventing me from capturing the actual point of origin of Drood). I stood at the window, the same window Dickens would have looked out of whilst writing, and glanced at the mirrors either side to which he would sound out the dialogue, acting the parts of his creations and watching them come to life in his image. I looked in those mirrors in vain for sight of Drood, Jasper and all, but inevitably all I saw was myself reflected. So too with Rochester, and all who search there for answers to Drood; we look in vain, for if we do discover any answers there they shall not be views of the landscape but the reflections of ourselves and our own interpretations of the book.