‘Back to the big brushes’ was Dickens’s observation as he prepared to start composing Our Mutual Friend* in monthly parts in 1863, having previously written two novels on the trot in weekly parts. I’m reminded of this because I’m coming to this exciting Drood Inquiry parallelproject having previously been involved in blogging about one of those novels in weekly parts, A Tale of Two Cities (re-serialized in 2012), and then participating in the weekly re-release of Wilkie Collins’s No Name last year. In both cases, we were dealing with a short instalment of a few pages, comprising at most, two tightly written chapter-ettes. In comparison, the rich luxury of a full monthly number–32 pages, five chapters, Luke Fildes’s illustrations, a green cover–is really something to revel in, and no doubt Dickens’s readers, whether old enough to recall The Pickwick Papers from 1836-37 or not, were alive to this. What do others make of the whole package? [*This novel too will enjoy a synchronized reading blog, from the start of next month.]
As it’s not going to be possible, I think, to comment on all the chapters in detail, nor would it be conducive to free-flowing conversation to summarise what’s happening in each of these chunky numbers, I’m proposing just to throw out questions with gay abandon, hoping that others will feel inclined to follow some of them up, or beget further questions; here goes….
A lurid and disturbing opening chapter. I quite wish Dickens had continued for a few more paras of ‘scattered consciousness,’ after the first one, before piecing it together for us: that’s probably a twentieth-century taste talking… Maybe he felt readers needed to make contact with a more coherent narrator & perspective, given the unwholesome surroundings we’ve been thrust into? The three bodies on the ‘large unseemly bed’–crikey, that wouldn’t get passed under the Hays Code…. As a fan of Dickens’s reporting style in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ essays (which were still appearing in All the Year Round as he was writing Drood), I’m struck by how the lack of the first-person consciousness renders the scenes described less anchored, even when he’s recounting visits to similarly insalubrious East London dens in Limehouse, Shadwell etc. (see, for example, ‘A Small Star in the East‘). Oscar Wilde prowls–with marginally less conviction?–similar territory in the chapters added to the volume edition of Dorian Gray in 1891: both are responding to sensational press reports of Chinese immigrant populations e.g. those working the Blue Funnel Line (founded 1866) who settled in Limehouse.
From one kind of dangerous territory to another, as we move into the rapid repartée of Jack and Edwin in Chapter Two. It can’t be altogether surprising to find puns in a piece of writing subtitled ‘A Dean, and a Chapter Also’–but it’s the kind of puns, dear boy! And I know this is the tightly-buttoned Victorian novel, and not Are You Being Served?, and I know Jasper and his nephew are not Mrs Slocombe–and readers are doubtless rightly distracted because we’ve just been shown the kind of scene that would serve as the concealed heart of many another mystery, and followed Jasper from there to here; the cathedral ‘rooks’ (beaks, not-so-secret policemen) have already taken note of something not quite as it should be–but heavens, “Let’s have a little talk about Pussy. Two pairs of nut crackers?” is not the kind of dialogue I was expecting. OK, I read a scholarly essay (Natalie McKight, in Dickens Quarterly 30.1) last year that solemnly and persuasively showed it most unlikely that Dickens was unaware of the sexual connotations of this long exchange, all about a pert precocious schoolgirl called Rosa Bud; I recall also that one of the first books Dickens, newly 18, requested at the British Library reading room, was a fairly explicit handbook to the female anatomy. All the same, I’m reading it in a spirit of uneasy resistance, not quite surrendering to the double entendres, as though it were a conversation overheard in a dream. How did everyone out there react?
Without plodding on through chapters III, IV and V mechanically–what I’m finding truly enjoyable is the number of cats (resist!) Dickens is setting among pigeons in these opening sidelights: the orchestration of themes, undertones, motifs is agreeably complex (after the more obvious counterpoint of Tale of Two Cities), and no single character is stepping forward to help us focalise or mark out a particular line. Indeed, Jasper-in-the-Den, Jasper-with-Edwin, Jasper-bored-by-Sapsea are strikingly different facets of a single character, and Edwin’s manner too is markedly different with Rosa (‘Old Edwin’) to its ‘Young Edwin’ incarnation, under Jasper’s influence. I found the blight in the lovers’ relationship curiously well touched off?–as many thorns as roses, as the circlet on the cover suggests, even if I early on made the mistake of hearing Rosa speak like Queenie from Blackadder. Elsewhere,Dickens does the ‘skittish older woman’ so memorably and cruelly that perhaps it’s hard to believe in a kittenish younger one? The dialogue and unxpected methods of mediating it to the reader are definitely piquing curiosity (cf. the conversation between the Dean, Crisparkle and Tope): as though I haven’t quite got Dickens’s measure yet–and he knows it. Perhaps the narrator’s comment at the end of Chap. IV, with ref. to Jasper listening to the Sapsea oracle, it meant to describe our own position at the end of Chapter V?– ‘his visitor intimates that he will come back for more of the precious commodity on future occasions, and Mr. Sapsea lets him off for the present, to ponder on the instalment he carries away.’
Roll on May’s instalment. What do y’all think?