The tenderer scandal of Cloisterham: two early reviews

We’ve been sharing our own initial response to month one of Drood (see https://cloisterhamtales.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/first-monthly-number-april-1870/), but what did Dickens’s contemporaries make of it? It was usual practice at the time for reviews to appear only after the final instalment had been published – so the fact that we have reviews for the first month at all speaks volumes for itself, firstly for the prestige of the author, but doubly so for the long absence of a new work – as the Athenaeum review notes, ‘a feeling of a somewhat congratulatory tendency seems to have taken possession of the public’ – a new Dickens story was a big event. And yet, rather delightfully, what we have in these two responses are polar opposites in terms of opinion and reverence (both are reproduced here with kind permission of ProQuest).

The Athenaeum

Athenaeum Review 2 April 1870

This is, no doubt about it, a very complimentary review. It is also a very nostalgic one: ‘It is a positive pleasure to see once more the green cover in which the world first beheld Mr Pickwick, and to find within it the opening chapters of a tale which gives promise of being worthy of the pen which sketched, with masterly hand, the course of Mr Pickwick’s fortunes’. It is this nostalgia which leads to a surprising emphasis in this review on the comedy sections of the instalment – when I mentioned this to a colleague their immediate response was ‘there’s comedy in Drood?’ We have become so accustomed to talking of it as a mystery that we do have a tendency to overlook the humorous element within (take note any who are thinking of speaking at this year’s Dickens Day on their topic of ‘Dickens and Conviviality’).

So, the reviewer’s primary focus is on Miss Twinkleton, Sapsea and Durdles, while Jasper is mentioned barely in passing. This draw towards the lighter characters sits somewhat at odds with the reviewers defence of Dickens when they attack ‘some of Mr Dickens’s critics who have never been able to see in him anything but a caricaturist’, arguing that in Drood ‘the characters are etched as truthfully as the localities are painted’. Ah yes, the other primary focus of the review – location, location, location. Later critics would make the case for Rochester as the original of Cloisterham; here, only one month in, the reviewer can only hazard a guess at cathedral towns – Gloucester gets a mention.

The review closes enthusiastically, upholding Edwin and Rosa not as ‘a mere walking lady and gentleman, but two people who immediately excite interest’ (do we agree?), and who are ‘amusing and sympathy-stirring’. If we were to read only this review, we would be left with the very strong impression of Dickens at the top of his game and a public overjoyed to be reading his works again. But then there’s…

 

The Mysterious Mystery of Rude Dedwin

Rude Dedwin (1870)

Higgledy Piggledy

It’s glorious, it really is. Anything with dialogue such as ‘We’re opium-eaters, we is’, can only be called glorious. Last week we noted the elements of ‘Are you Being Served’ in chapter two, here we’re in Monty Python territory. Note, incidentally, how the opening chapter is called upon as being ‘disconnected’, much as we discussed in the previous post, or how the author links Sapsea to Pecksniff – not as a complimentary, Athenaeum-style ‘hoorah for the resurrection of past characters’ so much as a dig at Drood’s originality, or lack of it. There’s a lot of fun had here with name changes and such (Mr Rasper, Papsy and Murdles) that delights in parodying a much more famous work (nor is it alone, see my earlier post on ‘The Cloven Foot’ (warning, some spoilers –  https://cloisterhamtales.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-first-solution/). But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all, and the writer’s prelude that Rude Dedwin is ‘intended for the perusal of those only who have been able to read what is published of Mr Dickens’s new work’ identifies quite clearly that it was expected many readers would have done just that. The joke of Rude Dedwin, like the Cloven Foot, relies upon an intimate knowledge of the original to know what is being parodied. Thus, despite the conclusion that ‘the mystery is – how it sells!’, the reality is that Edwin Drood‘s success was widely expected.

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).
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8 Responses to The tenderer scandal of Cloisterham: two early reviews

  1. simon682 says:

    Actually “liked” without reading: I’m about 60% of the way through Drood and don’t want to risk finding out more than I need.

    • Pete Orford says:

      Hi Simon, have no fear – both the reviews are only of month one so there are no spoilers contained!

  2. Pete Orford says:

    It’s particularly interesting to consider the high profile of Drood Month One, as suggested by these early reviews, with the advertising of Dickens’s earlier works in the Edwin Drood Advertiser (page 30 on the scans). Here we can see the full canon to date and their worth – between 8 to 16 shillings each for the Illustrated Library Editions (with 26 illustrations) or just 3 shillings for the Charles Dickens editions (with just 8 illustrations).

    So Drood is published very much in the context of a hugely popular author, on the top of a very successful body of work – unsurprising, but that heritage is central to the way in which Drood is both marketed and received, with Dickens’s own publishers using the new work to advertise the old (while simultaneously using the old to endorse the new) and reviewers qualifying the new work by drawing upon characters from the old.

    In short, whether or not Dickens intended to do something new with Drood is overshadowed by the expectations and preconceptions of everyone else.

  3. Ben Winyard says:

    Yes, it’s fascinating how The Athenaeum review evokes The Pickwick Papers and the nostalgic pleasure of re-encountering the familiar green covers of the monthly wrappers. It’s clear, as Pete observes, that Dickens’s commercially savvy publishers were all too willing to cash in on the nostalgia of his readers, pushing his back catalogue via a medley of editions aimed at different audiences. There is no sense in this review that Dickens’s later work is, as some literary scholars have claimed, darker, more melancholy and weighty with serious symbolism. The opening of Drood feels a very long way from the comic opening of Pickwick with its gently satirical portrait of the self-congratulatory Pickwickians at dinner, but Pickwick too abounds with poverty, want, distress and darker elements. I’m intrigued by the review’s focus on ‘comic’ characters like Durdles; little interest here in the dark psychology of John Jasper, and no mention, as far as I can see, of opium, which feels like an interesting omission. Perhaps, after a decade of sensation literature, opium felt like old-hat?

    • Pete Orford says:

      It’s also that sense of typecasting a celebrity, with an established fanbase and their expectations. Did readers want Dickens to do something different or just more of the same? In these two reviews we can see both side of the argument; the Athenaeum is overjoyed to find predecessors for Drood in Dickens’s works, but Judy is more snide about Sapsea and what it sees as Podsnap returned under a different name. Either Dickens tries some new and alienates the fans, or he offers more of the same and gets accused of unoriginality. What’s interesting is the Drood gets criticised/praised for both, so that the question of whether Drood is new or not is ultimately a matter of perception.

  4. Sean Grass says:

    Following this with interest, as my recent book on OMF takes 2 chapters to deal with, first, the complexity of sales arrangements for that book (particularly with respect to the simultaneous marketing of Dickens’s older titles) and, second, the widely divergent opinions of the contemporary reviews. On the former front, yes, Chapman and Hall were primed to make gobs of money on Drood, and the release of a new Dickens title tended also to be good for older titles. How much this sale of old titles impacted the sale of the new release is a difficult question to answer. But there were certainly no complaints about Drood selling badly, as there had been about OMF. As for the reviews, I wonder whether Henry Chorley did the review for the Athenaeum, which might explain its relative enthusiasm (he had reviewed OMF there, and he published an obit of Dickens there in June 1870). One also wonders who might have written the more negative review. Dickens had his enemies. And these reviews could be as much personal venom as anything else.

    • Pete Orford says:

      Thanks Sean, very interesting points there (can I assume you’ll be joining in the OMF reading project that Birkbeck are running?). Certainly Drood seems to be popular; I suppose the question then is how much of that is for its own merits and how much for the Dickens brand? The disappointing sales of OMF show that even at this stage Dickens was not guaranteed a success, but then his reading tours must also be considered as a fantastic publicity generator. The Judy parody has the feel of a backlash against the popularity, yet in doing so it only serves as further evidence of that popularity.
      One other thing to consider is the change in response. Later critics all talk of Drood as a departure from the usual Dickens fare. So – is the different opinion of these early reviews a consequence of only reading the first month (questionable, given earlier comments on the striking opening chapter), or is it a case of prejudice and minds made up, or a promotional ploy to encourage fans to pick up this new work?

  5. Pingback: The Death of the Author | Cloisterham Tales

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