Tomb Raiders

What primarily struck me about this instalment is the melancholy sense of stasis, wearisomeness, decrepitude and decomposition. It is tempting, but possibly facile, to read this tone as the sadness, or heightened sense of mortality, of an increasingly unwell, middle-aged man – a literary foreshadowing of the author’s impending death. Yet, this sense of a world overshadowed by death is something we find in even the earliest of Dickens’s works – The Old Curiosity Shop springs immediately to mind. Cloisterham is a ‘monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthy flavour throughout, from its Cathedral crypt’ and haunted by the traces of its medieval past. The cathedral with its eerie crypt, the city’s ‘monastic graves’, and the frequent references to clergy, cenobites and a celestial world of deities, saints and demons suggest a nightmarish, Gothic world in which the living and the dead, the material and the phantasmal, the earthly and the ethereal are co-mingled – not separate and distinct.

For Dickens, the Middle Ages were lamentably disfigured by disease, superstition, want and despotism and violence; he was, throughout his career, openly scornful of those who romanticised the period. Yet here, the remnants of this world seem to intrude on the modern era. Jasper evokes the ‘hidden skeleton in every house’, while Edwin’s discussion of Egypt with Rosa brings to mind another long-gone world of ‘tiresome old burying-grounds’ and monuments to the desiccated remains of ancient worthies with their improbable eschatology. Dickens depicts a world which is already a tomb, a torturous holding place for the not-quite-dead, like John Jasper who chaffs against the grinding of his dull life and Durdles who lives amongst tombstones. Rosa peevishly refers to the Egyptologist and explorer ‘Belzoni or somebody, dragged out by the legs, half choked with bats and dust’, an evocative image of a man literally and figuratively down amongst the dead and dragged back to life. I was reminded of A Tale of Two Cities in which Dr Manette is buried alive in the Bastille and ‘recalled to life’ when set free. Is it too fanciful to imagine the unconscious, twitching opium smokers in the opening scene of Drood as similarly half-entombed – between life and death, consciousness and oblivion – on the narrow, grave-like bed?

The instalment is saturated with images of death, resurrection, the living dead and a world besieged by deathliness. Throughout, we find a haunting, Gothicised sense of traces of the dead intermeshed with the fabric of the city, and almost poisoning the living; I was reminded of the overcrowded city burial ground in Bleak House, with its miasmic toxicity. I was really struck by the ghoulish image of the people of Cloisterham devouring the remnants of the dead, growing ‘salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses’ and grinding ‘bones’ to make their bread. Like Belzoni choking on dust, the people of Cloisterham too are swallowing particles of the dead. And all these references to dust of course reminded me of the famous dust heaps of Our Mutual Friend.

At the heart of this oppressive stasis and deathliness is John Jasper. He cannot name his need – ‘some stray sort of ambition, aspiration, restlessness, dissatisfaction, what shall we call it’ – but he openly rails against the ‘oppressive respectability’ of Cloisterham to his nephew, while his outbursts of trembling and convulsing suggest a bodily betrayal of his vexation. The scene in which he and Edwin eat nuts, with its menacingly comic interjections of ‘crack’, ominously suggest a hydraulic splintering and breaking of bonds by powerful, suppressed emotions. ‘I must subdue myself’, Jasper tells his nephew, yet his willed acts of self-repression – ‘carving [demons] out of my heart’ as he so memorably terms it – along with the deadening effects of opium suggest a deeply masochistic economy of denial, abnegation and futile self-discipline. Jasper gives his nephew ‘a look of hungry, exacting, watchful, and yet devoted affection’. This ravenous need, which Dickens equates with hunger, suggests an almost sadistic oral rapacity that is left unsated by physical substitutions: Durdles with his drink, Jasper with his opium, and the people of Cloisterham with their food made from the dust of the dead. For the biblicistic Victorian reader, this landscape of dust and ashes may have most immediately suggested mourning, repentance and the wages of sin. It also perhaps suggests the ravenous excess of human need and the inability of a society orientated around work, family and respectability to provide adequate emotional sustenance.

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About Ben Winyard

Ben Winyard is the Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, University of London. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck, where he also worked as an intern on '19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century' (www.19.bbk.ac.uk). More recently, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior editor on the Dickens Journals Online project (www.djo.org.uk).
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6 Responses to Tomb Raiders

  1. Pete Orford says:

    Thank you for this fascinating post Ben. there is much that I could say further on this if we were discussing the full text, but restricting myself to the first number (for now), it is interesting to consider these gothic overtones of death and mortality and how they link in to reader’s expectations. You mention A Tale of Two CIties, which has a similarly eery opening chapter (as does Our Mutual Friend of course), though in both those cases the opening is in some ways a false expectation focusing on secondary characters or locations from which we then move on. You could argue this is happening with the opium den of course, but then the sense of mortality hovering around Cloisterham, as the book’s primary location, is therefore threatening to stay for the duration.

    There is an interesting metafictional way of looking at this, if you want to stretch a point. Just as Cloisterham is built on foundations of the dead, with their presence always felt, it strikes me this bears a curious parallel to the nature of any Dickens book and the relationship it has to its forebears. The early reviews looked for templates of known Dickens’s characters, so that the characters of Drood exist in a place in which we and they are haunted by their predecessors. Dickens has returned to Rochester for his final novel, a city already used in The Pickwick Papers, and so in choosing this location there is a sense of recollecting the past but being unable to revisit it. In short, is Jasper grinding Pickwick’s bones to make his bread?

    • Ben Winyard says:

      Thanks so much for this, Pete. I love your idea of literary accretion, of the layers of Dickens’s past works that form the bedrock of Drood. That was certainly evident in the Athenaeum review, as you point out, which compared Drood with Pickwick and identified the novel as part of an obvious continuum. I was reminded that some critics responded harshly to Dickens because they felt he was repeating stock characters in his works, yet evidently, this was also a source of entertainment, continuity and comfort to many other readers. I hadn’t noticed that Dickens has returned to Rochester for Drood – great observation! There is a lot of work on evolutionary metaphors in Our Mutual Friend, particularly the layers of primordial mud and dust that abound in that novel. And, of course, there’s the famous mud, fog and megalosaurus in the opening of Bleak House – again redolent of a primeval world. It’s interesting how Dickens was playing with these metaphors of archaeological and paleontological deposits. I like the melancholy idea of a past that is inescapably interwoven with the present, but which yet remains frustratingly out of reach.

  2. Sean Grass says:

    Very nice focus to this blog post, Ben. When I’ve taught this novel, I’ve typically called attention to the “ancient-ness” of the cathedral town and some of the very passages you note. Rosa’s disdain for Egypt is striking, not only because of Dickens’s typical hostility to things ancient but because to me it also smacks of two other things: 1) the frustration Dickens shows in Bleak House, for instance, over the philanthropic fascination with Africa, when there are apt objects of sympathy closer to home; and 2) what was, at the time, the contemporary craze for stereoscopic photography, often of exotic places (like the pyramids). Rachel Teukolsky, among other scholars, is doing fascinating work on this. There is a sense in which Dickens’s ridicule of “Egypt” through the mouth of Rosa is a quite contemporary (and apt) cultural criticism.

    Regarding the way that this novel harkens back to Dickens’s earlier work, I’d also suggest that Jasper is a more thoroughly sinister version of the obsessive, repressed Bradley Headstone. The mask of respectability worn over a fiercely and dangerously passionate nature is something Dickens had recently explored, and to great effect. Robert Louis Stevenson and Algernon Swinburne, among others, wrote of Headstone as one of Dickens’s crowning achievements.

    • Pete Orford says:

      The use of Egypt is an interesting example of how one thing can be perceived as two opposites depending on the beholder. For Edwin, Egypt is adventure, the culmination of his studies and his crowning glory; for Rosa it means banishment from all she knows and the final nail in the coffin for her dreams: Egypt is simultaneously a symbol of escape and confinement. There is an irony that Rosa’s complaints of dusty old Egypt could equally apply to Cloisterham as well, so that she is envisioning more of the same at precisely the same time as Edwin is anticipating the new and exotic. At least one of them is going to be disappointed, presumably, once their expectations are confronted with the reality.

      • Ben Winyard says:

        Perhaps this double vision also relates to Sean’s observations about the stereoscopic and the telescopic, modes of vision in which the far is pulled near and layers create an illusion of three-dimensionality. The dual, opposing visions of Egypt proffered by Rosa and Edwin don’t sound capable of synthesis into a compelling, unified vision, as with the stereoscopic. I really like your observation that Rosa views Egypt as potentially as restrictive and dusty as Cloisterham. I was also reminded of the doubling performed by Jasper as he exudes respectability while chaffing under its restrictions.

    • Ben Winyard says:

      Thank you, Sean, for this thoughtful and insightful reply. I think you’re absolutely right that Rosa’s pettish response to the prospect of relocating to Egypt reflects Dickens’s own, continuing frustrations with ‘telescopic philanthropy’. I haven’t come across the work on stereoscopic photography, which sounds absolutely fascinating. There seems something here, I think, about vision – telescopic and stereoscopic. The latter, in particular, perhaps suggests the accretion of detail (and of the past) which we’ve been discussing: the build-up that creates a sense of depth and solidity, like archaeological layers. I was also thinking about the imperialist history of Egypt; the Suez Canal was finished in the year before Drood began, and the acquisition of shares in the canal would soon allow Britain to assume ruling control over the country, so presumably Egypt was much in the popular mind in this period.

      Your wonderful description of John Jasper immediately made me think of Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield, which suggests the longevity of this ‘type’ in Dickens’s fiction and also that it wasn’t restricted to male characters.

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