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.