Is it coz I is black? Ethics and ethnics in Drood.







This month the Landless twins arrived, bringing with them an elephant into the room. No, not Honeythunder (I always saw him as more of a bull) – I’m talking about race.

When they first arrive Dickens describes them as ‘very dark and rich in colour; she of almost the gypsy type’. Now what does that actually translate as? The issue is complicated given Dickens’ assertion shortly after that this description is not his so much as Crisparkles – ‘The rough mental notes made in the first five minutes by Mr Crisparkle would have read thus, verbatim.’ In other words, we are not given a description of the twins by an omniscient narrator but by a character who therefore has limited knowledge and is drawing information solely upon appearance. Fildes’ illustrations confirm Crisparkle’s observation as to their skin tone, without clarifying whether this is an indication of ethnic origin.

At the piano
At the piano
On dangerous ground
On dangerous ground

Neville – seen leaning against the piano, then the fireplace – and Helena – seen in the centre of ‘At the piano’ in front of Rosa who is markedly pale in comparison – are shown by Fildes to certainly be darker, but in an ambiguous way. We are told they are from Ceylon, but their parentage is unclear – Neville’s discussion of his upbringing in chapter seven focuses more on the stepfather than his biological parents.

When Neville and Edwin go head-to-head in chapter eight, Drood makes a more cutting analysis of Neville’s skintone than the polite Crisparkle would ever dream of:

‘Pooh, pooh,’ says Edwin Drood, equally furious, but more collected; ‘how should you know? You may know a black common fellow, or a black common boaster, when you see him (and no doubt you have a large acquaintance that way); but you are no judge of white men.’
This insulting allusion to his dark skin infuriate Neville to that violent degree, that he flings the dregs of his wine at Edwin Drood.

Note how after an exchange of taunts over Rosa, his sister and hardships, it is after all that an allusion to his skin that drives Neville to the brink of violence – clearly, this is an important issue. The awkward question that follows this, however, is whether Dickens intends to use the colour of their skin to critique prejudice, or justify it.

Prior to these characters, the most significant black character in a Dickens novel was Major Bagstock’s servant in Dombey and Son (a non-speaking, very minor comic role), and elsewhere Dickens’s love of his fellow man has been seen to not automatically extend abroad, such as his condemnation of telescopic philanthropy in Bleak House, or his attack on the idea of ‘The Noble Savage’. Is it possible then that he introduces the question of the Landless twins’ skin as an initial explanation of why Cloisterham may react suspiciously against these outsiders? Clearly he intends us to sympathise with the Landless twins given the tone of Neville’s conversation with Crisparkle, but the indication of Neville in particular is that the virtue he has is almost despite his blood, rather than because of it – after the altercation with Edwin, Jasper warns Crisparkle that ‘There is something of the tiger in [Neville’s] dark blood’, ironically echoing Neville’s own condemnation of the people among whom he has been raised:

I have been brought up among abject and servile dependants, of an inferior race, and I may easily have contracted some affinity with them. Sometimes, I don’t know but that it may be a drop of what is tigerish in their blood.

There have been six English-speaking adaptations of Drood for the screen; all but one have cast white actors in the roles of Neville and Helena. The last, in 2012, threw caution to the wind – this has much to recommend it as well as a few notes of caution. It certainly makes Neville’s pondering thought that he ‘may’ have contracted an affinity with the natives of Ceylon seem rather redundant, if not ridiculous; but it did bring to the fore the frequent use of the word dark in Drood and the negative connotations associated with that. In realising the characters for The Drood Inquiry, Alys and I talked about how we could follow Fildes’ lead in identifying a darker skin tone while still leaving the question of their ethnic origin open to reader interpretation. Perhaps, had Dickens finished the book, the question would have been conclusively settled – but I rather think the opposite, that whatever twists and surprises Dickens had in mind for Drood, the mystery of Neville and Helena would remain precisely that.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry ( My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

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  1. Many thanks for this fascinating consideration of race, Pete. It’s interesting how the Landless twins’ mixed-race ethnicity signifies ‘mystery’ itself. The idea that their ‘blood’ might determine their behaviour suggests the influence of an increasingly biological racism that some scholars have identified as coming to prominence after mid-century. There are interesting overlaps between Jasper, who could also be described as ‘abject and servile’ and repressing his urges towards violence, and the ‘natives’ Neville feels an attraction of repulsion towards.

    There’s a fascinating, slightly bonkers (and unattributed) short story in All the Year Round titled ‘Out of the House of Bondage’ (Vol VII, 26th April 1862 – which also deals with these issues of race, ‘blood’ and mixed parentage.

    The story is about a girl who grows up in Canada and returns, aged 16, to her slave-owning father’s plantation in the southern US to convince him of the evils of slavery. The girl’s philanthropic good intentions are soon worn out by the ‘defects’ of the slaves, and she adopts her father’s view that the behaviour of the slaves is explained by their tainted blood. However, the girl discovers that she is the mixed-race daughter of a slave and has ‘negro blood’ in her veins. The piece is ambivalent about this idea, with the narrator lamenting ‘I could not for a long time believe in the possibility of being loved and treated as an equal, by the pure white race.’ It’s interesting to read it alongside Drood and see some of the same ideas being worked through by Dickens.

    1. I do like a slightly bonkers reference. Thanks for this Ben, I shall have a read through the story this evening. I just find it odd that there are so many references to their skin and blood without a definitive word on their race. Elsewhere in Drood we hear of an opium dealer called Jack Chinaman, so there’s certainly precedent for a lazy description of character by their ethnic origin.

      Going back to the illustrations, it strikes me how the darker skin of the Landless twins allows for contrast, either between Edwin and Neville in “On dangerous ground” (emphasised by their positioning at either side of the picture), or between Rosa and Helena, the symbolism of which is further compounded by the innocence of Rosa – here be angels and demons…

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