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.
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.