‘Mrs Crisparkle’s Closet’

Mrs Crisparkle

Earlier contributors to this blog like John and Holly have already noted some of the interesting ways in which the letterpress of The Mystery of Edwin Drood connects with the advertisements bound in with the monthly instalment, making us aware of the novel’s production and consumption within a rapidly developing commodity culture. The third monthly number – for June – is no exception to this process. But it perhaps invites us to reflect in particular upon the mixture of domestic and foreign goods promoted in the Drood Advertiser and their possible relationship to the overt antiquity and insularity of the ‘ancient Cathedral town’ of Cloisterham, depicted within these pages.

In opening Chapter Ten with the narrator’s ironic comments on the topic of prejudice (ironic because they are themselves based upon chauvinistic preconceptions about ‘feminine judgement’) and with the presentation of Septimus Crisparkle’s vain attempts to persuade his mother that her set against the newcomer, Neville Landless, is unfair, Dickens foregrounds the issues of racial otherness and intolerance that Pete has already raised in relation to the April instalment. Mrs Crisparkle’s hardness towards Neville is based upon what she has been told of his drunken altercation with Edwin, and the disclosure that Jasper has been her informer and that the good-hearted Crisparkle had thought to remain quiet about the incident before the choirmaster forestalled him, is a narrative detail that seems designed to arouse suspicion in the reader.

And it is in the face of his mother’s prejudice and in the midst of Cloisterham gossip about Neville that the Reverend Septimus ‘falls into a musing’ from which Mrs Crisparkle concludes that he ‘want[s] support’. To fetch this, she resorts to ‘a most wonderful closet’. As Christopher has already noted, we’re given a minutely detailed description of the unusual construction of this closet, which has perpendicular sliding covers that allow its contents ‘to be disclosed by degrees’: a process of revelation and discovery in stages that, according to the narrator, heightens the pleasure afforded by the comestibles secreted within. Dickens’s evident enjoyment in describing food and drink is something we are familiar with from his earlier fiction. Perhaps the exuberant description of the shops shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Carol is one of the most memorable:

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waist-coats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in pyramids… (Stave III)

The description of the contents of Mrs Crisparkle’s closet shows the same whimsical animation and anthropomorphism, as we are told that each of the ‘benevolent inhabitant[s]’ occupying the upper shelf had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles, in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family.

While the anthropomorphism recalls the Carol, however, the similarity is accompanied by difference – for the scene has notably shifted from public display to private storage. Moreover, the goods in Mrs Crisparkle’s closet mix local produce with imperial imports. The lowering of the upper slide reveals jams ‘announc[ing] themselves in feminine caligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach’. However, in amongst these home-made preserves we also find evidence of the fruits of empire: ‘Deep shelves of pickle jars, jam-pots, tin canisters, spice-boxes, and agreeably outlandish vessels of blue and white, the luscious lodgings of preserved tamarinds and ginger’. Indeed, this mixing of local and imperial comestibles is reflected in the very form of the ‘support’ that Mrs Crisparkle takes from her closet to give her son: a ‘glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit’ (Constantia is a sweet South African wine that was widely exported to Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).

On one level, of course, Dickens’s description of these worldly goods may serve as part of the realist notation that sets the novel within an era of imperialism and growing international trade – part of what we might call the ‘reality effect’. But in the context of a narrative that has already shown us a Church of England choirmaster off his head – so to speak – alongside a ‘Chinaman’ and a ‘Lascar’ in an opium den in the novel’s first chapter, perhaps the mingling of domestic and imperial goods in Mrs Crisparkle’s closet is more significant than it might seem at first glance. Like opium, such exotic fruits and spices are part of the trade flows between colony and metropole that serve to undo, or at least call into question, apparent oppositions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the formation of empire. Is it also significant, I wonder, that these worldly goods are consumed by means of ingestion? Tea and coffee are other obvious examples of foreign commodities taken into the body that figure elsewhere in Dickens – think of Mr Venus ‘floating his powerful mind in tea’; but have these beverages already become domesticated perhaps?

The Drood Advertiser for June offers an equally mixed assortment of domestic and foreign goods for sale to readers of the monthly number. Jewsbury and Brown’s Oriental Tooth Paste (sold by Agents throughout the Kingdom and Colonies), Edmiston’s Waterproofs for India, Unwin and Albert’s Indian Preparation of Henna Pomade and J. Defries and Sons’ New Patent ‘Punkah Lamp’ for use in India are advertised alongside Tidman’s Sea Salt, Mappin and Webb’s Electro Plate and Chapman and Co.’s Entire Wheat Flour. The advertisement for Dunn and Hewett’s Cocoas, Chocolates and Essence of Coffee joins colony and metropole in its juxtaposed ‘Trade Marks’: the left-hand woodcut shows an English servant bearing a tray of these beverages, while on the right, an Indian servant carries a tray with an oriental pot, perhaps containing Maizena Cocoa, which was made from a blend of Indian corn and cocoa. These advertisements register the imperial circulation of goods. They evidence a traffic between colony and metropole that, like Mrs Crisparkle’s closet, belies the insularity of Cloisterham and indicates that the sense of English superiority – evinced, for example, by Edwin in his earlier argument with Neville – was never so stable as it might initially have seemed. At the very least, these worldly goods provide an interesting contrast to the comic dinner at Grewgious’s chambers where the fog substitutes for Doctor Kitchener’s Zest and Harvey’s Sauce.

Published by Cathy Waters

I am Professor of Victorian Literature and Print Culture in the School of English and the Centre for Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Kent. I am currently working on an AHRC-funded project on the Victorian 'special correspondent' which grows out of my work on Dickens's journalism. This is a collaborative project investigating the cultural resonance of this highly popular form of journalism in the context of developments in the periodical and newspaper press throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

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  1. Thank you for the nudge to finally read Edwin Drood. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to coming back to your posts to add a little depth to my reading.

    1. You are most welcome Simon – and thank you for the kind words. The beauty of a project like this is that with everyone contributing their thoughts, we all gain more insights about the book, be it our 1st or 101st reading!

  2. I’ve been musing over several of the issues raised in this post, one being the potential link between the exotic treats in Mrs Crisparkle’s closet and Jasper’s opium; intriguingly, the BBC adaptation in 2012 connected this in a very literal sense when Mrs C, noting Jasper’s headaches detailed in chapter one, prescribes him some morphine from this very cabinet. This link therefore becomes explicit, with the added twist of poor Mrs C ignorantly being a well-intentioned drug-dealer! It also underlines the hypocrisy of her condemning an outsider while openly recommending international goods.

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