Fourth Monthly Number, July 1870

With the death of Dickens on 9 June 1870, Edwin Drood became, for its contemporary readers, an unfinished novel, with the July 1870 instalment standing as the first fragment of that shattered, incomplete whole. It’s difficult, I think, for us to remember that Edwin Drood once held the promise of being a finished novel. As Pete has enquired, what feelings did the sudden denial of this promise evoke in contemporary readers? With what trepidation or curiosity or sorrow did they embark upon this ghostly fourth part?

We know that Dickens finished this instalment before his death and that it had been typeset and he had read and corrected the proofs. The history of the novel’s composition and publication becomes more complicated henceforth, as John Forster, one of Dickens’s closest friends and his literary executor, made some fairly interventionist decisions about the structure of the novel’s remaining, and much less finished, parts. For the July 1870 instalment, though, we can be pretty certain that it is laid out and structured just as Dickens intended – the last such part.

And so, the mystery is finally upon us! Edwin Drood has disappeared – possibly murdered, or absconded, or accidentally drowned. The prime suspect is Neville Landless who, with his short fuse and well-known, antipathetic love rivalry with Edwin (let alone his heavy walking stick and burned papers!) is looking pretty guilty. Dickens wonderfully depicts the racist small-town gossip that skews Neville into a violent monster who has whipped ‘Natives’ to death, threatened to murder Mr Crisparkle and ‘nearly bought Mrs Crisparkle’s grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.’ Lest we forget Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, though, Dickens lands a few underhand jabs on philanthropists, with their childish faith in racial equality.

And ‘impulsive and feverish’ John Jasper, for all his gloriously melodramatic agitation about the disappearance of his ‘dear boy’, is behaving extraordinarily suspiciously: spying on Edwin and Rosa; rather obviously, yet effectively, fanning the flames of suspicion towards Neville in the mind of the easily manipulated, gullible Mr Sapsea; and collapsing with shock when he discovers that Edwin and Rosa mutually terminated their engagement. [Am I the only reader who inwards scoffs at Edwin’s continued, disingenuous excuses for his uncle’s stalker-ish behaviour? ‘“Oh, don’t you understand?”’ asks Rosa – perhaps echoing the reader’s incredulity.] As a teenage Agatha Christie fan, I learned pretty quickly to suspect strong displays of familial grief, but also to brace myself for the double bluff: sometimes the prime suspect – in this case, Neville – is the person whodunit (but not usually for the trite reasons imagined).

I must confess that I reached for my Penguin edition, replete with helpful footnotes, to decipher the multiple allusions in this instalment (I know, I’m awful). Here, Dickens’s displays his tendency to energetically and expediently deploy an arsenal of literary effects, with this instalment offering an embarrassing smorgasbord of competing, overlapping and casually tossed-in allusions. In this instalment, we find snippets and echoes of Shakespeare (Henry IV Part I, Othello and Macbeth), classical history (the Spartan stand at Thermopylae), medieval English history (the princes in the Tower, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), French fairy-tale (Blue Beard), fragmentary traces of Milton and Goldsmith, and lots of Biblical allusions (Genesis, Matthew, Revelation, Thessalonians). I think I would have missed most of these – which perhaps says more about me than the average Dickens reader – but I am astonished at the demands Dickens made on his original readers, particularly as many of these allusions are deployed ironically, thus demanding the readers’ understanding of their original meaning in order to get the joke. Dickens could certainly give George Eliot a run for her money when it came to making intellectual demands on the reader, although his light touch and ironic tone rather conceal his scattergun erudition.

The echoes across Dickens’s own life and work are even more manifold and shadowy. Sapsea’s description of Neville as ‘un-English’ and the satirical tilting towards ‘propriety’ bring to mind Mr Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend, for example. Also, I heard echoes of the discovery of Quilp’s body in The Old Curiosity Shop and the watery flight of Pip and Magwitch in Great Expectations in the description of the search-party dredging the river for Edwin’s (possibly non-existent) corpse.

Interestingly, Edwin has become, like Rudge Senior in Barnaby Rudge and John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend, a‘dead’ man who may yet be living. ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’, as A Christmas Carol famously opens. It’s interesting that Neville is accused of bringing Mrs Crisparkle to the brink of the grave; where the deceased reside is not always clear in Cloisterham. If Cloisterham is a place in which the dead don’t promise to remain as such, the common themes across many of these dense literary allusions are, as ever, death, violence, murder and rage. There’s an interesting juxtaposition here between Dickens’s use of indirect speech to emphasise ironic humour and the very serious turn the story has taken. Dickens shifts the tone in that familiar manner that his fans find delightful and amusing – and his detractors find infuriating. We slip constantly from comedy and irony to mystery and melodrama and back again all in the space of one instalment. The images of pursuit, chase and capture in this instalment tantalisingly suggest something, I think, of the reader’s potential relationship to the text and the author: struggling to keep up with Dickens as he shifts tone, tosses out allusions, demands that you recall characters and incidents from weeks ago, and marches onwards. Except now, Dickens is also dead and alive, present and absent, like Edwin, and the novel’s frequent allusions to the disappeared, the not-quite-dead and the living dead seem like an eerie foreshadowing of 9 June 1870 and its aftermath.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for this Ben – there’s so much to process this month, I think it is the strongest installment of the novel. As you say, we now come to the mystery, which in itself ironically *solves* a mystery: the mystery of what is the mystery (stick with me folks). For the first three months we’ve had mystery emblazoned on the cover page leaving our imagination to run riot with possibilities, and just as that gets resolved, Dickens’s death opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

    I love Fildes’s illustration of Grewgious looking over Jasper’s prostrate form (on reflection there’s quite a few illustrations of unconscious bodies in Drood); it’s a glorious scene laden with intrigue and ruminations (also, note to self: don’t rely on Grewgious for a warm bedside manner). The picture balances out the less-inspiring picture outside the Nun’s house – I would like to say the bland, cheery, crowded tones of the one are deliberately set in contrast to the dark solitude of the other, but I fear I may be doing both Fildes and Dickens too much credit there.

    1. Yes, the pace is really picking up now, isn’t it, but it’s accompanied, of course, by the odd realisation that this shift in gears is ultimately speeding us towards a dead end – a mystery forever left unsolved by the death of its originator. It’s interesting how Dickens approached the mystery almost leisurely; none of the brevity and pace of, say, Agatha Christie or other crime writers here. In retrospect, we might wish he had hurried up a bit! I was intrigued by the title of the amazing Grewgious/Jasper illustration, which feels like a pretty big pointer at the potential identity of the person responsible for ‘disappearing’ Edwin.

  2. Great post, Ben! I agree with Pete that this is the strongest installment of the novel. It’s action-packed and very tightly-constructed – I love the alternate timelines and shift from linearity in ‘When shall these three meet again?’, a technique that seems to me incredibly proto-cinematic in its changing perspective.

    I was struck by the uncanniness of this whole installment, even outside of the story – I’m thinking particularly of those rather unsettling adverts in the frontmatter for portraits of Dickens (one of which is described, TERRIFYINGLY, on p. 11 as ‘one of the most life-like Portraits ever obtained’) through which the Inimitable seems to make his dead/alive presence felt. The whole installment is shot with oppressive atmospheres and spectres too, (after all, right from the start we hear that ‘Ghosts should be encouraged by all possible means’!), but the weirdest scene for me has to be Crisparkle’s walk to the weir. I’m writing about this at the moment, so it’s probably why I particularly noticed it, but it’s the uncanniness with which the usual relationship between body and mind seems to break down here that I found really striking. The feet-walking-of-their-own-accord idea is one that Dickens has used before in Sydney Carton, but the way this plays out in these short, staccato paragraphs here, as Crisparkle questions his bodily functions (‘how did I come here! … why did I come here!’) and struggles to use senses that would normally be automatic (‘What was it? Where was it? Put it to the proof. Which sense did it address?’), seems even more complex and intriguing. Perhaps it links to the emphasis on the intangible throughout this installment – of spirits and ghosts and distracted minds and vanishing bodies, and the disjunction between how things physically appear (Jasper’s mistaken reading of Edwin and Rosa, for example) and how they actually are? As Jonathan brilliantly quoted at Sights and Frights in Sussex last week, perhaps it really should be titled ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the Blue Elementals’ after all!

    1. Thanks for these lovely observations, Emma! I hadn’t seen the (creepy) portraits ad; I think you’re absolutely right about it intensifying the uncanny sense of Dickens’s presence/absence. The shifts in tone between gallows humour, silly levity and oppressive haunting are quite unsettling, I think. I wonder if Dickens was exploring aspects of psychology here: the automatic, unconscious functions of the brain versus the higher, rational decision-making functions – and the shadowy place of heightened emotional and drugged states in-between. Like Jasper in an opium-induced stupor, Mr Crisparkle also finds his body running like an automaton while he is deep in reverie. In what sense, as you say, are we ‘present’ and ‘absent’ to ourselves in these moments? This seems quite a preoccupation, I think, with sensation literature and this particular moment in Victorian culture, literature and psychology.

      1. Yes, it really didn’t take long for people to start cashing in on Dickens’s death. Did you also see the photos of Gad’s Hill Place available to buy? Though my favourite of the adverts is the one for the ‘elaborately engraved’ picture of Dickens (cue visions of artists working with enormous engraving equipment, over-the-top flourishes and operatic background).

      2. I love how such souvenirs are simultaneously deeply sentimental yet also shamelessly profit motivated and orientated. The Victorians seemed no less hopelessly confused than we are about the commodification of feeling via sentimental objects/mementos.

  3. P.S. Sorry for the essay! And I missed out my joke about Schrödinger’s Edwin. Curses!

  4. There are so many great moments this month. What about the Christmas description at the start of chapter 14? First of all – the crime, whatever it is, happens on Christmas Eve…in a Dickens novel – what a phenomenal contrast to the cheery Dickensian yuletide of lore. But I particularly love that opening paragraph of the chapter when Dickens talks of ‘A few strange faces in the strets; a few other faces, half strange and half familiar, once the faces of Cloisterham children, now the faces of men and women who come back from the outer world at long intervals to find the city wonderfully shrunken in size, as if it had not washed by any meas well in the meanwhile.’ The children of Cloisterham grow up and leave, returning but once a year to their hometown. It’s a very disorientating Christmastime here – not the warm-hearted world of Fezziwig and a giant goose for Tiny Tim, but a time in which those returning feel out of place, and the once familiar is now strange and distant for the simple fact that they have stayed away the rest of the year.

    I’m intrigued by the sense of Cloisterham as a place of the past, of nostalgia, the way Dickens describes it in Chapter Three as place that presumes all its change is behind it, and no more is to come. Dickens was irritated by those who harped on about the good old days, he was all for progress, and yet would often succumb to nostalgia himself about childhood memories. At the time of writing Drood, he would have spent many years travelling both the UK and USA on his reading tour, to now return to the familiar, settled life at Rochester. Is it any wonder then that in talking of the town it is suffused both with this sense of nostalgia and bewildered return of the natives?

    1. Ah yes, I was going to comment on the Christmas setting, but I forgot! Like Great Expectations, it’s in sharp contrast to the earlier Christmas scenes. Also, quite weird to be reading a Christmas scene in July! I love your observation about the city feeling discombobulating to those returning. Again, there are hints of sensory confusion, of the mismatch between memory, perception and embodied feeling – a theme throughout the novel. The Penguin footnotes mention that Dickens’s sister Fanny told him, on her deathbed, that she could smell the leaves on the trees they climbed as children, or some such. So, Dickens is definitely mining his own familial nostalgia and pain here.

  5. I’m also intrigued by Edwin’s personality this month. The chapter title ‘Both at their best’ hints at the development of his character – and Rosa’s for that matter. Neither have been hugely sympathetic so far, despite being the golden couple of Cloisterham and the novel; both are a little too self-involved and Edwin is frequently flippant – frankly you can understand why Neville gets so annoyed by him. And suddenly there they are all grown up. Is this a deliberate maturing of the pair as part of a larger character arc (for Rosa at least) or – I ask hesitantly – is this Dickens realising at the last minute that his tragic victim ain’t so likeable and a swift parade of his virtue is necessary to stop the readers from cheering when he disappears?

    1. Some really great insights here, Pete. I wonder if a lot of this scene is refracted through Dickens’s own marital unhappiness and separation. Is this Dickens reimagining his early days with Catherine, or questioning his relationship with Nelly? Idle biographical speculation, perhaps – and a little crude. Rosa comes out well here, I think, speaking honestly and bravely and achieving a sort of development of character and personal insight.

      The problem of virtuous youths runs throughout Dickens’s novels – the problem being that they are usually rather dull! Perhaps it is useful to read Edwin through via melodrama as a stock character whose goodness resides partly in his static character? But I think you’re right that this is a ploy to generate sympathy for the about-to-disappear Edwin. In a sense, he is ‘absent’ from the novel long before he physically disappears – he’s a sort of blank or nothing that others, like John Jasper, project onto. Is there something interesting here about how Dickens felt appropriated by his audiences and fans?

      1. Certainly much can be said of Edwin and Rosa in the wake of the arranged marriage in OMF between the now deceased Harmon and Bella, and that curious position both Rosa and Bella are in as almost-widows. Quite how you choose to link all this talk of forced, loveless marriages to Dickens’ s experience is up to each reader. But yes, with the titular character gone astray there is now nothing to stop Jasper being the protagonist.

  6. Great discussion so far!
    The evocations of Christmas that have been mentioned are very interesting, and this does feel in some ways like an anti-‘Christmas Carol’. In ‘Carol’, Dickens could magically evelate the familiar into the romantic in a pantomime-like transformation (when describing the Christmas food for example), but here we have the opposite, as the fairy-dust is shaken off to reveal a mundane and poorer reality –the Twelfth cake is not worthy of the name, the waxworks are exhibited on the site of a failed business, and the great clown Grimaldi has been replaced by inferior imitators like the miserable Jacksonini. Our revels now are ended indeed.
    I’d also build on Ben’s perceptions of the echoes across Dickens’s work – for me, the orphan child left at school for Christmas had notes of ‘Carol’ about it, as did the sense of the ‘chains’ we build in life described when Rosa and Edwin walk by the riverside. Later on at The Tilted Wagon, the ‘moist baby (with one red sock on and one wanting) recalls one of Mrs Gamp’s charges, and the sign offering ‘good entertainment for Man and Beast’ has an echo of the frightening illustration of Quilp at the window. I haven’t perhaps thought through the implications of these echoes enough, but they perhaps suggest something of the sheer size and interconnectedness of the Dickens universe. Does Dickens do this deliberately, or unconsciously, as the sheer mass of creations cannot be neatly kept away and return unbidden in this later, reflective novel?
    I was also interested by Pete’s comments on how Edwin and Rosa come more to the fore, and we see a maturer, more considered side to both of them. After the arranged marriage of his previous novel, Dickens starts to offer another solution to this plot strand – for the related parties to choose their own partners in life, rather than those expected of them. This seems quite a radical move, especially so early in the novel, and (alas again) it would be fascinating to know how Dickens expected this to play out. As Ben suggested, this may have had some autobiographical imperative behind it.
    Finally, and to neatly even things out, I also enjoyed Emma’s comments on more uncanny and unsettled elements of this installment. As Emma kindly mentioned, I discussed this last week at the ‘Sights and Frights’ conference in Brighton, and I drew on this section of the novel in my paper. Reading it back again, the description of Jasper at the point of Grewgious’s revelations of Rosa/Edwin’s resolutions (p. 120), into a ‘ghastly figure’ and his transformation into ‘nothing but a heap of torn and miry clothes upon the floor’ is particularly disturbing and adds to the ‘otherworldly’ nature of this enigmatic figure. Juliet John has spoken about the lack of interiority in the characterisation of Jasper (although his diary makes an appearance here, it is used for display purposes by its author), and this scene is all externals – but no less entertaining for it.

    1. A lot of interesting points there Jonathan. Yes, we are frequently placed outside a character and rarely allowed to see their internal monologue – with Jasper especially we are reliant on observations of his expressions and reactions (although his collapse in front of Grewgious seems to leave little to doubt). Really this is all part of the mystery genre, but it does mean the reader is left divorced from the characters, with this uncrossable barrier between us that feels all the more shocking when we look back at those Dickensian echoes of characters who we have been able to fully understand and empathise with.

  7. I’m struck by the valedictory tone of our discussion of this month’s instalment. Ben started us off by emphasizing Dickens’s presence/absence, the appearances of ghosts and spectres, the echoes of other works by Dickens, possible links to elements in Dickens’s life (absence from England, his unhappy marriage etc). I wonder whether contemporary readers did the same? They’d have been aware of his death — by the adverts alone — and by the obituaries, but would they have read the number with lots of backward glances to the earlier works, becoming increasingly aware, as Jonathan suggests, of the ‘interconnectedness’ of Dickens’s universe?

    Another aspect of this month’s instalment is how much happens in it. Emma’s point that it is action-packed and tightly constructed is certainly true. By the time we have read to the end, with the discovery of Edwin’s watch and tie pin, the banishment of Neville, Jasper’s vow to destroy the murderer we’ve almost forgotten the comic opening scene — an 1870s version of a mid-night feast in the dorm. I agree with Ben that Fildes’s illustration doesn’t do justice to it. The build up to the Christmas Eve reconciliation dinner is completely undercut by the violent storm. We only learn much later that the dinner passed off successfully and without incident.

    I am finding the rhythmn of reading monthly parts VERY different to reading weekly instalments. There is so much to take in, the scenes and the tone change rapidly, and yet we’ve been waiting for a month. The June instalment seems a world away.

    1. Hmm, interesting observations Joanne. I wonder whether we’ve been looking at this the wrong way – we talk of people not realising this was Dickens’s last work, and the change in our reception of it after his death – but, every novel is the last novel until the next one is written. So, is it possible that the echoes we notice in Drood might also be noticed in any work post-Boz, and that what sets Drood apart is that there is nothing to follow it in which we, in turn, might recognise echoes of it? In other words, in the other Dickens novels we both look back and forward while with Drood we can *only* look back, and it is that denial of anticipation which serves to emphasise the sense of retrospection.

  8. One of the benefits of reading Edwin Drood in parts is being able to see Dickens’s art as his original readers saw it, in digestible chunks that can be savored and that whet the appetite for what comes next. And monthly number four is exquisite (I agree with Pete that it’s the strongest one extant), one that should demonstrate that, whatever fatigue Dickens might have been experiencing over the long haul of writing a novel, in the short run he could still impress and give Wilkie Collins something to be nervous about.

    Monthly number four has the great chapter, “When Shall We Three Meet Again?” where many big clues drop. We have Neville’s walking stick, Edwin’s stickpin, Jasper’s black silk scarf, the broken hands of the clock after the storm, and Septimus’s strange sleepwalking-like visit to Cloisterham Weir. The writing is brilliant; the present tense gives it a contemporaneity that belies those critics who think Dickens a stuffy Victorian of florid prose and antimacassars. As a mystery writer, I am in awe of Dickens’s ability to lay down clues (or red herrings) with precision, force, and fluidity. We know that our attention is being drawn to these details, but for reasons that are not yet clear.

    (In my recent trip to Rochester, I searched in vain for an exterior “postern stair” on the gatehouse residence popularly assumed to be Jasper’s home next to Tope’s Restaurant. One of the other gatehouses nearer Minor Canon Row has an exterior staircase, but the secretive entrance to Jasper’s putative home apparently is accessed through an interior staircase beyond a small door inside the archway. So much for the romance of the verisimilitude of fiction.)

    Again, Dickens gives both Edwin and Rosa psychological depth of a greater level than ingénues in virtually any other of his novels. Their decision to be “brother and sister” to one another may seem quaint to us, but at the sentence level Dickens shows great subtlety beyond the often proscenium-bound theatricality of earlier works. Both young people have reasoning powers beyond their years, I think.

    As with last month’s discussion of Mrs. Crisparkle’s cupboard, we see again this month the conflation of food and medicine, early on as Miss Twinkleton’s girls fortify themselves for the end of term (“cowslip wine had been quaffed from the small squat measuring glass in which little Rickitts…took her steel drops daily”), and later, when, after Jasper faints, Mrs. Tope gives him wine and jelly to fortify him.

    I’m so looking forward to the September symposium. After this six month exercise, I feel that I’ll be ready for a whole day of Drood speculations.

    1. Thanks Christopher. I’ve always felt that reading a mystery novel is like watching a magic trick – you know the answer is right in front of you, and you also know the author/magician is doing all they can to distract you, so you sit up and pay attention to everything. So with Drood disappeared, and Dickens dead, we eagerly pick up on each clue as mentioned, yet, as you rightly say, we cannot be sure of how each clue will ultimately inform the end, if at all.

      This phenomenon is entirely supported by serial reading, as the prolonged period of time between installments allows reflection on what might otherwise be smaller details: when we did a serial reading of A Tale of Two Cities in 2012, there was a very long and animated discussion on pierglass – an item which Dickens spends perhaps four lines describing as a background object in a scene, and yet because we had a week to digest that scene, the secondary became primary in our attention.

      Of course, ultimately, what starts off as one-month gaps between installments will become a 144-year (and counting) gap in which we can ponder, and re-ponder, the significance. The lack of a reveal means we will never be able to fully distinguish the clues from the red herrings, so that every object is elevated to the same state of potential importance to the plot.

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