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.