Fourth monthly number: time’s postern gate

“A just question my liege. Late is the hour in which this blogger chooses to appear” TTT

Time and timing is the theme of this somewhat belated post. Part V is nearly upon us, and much has already been said, illuminatingly, in everyone’s earlier posts. My starting point is far from original–it is in fact a thread started on The Dickens List (email discussion forum DICKNS-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU) which, yesterday, as I was rootling around for an angle, announced, startlingly, a query directly relating to this monthly Part. On to the query in a moment, but it set me thinking about how readers of July 1870, if they were at all interested in Dickens, would probably be following him via a number of different serial publications: not only via The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but also All the Year Round, appearing weekly throughout July, as well as retrospectively in a monthly format, with advertisements.  While Dickens’s sudden death goes unnoticed in the pages of MED, his departure is repeatedly and prominently noticed in AYR, which, however, takes pains to suggest that his absence is really a form of continued presence. Here is the page in question, which is identical to the one published the week previously, apart from the date stamp, perhaps causing readers to double-take:

Facsimile of All the Year Round, Volume IV

Leaving aside the unfortunate use of the title, ‘Personal,’ which as CD Jnr. presumably recalled was the one under which Dickens had attempted publicly to scotch what he believed were slanderous rumours in circulation regarding the breakdown of his marriage in 1858–I suppose I find it doubly odd (uncanny) that Edwin’s departure coincides with Dickens’s in one serial, while in the other, Dickens’s disappearance is marked by the appearance of someone of the same name, claiming that ‘[t]he same spirit which has in the past pervaded its pages will […] pervade them still’. Meanwhile, on the back page of each issue of AYR through July, advertisements continued to cross promote the latest number of MED, as though nothing had happened:


So, on to the query, which is about timing and dating in this installment, and comes from scrupulous Japanese Dickensian Takashi Terauchi, who, as others have done before him, picks up on Crisparkle’s slightly odd formulation in Chapter XII (p. 90 of Part III), overheard by Jasper and Durdles as they stand behind the dwarf wall at Minor Canon Corner:

This is the first day of the week,’ Mr. Crisparkle can be distinctly heard to observe, as they turn back; ‘and the last day of the week is Christmas Eve.’

Now, as Chapter XIV announces it is ‘Christmas Eve in Cloisterham,’ those interested in when the whole novel is set (who have included, over the years, Percy Garden, T. W. Hill and Ray Dubberke and, I presume, numerous other armchair detectives) have realised that these pieces of information could be used to work out the ‘actual’ year and date of Edwin’s disappearance. Takashi Terauchi, following the standardisation set down by ISO 8601 (1988), and assuming therefore that the last day of the week is Sunday, suggests that the calendar years of the 19th-century leading up the the writing of MED which fit this pattern would be 1837, 1843, 1848, 1854 or 1865. He is naturally puzzled that T. W. Hill, in a Dickensian article of 1944 (‘Drood Time in Cloisterham’ Summer 1944; vol. 40, p. 114) had come up with a different list, viz. 1836, 1842, 1853, 1859 and 1864. The answer is simple enough: that ISO 8601 is a secularized standard, moulded to fit a manufacturing timetable, whereas Dickens was–apropriately for Cloisterham–following the Judaeo-Christian/ ecclesiastical tradition (still followed in the United States) of formally placing Sunday at the start of the week. And of course this makes sense: on Christmas Eve, Edwin is able to turn into a jewellers to have his watch wound and set, because it’s a Saturday. Now as it happens, T. W. Hill and others examine all kinds of hints and clues as to dating, not all of which are available to us readers of July 1870, to argue to and fro about whether 1842-43 is the best fit, or whether Dickens really had no particular year in mind at all. Personally, I find the modernity of the dress in the illustrations and cover–something readers of the early numbers could all see–to be a striking indication of contemporaneity, and so would like to suggest that actually, Dickens has set his novel very slightly in the future:–

December_1870_Calendar–knowing that his readers would encounter the synchronicity as they moved from Part IX (December) into Part X, when the facts of Edwin’s disappearance would (I’m guessing) still be being worked over intensely.

Whether this is a sustainable hypothesis or not, it is certainly true that Dickens took huge trouble, as a planner of serial stories and magazine editor, to think about whether or not the month and season within the fictional worlds he sent out to readers would chime with their realtime experience of life, or not. (A great example of getting things in step is Part VII of Bleak House, published at the end of August 1852, which opens with a long atmospheric description of London during the lawyers’ vacation, and the dog days). Having Christmas in July in MED is all part of a larger set of disturbing and jarring effects that disrupt Cloisterham’s complacent insistence on its own harmonies.

But, on to the watch. I’m a 2014 revenant in 1870, ignorant of much, so–not actually owning an annotated edition of MED, nor indeed, a wind-up watch–can somebody tell me why Edwin has to get a jeweller to wind and set it? Off to do some instant horological research, at a really tremendous set of pages, titled How to Wind a Vintage Pocket Watch. Here I learn that ‘A mechanical pocket watch should be able to run for at least 24-28 hours on a full wind of the mainspring.’ So, more questions. Edwin gets his watch wound on Saturday afternoon, 24th December (1870?)–and afterwards ‘well directed fire of arms of precision’ is levelled at Neville Landless’s case by the cleverer Cloisterham pundits:

The watch found at the Weir was challenged by the jeweller as the one he had wound and set for Edwin Drood, at twenty past two on that same afternoon; and it had run down, before being cast into the water; and it was the jeweller’s positive opinion that it had never been re-wound. This would justify the hypothesis that that the watch was taken from him not long aftwer he left Mr. Jasper’s house at midnight, […] and that it had been thrown away after being retained some hours.

But as we accompany Neville on his departure from Cloisterham from ‘early’ the following morning, this scarcely leaves the watch any time to run down. And I still don’t get why Edwin couldn’t wind and set it himself, whether it be an open-face, Hunter Case, Double Hunter or Demi-Hunter variety, with stem-set, lever-set or pin-set movement…. Admittedly, it gives an opportunity for the jeweller to be insinuating about wedding presents and for Asser & Sherwin of 81, Strand and 69, Oxford Street London, to be smug about the timing of their advertisement on p. 13. But, how could anyone, jeweller or otherwise, know if a watch had been rewound or not? And would it not have been helpful nay expected for the narrative to indicate with precision what time the watch had stopped, not what time, to the minute, it had been wound? And why does Dickens write ‘challenged by the jeweller’ — which doesn’t, on the face of it, sound either very correct or very idiomatic (quick pause while I consult the Shorter Oxford … … there’s an archaic sense ‘bring as a charge’–the jeweller is accusing Neville?–but it still doesn’t make much sense).

Not making much headway with the watch in terms of its literal time-telling, and I’m sensing that Dickens is perhaps more intent on what things stand for and show than what they tell. Both the watch and its chain are significant, and so are the ring, and perhaps the pin. Here’s the narrator, sounding a tad portentous, at the moment when Rosa and Edwin are, with touching youthful maturity agreeing to part:

Among the mighty store of wonderful chains that are for ever forging, day and night, in the vast iron-works of time and circumstance, there was one chain forged in the moment of that small conclusion, riveted to the foundations of heaven and earth, and gifted with invincible force to hold and drag. / They walked on by the river.

Thankfully there’s no reference to Mount Doom, so we can ignore the grandiose, and think in more Hardyish terms about time and its little ironies: we will presumably come back to this passage and read it differently anon. Just as we do with Pip’s ambivalent recollection in the first Stage of Great Expectations:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

I suppose serial novels are a little bit like chains.

One Ring inscription

Twelve Parts to Edwin Drood;
Four Parts to bind him;
Six Parts are all we’ve got,
And in the darkness find him.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for this John, especially for raising the issue of date, which has been an issue of some discussion with solutionists over the years. The key phrase from instalment two is regarding the Landless Twins’ arrival, when we are told “In those days there was no railway to Cloisterham”, which taken with the calendar information provided by Christmas Eve being on a Sunday identifies the date of events as 1842.

    And now a caveat or two. I fully believe Dickens had this era in mind, given the railway comment; I do not believe he had an exact year in mind, nor that he would be consulting his calendar to check which day Christmas Eve would fall upon. Secondly, 1840s it may be, but it is the 1840s written in the 1870s, hence the peculiarity of contemporary dress in the pictures. Both in this and the overall tone of the story, it is very much a tale of the past that actively defies nostalgia and refuses to occupy the cheery world of Chuzzlewit and others. So why – why – does Dickens set it in the past at all? Is there a significance to the plot in the lack of a railway? Or is it a deliberately retrospective work, as Dickens returns to Rochester having travelled across the UK and USA, in which he looks at the once-familiar with an alien eye, a modern perspective?

  2. The question of railway links to the Medway towns in Dickens’s time is one which interested, I believe, the editors of Volume IV of the Dent Edition of Dickens’s Journalism (2000), which contains the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ essays. One of these, later reprinted as ‘Dullborough Town,’ features a composite portrait of the Medway towns in which Dickens deliberately mixes features and eras of all three towns: here is the relevant section of the headnote:

    ‘Dullborough’ is a composite portrait of the Medway towns of Chatham, Strood and Rochester, which Dickens pretends not to have revisited since childhood. He had already described Rochester as it appeared to him in the 1850s in a Household Words essay jointly composed with Henry Morley, ” (HW, Vol. III, 6 Sept 1851; repr. in Stone, [Uncollected Writings,] Vol. 1, pp. 331-42). Topographical details of the three towns seem deliberately confused. For example, if the ‘playing-field’ referred to, was that adjacent to the school of the Rev. William Giles in Clover-lane, Chatham, which Dickens attended (see Foster, Book I, Ch. 1), then it could not have been ‘swallowed up’ by the South Eastern Railway station as the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ claims. Until 1891 S.E.R. only reached as far as Strood, and in 1860, it was the London, Chatham and Dover Railway which had a station under construction in Chatham (see B. Matthews, History of Strood District Council, 1971, p. 72). [Ends]

    ‘Cloisterham’ clearly blends creatively aspects of Rochester, Chatham and Strood, so I reckon it would be unwise to take the ‘no railway to Cloisterham’ as a precise indicator: different companies built links to different towns at different dates. And yet, our belief (desire? hope?) persists that the truncated sjuzhet that is MED, has, standing behind it, a fully developed ‘fabula’, where all dates and facts are reconciled in the perfect solution to the perfect puzzle. Sigh.

    Maybe it will be better just to read ‘Dullborough Town’ and MED side by side as partly nostalgic partly acerbic portraits of falling out of love with the town of one’s childhood?

  3. Thanks for pointing out this parallel text John – readers of the blog can find it here:

    Yes, I agree, there is a certainly a blend of nostalgia and disappointment in both; again, worth reading in relation to the passage this month of those once familiar faces returning to Cloisterham for Christmas, amazed at how small it has become, which almost directly echoes the same sentiments with which Dickens talks of his own experience ten years previously.

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