Something Wicked This Way Comes

In this instalment Jasper’s revelations begin to confirm what astute readers may have already deduced; that he loves Rosa, a fact which may also be connected to Edwin’s disappearance, and possibly even the suspicions gathered around Neville. Jasper’s self-exposure in the ‘Shadow on the Sun-Dial’ chapter has formed the basis of many speculative portrayals of Jasper’s villainy on both page and screen, from what one reviewer called Claude Rains’s ‘terrorist performance’ for Universal Studios in 1935 to Matthew Rhys’s 2012 incarnation, which producer Lisa Osborne described as poised between ‘a moustache-twirling villain’ and ‘a tragic anti-hero’. While the keen investigators of the Drood Inquiry will properly explore the extent of Jasper’s villainy later in the year, here I want to offer a brief but timely consideration of the darker side of Jasper’s character.

Amidst the movement of this instalment (which includes Datchery’s arrival and Rosa’s flight, events which are amplified by the astutely-placed advertisements for travelling goods), the two figures central to Edwin’s disappearance remain relatively static. In a deft piece of juxtaposition, we are first shown the virtual imprisonment of Neville, who is ‘marked and tainted’ by suspicion, before turning to Jasper, who by contrast still has the freedom of Cloisterham, but is trapped by his feelings of lust and of guilt.

Preparatory to Jasper’s confrontation of Rosa, Dickens continues his development of a pattern of suggestion and insinuation that has gradually built up around Jasper. In previous instalments, Dickens has incorporated Jasper’s own likely explanation for his suspicious behaviour into his central narrative voice via a kind of free indirect speech, which subtly implicates the reader in his culpability: for example, when Jasper terrifies Rosa by the piano, we are told that ‘It was a consequence of his playing the accompaniment without notes, and of her being a heedless creature very apt to go wrong, that he followed her lips most attentively’. Here in Chapter 19 ‘[p]erhaps’ he has chosen this moment, when Rosa is most vulnerable, to confront her with his confession – but only ‘perhaps’.

This is one sign of the increased sophistication of Dickens’s portrayal of villains; critics have often indicated a progressive trajectory, beginning with stagier figures like Bill Sikes and Monks and peaking with the psychologically richer portraits of Bradley Headstone and indeed Jasper. Yet following Juliet John, I would position Jasper somewhere between these two poles, as he oscillates between a melodramatic character who expresses his feelings through a wholly externalised performance, and a more cunning and calculating figure, who becomes suddenly aware of this performance and is keen to manage it carefully.

Part of Jasper’s calculating nature involves his measured intimation of the truth, as he is careful not to wholly incriminate himself; he only admits that he ‘might’ have swept Edwin from Rosa’s side when she favoured him and warns her that ‘[c]ircumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man’ that he will be found guilty. Jasper is also aware how they can be seen from the house, so directs their movements carefully, and ensures that while his ‘look and delivery’ may be violent, ‘his assumed attitude’ remained composed.

Moreover, looking back to the previous instalments, Jasper does not neatly fit the model of an early Dickens ‘out-and-outer’ or ‘regular right-down bad ‘un’, who commits crimes largely unreflectively or for their own sake. Instead, the angst that he articulates so poignantly to his nephew in Chapter 2 (admitting that ‘The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away’) seems to reflect a wider malaise of the period and even of his creator. Geoffrey Thurley, for example, observes that ‘Jasper’s demonic ruthlessness, as well as his ennui and despair, correspond to something important in Dickens’ and Benny R. Reece similarly feels that Drood as a whole is ‘a product of the circumstances of Dickens’s later life’.

However, Jasper’s villainy is not without its more sensational aspects. Throughout the novel he is associated with the supernatural, and in this instalment, his villainy is given a similarly gothic flavour. His powers of mesmerism that were first suggested in Chapter 7 return again, as Rosa is held by ‘the old horrible feeling of being compelled by him’, whereby ‘she cannot resist’ and ‘he draws her feet towards him’, with her only defence being to look down at the grass and avoid his gaze altogether. As she reflects on their encounter later in Chapter 20, Rosa acknowledges that Jasper is perhaps at the zenith of his terrible powers, as she felt as if he had power to bind her by a spell’ and that ‘the solid walls of the old convent [were] powerless to keep out his ghostly following of her’. Yet even at his most terrible, he still managed to possess that familiar Dickensian characteristic, the ‘fascination of repulsion’.

Also in keeping with the sensational is the extreme violence of Jasper’s language directed against himself, as he asks Rosa to ‘tread’ upon his ‘fidelity’ to Edwin, ‘spurn’ his ‘adoration’ of her, ‘crush’ his labours of vengeance, and finally ‘stamp’ his ‘wasted life’ ‘into the dust’. In his discussion of the role of masochism within constructions of Victorian masculinity, Martin Danahay has explored how a number of Victorian men managed their troublesome feelings by projecting them onto others, particularly women, and here Jasper forces the violence of his own emotions onto their object, Rosa. Fildes’s illustration works in close dialogue with the text here, with the title ‘Jasper’s Sacrifices’ working ironically, given the composition of the figures within the tableau and their relative power positions; the supposed supplicant Jasper dominates the frame, bearing over a cowering Rosa, who shrinks from his tribute.

We are now just one instalment away from the end of Drood as we have it, but according to Dickens’s intended plan for the novel as a whole, Jasper’s confession of his love for Rosa (and the criminal consequences that this may have entailed) has come almost halfway through. This means that he had left more than half the novel’s full length in which to play out the repercussions of Jasper’s revelation. Precisely what those repercussions might have been is for the Drood Inquiry to investigate this autumn …

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  1. Thanks for this post Jonathan. Jasper is certainly the star of the show, and increasingly emerging as an anti-hero. Yet much of the debate over whether he is a complicated villain or the stuff of melodrama rests on interpretationd of his love for Rosa – is it simply lust, obsession or a tragic tale of love consuming all? It’s certainly a point on which the solutionists frequently disagree (but more on that after September). As for the mesmerism angle, a number of solutionists and critics alike have pondered this in relation to Dickens’s own belief and experience in mesmerism. I myself remain unconvinced, but I throw the question out there to our readers – is Jasper using mesmeric powers on the people of Cloisterham?

  2. I believe that Jasper does not use magnetism. Firstly, he does not make passes. Passes are a mandatory part of the arsenal of the magnetizer. Secondly, Jasper makes Durdles sleeping using brandy and not hypnosis.

    The only doubtful event there is a Crisparkles’ walk to the weir. But Jasper does not give him the order with the help of words. Magnetizer can not transmit orders other than through words. With the help of water or personal belongings of the patient, he can transmit magnetic energy to treat, but not orders.

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