The Gothic Imagination and Edwin Drood

There I was, taking time off to visit the excellent Gothic exhibition at the British Library, when who should I bump into but Edwin Drood (interestingly, not one of the voters on The Drood Inquiry has suggested he might be found there). The inclusion of Drood among the impressive collection of Gothic literature and culture prompts further consideration of precisely how Gothic the book may be and how this in turn can shape our expectation of its characters and conclusion.

Is Drood specifically a Gothic novel? Suffice to say, it does not receive the same amount of attention (or space) in the exhibition as more obvious examples; Dracula gets its own room while the whole of Dickens’s canon is confined to a corner. Drood is included in the exhibition alongside Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Bleak House. So what is there about these other novels that can suggest the Gothic in Dickens? Violence, certainly, in the case of Twist, along with hidden secrets from the past about parentage, which we see re-emerge in Bleak House along with sublime descriptions of the slums of London. These are not beautiful descriptions of the city, but ones that hold the attention through horrified fascination of the sheer depravity of the scenes laid before us. Lady Dedlock’s night-time visit to the graveyard scores high on the Gothic factor, as, of course, does the spiritual encounters Scrooge experiences in Carol.

The exhibition has been arranged chronologically, so by the time you approach the Victorian era you have already been introduced to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Lewis’s The Monk and Shelley’s Frankenstein; it is therefore impressed upon you how Dickens and his contemporaries shift the popular format of the genre within our own borders – that is to say, that after all these tales of scandal and the sublime played out across the continent, the Victorian era starts to play with the idea of the same sort of plots and theme occurring on British soil. The implication of this, it is suggested, is that Dickens allows the shock factor of the Gothic within Britain to further highlight the deprived state of the poor and the conditions they live in. The copy of Drood’s sixth and final instalment is accompanied in the display case by William Blanchard-Jerrold’s London A Pilgrimage (1872), left open on the page showing Gustave Dore’s vivid illustration of an opium den, linked specifically to the one run by the Princess Puffer. If Drood is Gothic, it is British Gothic, in this case London Gothic, with that typical Dickensian focus upon the seedier side of the city.

But perhaps it is Cloisterham where we enter the most Gothic territory. Night-time walks in crypts, possible murder, and the dual personality of Jasper all compliment the idea of Drood as an unsettling, spine-tingling tale, linking it not only to the gothic tales before it but those that will follow also (Edmund Wilson and Philip Collins were first among many to note the potential parallels between Jasper’s split personality and Stevenson’s subsequent tale of Jekyll and Hyde. Then there’s the thread of exoticism in the novel: Edwin’s dreams of Egypt, the Landless twin’s mysterious heritage and Jasper’s taste for opium all support that sense of foreign ideas intruding into England. The great advantage of reading Drood as a Gothic novel is that it focuses our attention of theme and tone rather than plot, and encourages us to enjoy the suspense of the present as much as the promised resolution of the future. If we read the “Mystery” of the book’s title more in the way of Radcliffe’s Udolpho and less in the way of a whodunit, we can stop criticising the plot for giving the game away too early in the numerous suggestions of Jasper’s dark thoughts, and instead reappraise these moments as dramatic forebodings: not a weakness of the story, but its great strength.

However, one thing that concerns me about the idea of packaging the book into this genre is the implications for Edwin himself. A common thread in Gothic literature is rising from the dead, either through literal rebirths and resurrections or through acts of deception to make characters, and the reader, believe a character has died when they have not. So you can imagine how envisioning Drood as a Gothic story is Christmas come early for the Resurrectionists (the suitably dramatic term given to Drood scholars who think Edwin is alive, as opposed to the Undertakers who are convinced he is dead). Of course, resurrection is not an essential part of the Gothic genre, and even if it were that were not to say Dickens would feel obliged to follow suit, but nonetheless if we start reading the novel as Gothic it can lead us to look for further touches that compliment the genre: Edwin returning from the grave would certainly be a fitting finale to Gothic reading of the text. So what do you think? Is Drood a Gothic tale? And if so, how much should we allow the expectations of the genre to shape our understanding of the novel?

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs at the British Library until 20 January 2015.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry ( My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

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