The Coming Storm: The Meteorology of Edwin Drood

It was a dark and stormy night…

No, don’t worry, it’s not a Dickens quote, but his friend Edward Bulwer Lytton in Paul Clifford, later used frequently as an opening line by Snoopy in his dogged attempts to write literature (pun intended). The line may have become a parody of itself by now but heaven knows the storm itself still features prominently when it comes to moments of great drama. In Edwin Drood the fateful murder/disappearance occurs in the midst of just such a storm:

No such power of wind has blown for many a winter-night. Chimneys topple in the streets, and people hold to posts and corners, and to one another, to keep themselves upon their feet. The violent rushes abate not, but increase in frequency and fury until at midnight, when the streets are empty, the storm goes thundering along them, rattling at all the latches, and tearing all the shutters, as if warning the people to get up and fly with it, rather than have the roofs brought down upon their brains.

What is Dickens’s purpose in including this storm? From a practical perspective, it keeps the streets clear of witnesses, and offers optimum conditions for a crime. Howard Duffield, who had a habit of turning to other works of fiction for evidence in his Drood theories, paid particular attention to a passage in an otherwise neglected novel, At The House of Dree, written by Graham Gardiner in 1928, in which the hero walks out upon a storm, with gusts shaking the town as if the Prince of the Power of the Air, as the Apostle calls him, was let loose on the top of us. Now the dark had come it was closer than ever one minute, while the next you would be lifted half off your feet with the wind; and overhead a full moon was fleeing in and out of the wrack at a rate that made a man dizzy to look up at.’ Duffield believed, based on the observation in Dree that the storm resulted in bright moonlight one moment and pitch blackness the next, that in Drood too there would be a similar combination of full and no visibility. I’ll leave you to ponder on that one while I return to Drood and leave Dree back in obscurity.

It is then seen that the hands of the Catehdral clock are torn off; that lead from the roof has been stripped away, rolled up, and blown into the Close; and that some stones have been displaced upon the summit of the great tower.

This in turn has provided the basis for a number of theories that Edwin’s demise is from the top of the tower, with the resulting damage falsely ascribed to the storm. But all this relies upon Jasper or whoever the murderer might be leaping on the opportunity of the weather, whereas if it is indeed Jasper who does away with Edwin, the suggestion is that it has been premeditated. Perhaps it’s best leaving literal explorations of the storm’s use to the solutionists, and move on to literary explorations instead. In many ways the tempest  is a pathetic fallacy, resembling the troubled mind of Jasper himself. The storm is foretold as early as chapter one, when he watches the Princess Puffer in her drugged state suffering spasms and finds himself enduring the same ‘like fitful lightning out of a dark sky’; then when he returns to Cloisterham the sound of ‘When the Wicked Man’ rises to the roof of the cathedral like ‘muttered thunder’. In the manuscript of chapter two – removed from the final edition – Jasper, having suffered a fit in front of his concerned nephew asks him to put away the knives because ‘they may attract the lightning; put them away in the dark’. When Crisparkle first tries to placate Neville and Helena into reconciling with Edwin, Dickens tells us that the state of the river ‘foreshadowed a stormy night’, but does not specify when this stormy night will come: ultimately the ill-fated attempts to reconcile Neville and Edwin are foreshadowing the events of Christmas Eve. That the chapter in which the disappearance occurs is called ‘When Shall These Three Meet Again’ further emphasises the uncanny, foreboding aspects of the storm (see more on the Macbeth references in Drood here)

The relationship between Jasper’s inner turmoil, his dark plotting and the weather suggests further evidence for considering the novel in the Gothic vein. It also links to a primal element to the story, with Jasper’s fitful lightning countered by, and threatened by, the ‘slumbering gleam of fire’ contained within the Landless twins. Both are destructive but at the time Dickens was writing only the latter had been harnessed by humanity with lightning remaining a terrifying and awesome power. If Helena, or Neville, or both, were to take an active role in the undoing of Jasper, as most seem to believe, then it would represent the triumphing of the one force over the other, the controlled over the uncontrollable (which opens a whole can of worms over representation of race, but save that for another day). For whatever reason, that dark and stormy night is a central point of the novel – would an actual storm feature again had the book been completed? I doubt it, personally, but I do believe the allegory would return in the closing descriptions of Jasper.

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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