You never know where Drood studies will take you. I was reading a 1973 article by George Wing last week comparing Dickens’s mystery story to Thomas Hardy’s mystery story. Stop the press – Thomas Hardy wrote a mystery story? Obviously, in the name of research, I had to go and check this out. Desperate Remedies, Hardy’s first published novel appeared in 1871 and is indeed a sensation story with many similarities to Dickens’s last tale. I shall try and outline the plot without spoilers (always an easy task): the heroine of the tale is Cytherea Graye, her father having recently died leaving both her and her brother Owen to fend for themselves. This being a Hardy novel, it doesn’t go well, and along the way we deal with familiar Droodian issues such as couples engaged as a consequence of events from the past, characters who may or may not be dead, and mesmerising men with obsessive romantic desires. Oh, and a storm occurring on a fateful Christmas night.
But, as Wing himself admits, any similarity is a coincidence. Hardy had already finished his novel, bar the last three chapters, in June 1870 – in actual fact he was in London to meet his publisher on the day that Dickens died. Hardy did not, therefore, base his tale on Drood, though there is a neatness in the idea of one great author publishing his last just as another is working towards publishing his first. Elsewhere Peter Ackroyd tells an anecdote in his biography of Dickens of an almost meeting between the two authors, whereby Hardy, recognising the widely photographed Dickens while sitting in a café, sat close by in the hope of talking to him but never did. The tantalising nature of this missed connection is echoed in the tangential pathway of their mystery stories, one heralding the end of the career while the other marked its beginning – and both stories noted for being quite different from the rest of their work, a strange blip in the canon. Desperate Remedies is largely ignored precisely because it is felt to be an apprentice work, just as many critics would dismiss Drood on the grounds that it was an ill-ventured attempt by Dickens to change tactics late in his career.
In Hardy’s case, the decision to write a sensation novel was influenced by the advice of George Meredith after his first novel failed to find a publisher. Sensation fiction was popular and by writing something in the genre Hardy was playing to popular tastes, deliberately channeling the style of Wilkie Collins (and to my mind Mary Braddon – the fateful fire at the tavern certainly has echoes of Lady Audley’s Secret). Collins of course has long been argued as an influence on Drood with many seeing it as the inimitable’s attempt to match his young friend on his own battleground (though opinion varies, if this is the case, of how successful Dickens’s attempt proved).
So, potentially, what we have here is two great Victorian authors, at opposite ends of their careers, both sitting down in 1870 to write a mystery/gothic/sensation story. What struck me as most familiar in reading Hardy’s novel (and I’ll be honest, I rather enjoyed it) was that feeling of the author working against the genre. Some chapters would be a torrent of plot and revelations with some fantastic thrills and twists along the way; others slowed the pace right down to introduce what would later become Hardy trademarks: tangled love triangles and squares, brooding men and impulsive women, and, yes, a whole heap of pathetic fallacy. So too with Drood there are moments when Dickens simply cannot help himself, when his own distinctive style screams through and his characters take over the plot – comical pompous figures like Sapsea and Honeythunder have little place in a mystery but have everything to do with what we expect from a Dickens novel. In both books then, we are constantly reminded of the author and the distinct traits for which they would be remembered, often juxtaposing against the story and taking us away from the immediacy of the plot. Strange fish, in both cases, but none the less compelling and intriguing for that. Hardy would look back upon his mystery novel with resigned bemusement. In the 1889 edition he added a preface in which he claimed the book was written ‘at a time when he was feeling his way to a method’; whereas Dickens of course stated his book depended on something that was ‘new and incommunicable’. Perhaps then the fact that both authors were writing this type of book in 1870 is not purely a coincidence after all, but shows both bowing to popular taste, the one having thus far been inimitable while the other would go on to challenge popular ideas with a new type of literature. In writing Drood and Desperate Remedies, both Dickens and Hardy were operating outside their comfort zones and trying on an unfamiliar genre for size. How fitting, after all, that in this neutral zone the one author should stop and the other proceed.