Coming of age (3): Parenthood


So far in this brief look at the process of maturity in Drood, I’ve considered the child in Deputy and the young adults in Rosa and Edwin. However what is most conspicuous about Drood is its absence of parents. Mrs Crisparkle and the Dean are the only natural parents in the text, and even then we only have a brief mention of the Dean’s daughter to so that his parenting role is secondary to his clerical position. The relative lack of natural parents is compounded by the abundance of surrogates: Jasper is guardian to Edwin; Grewgious is guardian to Rosa; Durdles takes Deputy under his wing; Honeythunder is guardian to the Landless Twins, a position then taken by Crisparkle and, to some extent, Miss Twinkleton. Time and again adults in the novel find themselves responsible for a child, and the burden is often met with awkwardness and uncertainty.

With Grewgious this awkwardness is at the centre of the character, with his growth in the novel founded in the softening of the particularly Angular man under Rosa’s influence. He is ill at ease when he first meet him, visiting Rosa at Miss Twinkleton’s, especially on the subject of marriage:

I now touch, my dear, upon the point that is the direct cause of my troubling you with the present visit. Otherwise, being a particularly Angular man, I should not have intruded here. I am the last man to intrude into a sphere for which I am so entirely unfitted.

The last line is perhaps most indicative of Grewgious’s dilemma – as we will see, there is a great deal of heart to this man, so that the barrier between him and the emotional sphere is of his own making. He feels that his presence is not required, that he does not belong. The defining moment of his journey in this novel is when Rosa comes to him. Prior to this it has always been Grewgious ‘intruding’ in Rosa’s world in Cloisterham, but when she runs away from Cloisterham it is he that she turns to, destroying his misperception of his unsuitability for the post of guardian, and leading him to adopt ‘the stoutness of his knight-errantry’. Interestingly, this can and has been seen to lead to other tensions, caused primarily by Grewgious unrequited love for Rosa’s mother. The majority of solutionists have seen his love for Rosa as that for the daughter he might have had; all save Henry Morford in 1871 who suggested Grewgious loved Rosa as he did the mother (it doesn’t end happily for him).

The conflict of parental duty and romantic interest is of course epitomised in Jasper, who is a very caring guardian, often reprimanded for being too fond of Edwin.  Yes, true, there is that one small detail of his attempted/actual murder of Edwin, but that aside he’s a very loving parent to the boy. Again we have this crisis of age and position; just as Grewgious doubts his suitability, Jasper objects to any mention of he and Edwin as Uncle and Nephew. The surprisingly popular idea in many solutions that Jasper is in fact Edwin’s brother is at any rate a recognition of the predominately fraternal nature of their relationship. Jasper is certainly a better role model to the impressionable Edwin than, say Steerforth is to Copperfield, but the same basic gulf between the older, more world-weary figure and the naive young man exists here. Jasper adores the boy, but Edwin will never truly know him, and perhaps neither will we. Many solutions have chosen to rewrite the relationship, arguing that Jasper always hated Edwin, and with his love for Rosa as the final nail in the coffin. I personally don’t agree with this, and see the dynamic of the character and novel as far more interesting if we read in it a conflict between paternal love and erotic desire.

Also, in Jasper’s defence, he’s still a better parent than Honeythunder, whose interest in the twins is solely to showcase his charitable feelings with little interest in the pair themselves, and as soon as they are tinged with scandal and speculation he washes his hands of them without even coming to speak to them first, ‘My late wards being now of age, and I being released from a trust which I cannot contemplate without a thrill of horror’. The twin of course have just escaped from an even more terrible parent figure, a vicious stepfather who beats them (Mr Murdstone returns), and are understandably distrustful then when, after experiencing this, followed by Honeythunder, they are then brought to meet yet another guardian in the shape of Crisparkle. They plan to run away, yet drop this plan shortly after meeting Septimus – why? ‘We see an unmistakable difference between your house and your reception of us, and anything else we have ever known’ – this of course taking place in a silent conversation between the twins given their unspoken understanding of one another. In other words, Septimus Crisparkle is immediately, almost instinctively, identifiable as a good parent in a book where many are struggling with the concept. Is it a coincidence that he in turn is the only character we see with a parent?

Sadly, or ironically, there is still trouble in store for this parent figure; while Crisparkle avoids the early awkwardness shared by other surrogates in Drood, he makes up for it later as he falls in love with Helena. Once more paternal love is complicated by romantic love. At this point, once more with due warning of reading autobiography in fiction, it seems pertinent to point out yet again Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan and the ongoing argument over its exact nature. Note that Dickens doesn’t openly criticize the lust of Jasper for Rosa; if anything it invites our sympathy, while Crisparkle’s transformation from guardian figure to potential mate of a younger female runs like a smooth and natural progression. Historically it is the troubled choirmaster that critics have tended to liken to Dickens, identifying his double life and inner demons, though it seems unlikely that the author would conscientiously write himself into the role of a villain, so perhaps the more flattering portrait of Crisparkle is a more accurate portrayal, if not of Dickens then at least of his self-image.

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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