I’ve been celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens this year by reading & rereading his novels. So far this year I’ve read Martin Chuzzlewit for the first time, reread Great Expectations & now The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his last, unfinished novel. I also plan to read Barnaby Rudge with my online reading group in a couple of months.
It’s a very atmospheric story, opening in an opium den in London & mostly taking place in Cloisterham, a fictional version of Rochester. The cathdral city setting is wonderful & John Jasper, the choirmaster, seems to be the villain of the piece & is a secretive character indeed. He’s addicted to opium & he’s also in love with his young nephew, Edwin Drood’s, fiancee, Rosa Bud, who unfortunately is one of Dickens’s sweet young heroines.
Much more interesting is Helena Landless who, with her twin brother, Neville, arrive from Ceylon. Helena goes to school & befriends Rosa & Neville, who falls in love with Rosa, is studying with a clergyman, the lovely Mr Crisparkle. Jasper manipulates the two young men into a feud using either mesmerism or by slipping something into their drinks & when Edwin disappears, Neville is blamed. But is Edwin dead? When I finished reading what we have, which is only about half the projected length of the book, there seemed to be so many ways the story could go. It seems obvious that Jasper has done away with Edwin but could the explanation be that simple? Then, there are the characters frustratingly introduced in the final chapters who we will never really get to know. Who is Datchery, the mysterious man who comes to live in Cloisterham & seems to be following Jasper’s every move? Then there’s Mr Tartar, the ex-sailor who has come into money & befriends Neville Landless in his London exile after he’s forced by gossip & rumour to leave Cloisterham.
In the end, I decided to agree with Angus Wilson who wrote the Introduction to my old Penguin edition. He thinks we shouldn’t expect Dickens to write like a Golden Age detective novelist. He’s more interested in exploring Jasper’s evil side than in tripping up his readers with clues & red herrings. This theory does make sense. I’ve read far too many detective novels & so I expected the conventional themes & plot points of a detective novel. But Dickens wasn’t writing a detective novel. When he used elements of detective fiction in his earlier novels, they were never the main focus of the story. Also, all the evidence from Dickens’s son & his good friend John Forster is that Jasper murdered Edwin. The chapter outlines that Dickens left behind are quite vague for the second half of the book but he had told Forster the main elements & he’s a pretty reliable witness.
There have been many articles & books written about the potential solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some of them are pretty over the top – that Jasper was a member of an Indian Thuggee cult or some kind of ancient Egyptian religion! There are links to several possible solutions here. There was a recent TV adaptation but I haven’t seen it & don’t know what solution they offered. I think Jasper was just as he appears in the book. An opium addict, in love with his nephew’s fiancee & his twin addictions have affected his moral compass. Jasper is a truly menacing figure. He teaches Rosa music & she is obviously afraid of him. Dickens was fascinated by evil & the struggle between good & evil. It can be seen in many of his novels. Maybe readers wouldn’t be so fixated on the mystery element if Dickens had used one of the other titles he considered, such as The Loss of Edwin Brude, The Flight of Edwyn Drood, The Two Kinsmen or A Kinsman’s Devotion.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of Dickens’s most atmospheric books. The setting in a cathedral city with the great church dominating the landscape is full of menace & forboding. One night Jasper tours the cathedral with Durdles, the sexton. Is he looking for a convenient spot to hide Edwin’s body when the time comes?
Durdles has lighted his lantern, by drawing from the cold hard wall a spark of that mysterious fire which lurks in everything, and, guided by this speck, they clamber up among the cobwebs and the dust. Their way lies through strange places. Twice or thrice they emerge into level, low-arched galleries, whence they can look down into the moonlit nave; and where Durdles, waving his lantern, shows the dim angels’ heads upon the corbels of the roof, seeming to watch their progress. Anon, they turn into narrower and steeper staircases, and the night air begins to blow upon them, and the chirp of some startled jackdaw or frightened rook precedes the heavy beating of wings in a confined space, and the beating down of dust and straw upon their heads.
Even the birds seem sinister. Pigeons & doves wouldn’t seem as creepy as rooks & jackdaws, would they? I enjoyed reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood very much. I like Dickens in mysterious mode much better than some of his comic flights. After finishing the book at the weekend I watched a BBC adaptation of one of Dickens’s supernatural short stories. The Signalman was made back in the 1980s & starred Denholm Elliott as a railway signalman haunted by an apparition who continually warns him of danger but, even after terrible accidents have happened, the apparition keeps returning. Dickens was the master of atmosphere & dread. I prefer that side of his genius to the saccharine young girls & exaggerated comic characters that are often called Dickensian. He was a complicated man & it’s fascinating to explore the dark side of his character.