When the eldest of Charles Dickens’s ten children, 33-year-old Charley, looked in on him less than a week before the author’s death on June 9, 1870, Dickens was “writing very earnestly” on the last chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Charley took his leave (“I shall be off now”), Dickens paid no attention and continued writing “with the same intensity as before.” Half a lifetime of such moments had conditioned the son to expect at least a few words from his father, but on this occasion, as Charley recalls, he “gave no sign of being aware of my presence. Again, I spoke — louder, perhaps this time — and he raised his head and looked at me long and fixedly. But I soon found that, although his eyes were bent upon me and he seemed to be looking at me earnestly, he did not see me, and that he was, in fact, unconscious for the moment of my very existence. He was in dreamland with Edwin Drood and I left him — for the last time.”
Quoting Charley’s account in his massive biography, Dickens (HarperCollins 1990), Peter Ackroyd finds it “disturbing” that the father was “still so immersed in his words and images that he could not even see his own son standing in front of him,” and no less disturbing that in Charley’s last moment with his father “he was ignored by him in favor of the creatures of his imagination.”
Ackroyd doesn’t acknowledge the obvious, however, which is the outward resemblance between the trance immersing the writer at work and the opium dreamland inhabited by the choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, John Jasper. It’s in that tranced state that Jasper embarks on the opium “journey” that leads, again and again, to the murder of his beloved Ned, that is, his nephew, Edwin Drood (“I did it millions and billions of times. I did it so often, and through such vast expanses of time, that when it was really done, it seemed not worth the doing, it was done so soon”). Beloved though he may be, Ned is in danger because the being Jasper desires beyond all reason is Edwin’s fiance, “the pretty, childish” orphan, Miss Rosa Bud.
An End-Game Awareness
Charley caught his father in the middle of a creative transport, in another world where the word of choice is “Unintelligible” and the preferred substance is opium. To see Dickens in that state was like seeing Coleridge in the moment he was roused from the laudanum dream that spawned his poem, “Kubla Khan,” another great, unfinished work.
Dickens was not just in “dreamland with Drood” when Charley came to say goodbye, he was deeply absorbed in one of the most extraordinary, richly accomplished chapters he would ever write, and not merely because it happened to be his last. With its explicit reference back to the Chapter I (“The Dawn”), Chapter XXIII of Edwin Drood (“The Dawn Again”) is marked by an end-game awareness that Dickens has reached the turning point of a narrative he feels he will not live to complete. Three days before the stroke that killed him, he admitted as much, according to his daughter Katey (“he spoke as though his life was over and there was nothing left”). Far from surrendering, Dickens is consolidating his intentions, as if he could make a half-finished work seem complete in itself, a self-contained enigma that would do sufficient justice to his original intentions for the novel.
The fact that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was left unfinished has led to a cottage industry of guessing games, reimaginings, and rewritings based on clues scattered by the author himself. The most credible evidence drawn from Dickens or the sources closest to him, however, has the opium-addled choirmaster John Jasper strangling his nephew and disposing of the body in quicklime. Contrary to the endings of both the 1935 Universal film and last month’s BBC dramatization, Dickens did not intend for Jasper to fall to his death from the belltower of Cloisterham Cathedral. He expressed his notion of Jasper’s fate to his close friend and biographer, John Forster; there would be a “review of the murderer’s career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell.” Compared to the melodramatic deaths of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist or Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, the novel preceding Drood, Jasper’s end would be subtle, complex, and probably redemptive, something closer to the fate of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or of Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.
Speaking of Dostoevsky, when he visited the London office of Dickens’s journal, All The Year Round, in 1862, Dickens told him that “the good simple people in his novels” were “what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself),” and that there were “two people in him,” one “who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”
If there’s a password to the cloistered heart of Edwin Drood, one that Sherlock Holmes would pounce on were he and Watson on the case (too bad Conan Doyle never thought to send the great sleuth to Cloisterham), it’s the word unintelligible, which is uttered twice and with marked emphasis by Jasper in the novel’s opium-shrouded opening, opium being a potent enemy of the intelligible.
The first paragraph of Edwin Drood has Jasper confusing a bed-post in an East End opium den with the tower of Cloisterham Cathedral. Coming out of the drugged reverie, he’s like a surrogate of the author “whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together,” or like Hyde morphing back into Jeckyll. Lying on the “sordid bed” with him are a Chinaman and a Lascar, two other clients of the “haggard woman” who is “blowing at a kind of pipe to kindle it.” As Jasper gazes down at the woman who will ultimately help unmask him, he smugly wonders “what visions can she have” and “turns her face toward him” for a better look (the positions will be dramatically reversed in the book’s last chapter) before bending down “to listen to her mutterings.” What he hears makes no sense (“Unintelligible!” he exclaims), but given what happens next, he might have stuck his head into the crater of an active volcano: “As he watches the spasmodic shoots and darts that break out of her face and limbs, like fitful lightning out of a dark sky, some contagion in them seizes upon him.” The choirmaster is so shaken that he has to sit down in a chair, “holding tight, until he has got the better of this unclean spirit of imitation.”
In case the reader doubts that Jasper is capable of murder while under the influence, Dickens has him, still in the grip of the “unclean spirit,” assault both the men he’d been sharing the “ink-bottle pipe” with; when the Chinaman “resists, gasps, and protests,” Jasper asks, “What do you say?” and answers himself, after a “watchful pause,” again with that word: “Unintelligible!” In the fog suggested by that word, one may commit murder without perceiving the reality of the act.
“The Dawn Again”
Dickens gives the “haggard woman” no proper name, nor does he include her on the list of characters preceding the first chapter, which makes sense: why list Jasper’s vengeful opium genie, as if she were a “real person”? She does have a nickname, Princess Puffer, supplied by “Deputy,” a stone-throwing imp whose real name is known to none but the ”mysterious white-haired man” identified on the same list as Dick Datchery.
The only way to do justice to the last chapter — Dicken’s masterful swan song — would be to reprint the scene between the old woman and Jasper in full. By the time the choirmaster revisits the miserable room where the novel began, Edwin Drood has disappeared and is presumed dead. Thus this exchange:
‘Who was they as died, deary?’
‘Died of what, lovey?’
‘We are short to-night!’ cries the woman, with a propitiatory laugh. ‘Short and snappish we are! But we’re out of sorts for want of a smoke. We’ve got the all-overs, haven’t us, deary? But this is the place to cure ’em in; this is the place where the all-overs is smoked off.’ “
Sensing Jasper has something significant to hide, the old woman teases him with endearments like “deary,” “lovey” “poppet” (and even at one point “chuckey”) “lays her hand upon his chest, and moves him slightly to and fro, as a cat might stimulate a half-slain mouse.” Repeating “her cat-like action she slightly stirs his body again, and listens; stirs again, and listens; whispers to it, and listens. Finding it past all rousing for the time, she slowly gets upon her feet, with an air of disappointment, and flicks the face with the back of her hand in turning from it.”
Is there any doubt which of the two Charles Dickens is in charge of this scene?
Dickens and Datchery
There is almost as much speculation among readers and critics about Dick Datchery’s identity as there is about whether Drood is dead or alive. Datchery’s white-maned disguise is just the sort Sherlock Holmes would use, which makes sense, since one theory is that Datchery is the detective who will solve the mystery, with some help from the opium woman who has stalked Jasper all the way from London to Cloisterham.
In the novel’s closing pages, which are dominated by Datchery, he hails the imp nicknamed Deputy, “ ‘Halloa, Winks!’ At which the imp says, “ ‘don’t yer go a-making my name public. I never means to plead to no name, mind yer.’ “ At this point, it’s as if Dickens has, in effect, entered his own novel in the guise of Datchery, for the only other person who knows the imp by name is the author who created him and put “Winks” in parentheses in the list of characters preceding the first chapter.
Dickens also bestows on Dick Datchery an elaborate analogy unlike any other figure or fancy in the novel. It’s as if he had called up the spirits of Homer and Milton for the occasion of his last hurrah:
“John Jasper’s lamp is kindled, and his lighthouse is shining when Mr. Datchery returns alone towards it. As mariners on a dangerous voyage, approaching an iron-bound coast, may look along the beams of the warning light to the haven lying beyond it that may never be reached, so Mr. Datchery’s wistful gaze is directed to this beacon, and beyond.”
Is that Dickens himself gazing wistfully toward the beacon “and beyond” of the ending he knows he will never write (and yet triumphantly does)? I’d like to think so.
I used the Chiltern Library edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (John Lehman 1950), which I bought for $2 at this year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley book sale. The first installment, with the cover shown here, was issued in April 1870; the last in September 1870. I found the Dostoevsky anecdote in Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens (2011)