Thursday, 12 July 2001

Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 870

Two subjects have fascinated readers of Dickens' final, unfinished novel ever since the author's death. The more obvious is the question of how it should end; what we have is about half of a psychological thriller, not quite enough to make it clear exactly what the conclusion was to be. The second topic of discussion is just how much the novel is different from Dickens' other fiction.

Edwin Drood is set in the cathedral town of Cloisterham, based on Rochester, one of Dickens' homes in early life. There, Edwin Drood, a young man who lives in London, spends his holidays with his uncle Jasper. He is visiting Rosa Budd, who is just completing her schooling and who was betrothed to him long ago by the wishes of both their parents, now deceased. To the town also come the Landlesses, brother and sister, who have returned to England from the East and are lodging with a relation in the Cathedral Close. Neville Landless takes a fancy to Rosa, and is piqued by Edwin's growing feeling that Rosa and he are not particularly suited. They quarrel about his treatment of her, and though they seem to have made it up, he is an obvious suspect when Edwin goes missing after the two of them dine with Jasper.

The one thing that is clear about the solution of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that the villain is Jasper, despite the virtuous front that fools the world. The unanswerable question, in the absence of notes about the ending, is how his guilt will become known; this is obviously connected with the appearance of a stranger in Cloisterham just before the end of the completed section. Conjectures as to who this is have included Neville's sister in disguise, trying to clear her brother's name, or even Edwin himself. To know what Dickens intended here would probably make it easy to work out the solution.

That Our Mutual Friend, Dickens' last completed novel, and Edwin Drood are rather different in some fairly fundamental way to the rest of the author's output is undeniable. The difference almost certainly stems from two causes. Towards the end of his life, spurred by feelings of financial insecurity because he was supporting two households, Dickens massively increased the reading tours that he made, which were extremely lucrative. Not only did they leave him little time to write new material - the gap between the two novels is much longer than in the earlier days, when the appearances of some in periodical form overlapped - but the physical strain they caused is likely to have hastened his death. The longer period of gestation must have made a difference to the way that he approached his novels, and the pair are much more carefully put together. Edwin Drood is much sparser than Our Mutual Friend, which has many complicated subplots and far more characters, and is perhaps a novel planned by a man conscious of his own exhaustion.

The other cause of the change is that there were new writers about who were writing different novels; Edwin Drood was at least in part inspired by a desire to complete with Wilkie Collins, a close friend. Times change and fashion moves on, and to some extent Dickens must have wanted to change in response. That he succeeded so well is a tribute to just how talented he was; Edwin Drood is recognisably by the same author as Oliver Twist, but has new concerns which are expressed differently.

The very beginning of Edwin Drood makes it obvious that it would have been a great novel, with its remarkably modern seeming description of the awakening from an opium dream. The atmosphere of Cloisterham is as well rendered as any Dickensian backgrounds, and the plot is clearly one of his best. The element which is missing, an absence hardly noticed, is the crowd of minor characters which throng most of his novels, Our Mutual Friend included. The incompleteness of Edwin Drood is one of the major tragedies of English literature.

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