The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

There’s something about Dickens and December that go hand in hand; so perhaps it’s not surprising that I spent a fair chunk of the end of last year submerged in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and marvelling at the genius that was Charles Dickens!

And let’s face it, he’s an author that really needs no introduction. As Wikipedia reminds us, not only is he regarded as the greatest Victorian novelist (why just Victorian? why not one of the greatest novelists ever??) but he created some of the most memorable characters in the English language – there must be few English speakers who haven’t at least heard of Oliver Twist, for example! I first read Dickens’ work in my teens when I discovered “A Christmas Carol” and although we didn’t study him at school – I guess maybe he was out of fashion in the 1970s! – I went on to read others of his works, with “Bleak House” being a huge favourite. However, it’s a while since I read anything new by him, despite the fact that OH presented me with a beautiful set of his novels for a wedding anniversary, and so when the urge took me recently to read “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, I went with it!

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Of course, any reader embarking on “Drood” has to do so with the knowledge that there won’t be any resolution to the story, as Dickens died before he could finish it. And because of the way he worked, producing sections at a time to be serialised in publications, there is no way of knowing what his intentions were. The introduction from Matthew Pearl (author of “The Last Dickens”, which is about “Drood”) helpfully explains that although Dickens had notes for each section of his serialised books, these were prepared *after* he had written it as an aide memoire. So there were no plans left for “Drood” and nobody knows what he intended.

With that in mind, I started reading. I’ve attempted the book once before, but gave up in disgust after a couple of chapters, because actually I find the title character completely insufferable! He’s arrogant, pompous and condescending and in the chapter which we meet him spends all of his time referring to his betrothed, Rosa Bud, in a most patronising, babying manner, as “Pussy”, as if she was some kind of dumb pet animal. However – putting that aside, I got going. Rosa Bud and Edwin Drood are both orphans and their fathers, firm friends, had stated a dying wish that their children should marry. Therefore, the two have been betrothed for years, until they come of age. Rosa attends a woman’s college in a cathedral city named as Cloisterham, taking music lessons from one John Jasper, choirmaster at the cathedral, uncle and guardian to Edwin and opium addict! Jasper is quietly besotted with Rosa, who can’t stand him, and Edwin simply swans around taking his fortune and his betrothed for granted – he *really* is annoying!

This being Dickens, there is a quite wonderful array of characters: the Minor Canon, Mr. Crisparkle, who lives with his mother, is a particular joy; Mr. Grewgious, Rosa’s guardian, who was secretly in love with her late mother, is another wonderful and engaging man. Then there is Durdles, who engraves the headstones; Mr. Sapsea, the mayor; Deputy, an appalling child with a habit of stoning anything he fancies; Neville Landless and his sister Helena, more orphans who both have differing interests in Rosa; Tartar, an ex sailor, who seems to be becoming very important to the plot as the book develops; and Dick Datchery, a mysterious white-haired man who appears to be investigating events, but whose character never has enough time to develop…

Because of course there is a mystery to investigate; the disappearance (thank goodness!!) of Edwin Drood, and his possible murder. His watch and chain are found by the river after a storm and the last person who is believed to have seen him is Neville Landless, with whom he had quarrelled. However, the more intelligent amongst the other characters, particularly Mr. Crisparkle and Mr. Grewgious, have suspicions elsewhere…

So let’s consider John Jasper, then: a much darker and more interesting character than his nephew. Addicted to opium, obsessed with Drood’s betrothed, he stalks through the book like a malevolent presence. If anyone is a candidate for the murder of Edwin Drood, it is surely he – but is that too simplistic a solution? And are we even sure that Drood is dead? This being a Charles Dickens novel that is possibly only a quarter of the intended size means that the reader could have expected many twists and turns before the resolution and although it seems obvious that Jasper killed his nephew in a fit of mad jealousy, we can never be sure. Certainly, when he finds out that Drood and Rosa had broken off their engagement just before the disappearance, a fact Jasper had been unaware of, his reaction is so dramatic as to be remarkably self-incriminating.

The book ends with Rosa having fled to London to her guardian, new friendships being made and others rekindled, while Datchery investigates away in Cloisterham and Jasper broodingly pursues Rosa. There is of course great frustration in not knowing what Dickens intended to happen, but that doesn’t stop me finding this one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. And to be fair to poor Edwin, who I’ve much maligned, he does become a little more sympathetic when the engagement is ended and he grows up a little, realising what he’s lost. Nevertheless, he has a remarkable blind spot regarding Jasper!

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Dickens was such a truly great writer; he can conjure up character, setting and atmosphere so brilliantly and his books are never anything less than involving.

The red light burns steadily all the evening in the lighthouse on the margin of the tide of busy life. Softened sounds and hum of traffic pass it and flow on irregularly into the lonely Precincts; but very little else goes by, save violent rushes of wind. It comes on to blow a boisterous gale.

The Precincts are never particularly well lighted; but the strong blasts of wind blowing out many of the lamps (in some instances shattering the frames too, and bringing the glass rattling to the ground), they are unusually dark to-night. The darkness is augmented and confused, by flying dust from the earth, dry twigs from the trees, and great ragged fragments from the rooks’ nests up in the tower. The trees themselves so toss and creak, as this tangible part of the darkness madly whirls about, that they seem in peril of being torn out of the earth: while ever and again a crack, and a rushing fall, denote that some large branch has yielded to the storm.

Not such power of wind has blown for many a winter night. Chimneys topple in the streets, and people hold to posts and corners, and to one another, to keep themselves upon their feet. The violent rushes abate not, but increase in frequency and fury until at midnight, when the streets are empty, the storm goes thundering along them, rattling at all the latches, and tearing at all the shutters, as if warning the people to get up and fly with it, rather than have the roofs brought down upon their brains.

Still, the red light burns steadily. Nothing is steady but the red light.

I’ve read criticism of his characterisations, but I found the people in this book to be real and alive and many of them perfectly loveable. The Minor Canon, Mr. Crisparkle, was one of my favourites and I can see that Dickens loved him too, portraying him as an ordinary man, but a good man:

Good fellow! manly fellow! And he was so modest, too. There was no more self-assertion in the Minor Canon than in the schoolboy who had stood in the breezy playing-fields keeping a wicket. He was simply and staunchly true to his duty alike in the large case and in the small. So all true souls ever are. So every true soul ever was, ever is, and ever will be. There is nothing little to the really great in spirit.

And the characters are *people* – real people with their loves and hates, their dreams and aspirations; and despite Dickens’ tendency for exaggeration and parody, they have the same characteristics as nowadays. Take his description of the young ladies at Miss Twinkleton’s college preparing for their holidays, and see if you don’t recognise the girls and the atmosphere:

Miss Twinkleton’s establishment was about to undergo a serene hush. The Christmas recess was at hand. What had once, and at no remote period, been called, even by the erudite Miss Twinkleton herself, ‘the half;’ but what was now called, as being more elegant, and more strictly collegiate, ‘the term,’ would expire to-morrow. A noticeable relaxation of discipline had for some few days pervaded the Nuns’ House. Club suppers had occurred in the bedrooms, and a dressed tongue had been carved with a pair of scissors, and handed round with the curling tongs. Portions of marmalade had likewise been distributed on a service of plates constructed of curlpaper; and cowslip wine had been quaffed from the small squat measuring glass in which little Rickitts (a junior of weakly constitution) took her steel drops daily. The housemaids had been bribed with various fragments of riband, and sundry pairs of shoes more or less down at heel, to make no mention of crumbs in the beds; the airiest costumes had been worn on these festive occasions; and the daring Miss Ferdinand had even surprised the company with a sprightly solo on the comb-and-curlpaper, until suffocated in her own pillow by two flowing-haired executioners.

Reading “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was a real delight; I loved getting to know these characters and watching the plot unfold. Even though there is no definitive ending, the richness and beauty of the language and Dickens’ skill in transporting you back to Victorian England, make it worth reading for that alone. Charles Dickens was such a good writer that I think I could happily spend a year reading no-one else – if only I had done so when I was a little younger! 🙂

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