To be continued

Brigid Brophy

The boldest way to supply the missing second half of Edwin Drood would be in the idiom of the present time. Such a course would nowadays come naturally or at any rate fashionably to an architect were he required to complete a building that had stopped short in 1870. But the mini-vogue among writers (or is it among publishers?) for endings to fictions that their authors left unfinished during the 19th century has not thrown up a single modern-dress production.

In this respect, the arts have swopped places. During most of Dickens’s mature lifetime it was architecture that versed itself in pastiche and would scarcely venture out except under the veil and justification of some ‘historical’ style. The novelists, by contrast, had the nerve of the devil. On the strength of nothing less could they have committed themselves to serial publication in the nerve-stretching form it then took.

In his contract for Drood Dickens for the first time had a clause inserted providing for arbitration on how much of the up-front money (£7,500 to cover the first 25,000 copies) should be repaid ‘if the said Charles Dickens shall die’ or be otherwise incapacitated ‘during the composition of the said work’. (Presumably nothing had, in fact, to be repaid, since John Forster recorded that 50,000 copies were sold ‘while the author yet lived’.) The clause shows that Dickens knew he might be dying, but it is also witness to his splendid confidence that nothing short of death or a stroke could stop him composing the intended dozen monthly numbers.

The more pleasurable suspense that serial publication generated in the consumers (except Queen Victoria, who didn’t take up Dickens’s offer to disclose Drood to her earlier than to her subjects) has now passed to television, leaving to novelists the peace of mind and the diffidence that come from knowing that thousands of readers are not hanging on your next instalment.

In the event, Dickens wrote six numbers. The last was two pages short – the second time, during Drood, that he was failed by the as it were ‘ring sense’ he had by then reliably cultivated for writing to an exact length. Leon Garfield has opted for the diffident method of completion and has produced an honourable and, where style is concerned, mainly plausible fake. Perhaps at the dictate of publishing economics, he falls far shorter than Dickens did. To fulfil Dickens’s design, he should have supplied the same amount of text (equal to six numbers) as Dickens did. But he runs (in the format of this edition) only to 122 pages, whereas Dickens occupies 201.

The outright blots in the Garfield text consist of two howlers in syntax: ‘His thoughts were still partly with Rosa, and with she of whom Rosa was an ever-present reminder’ and ‘And Rosa, what of she?’ Dickens was not an elegant syntactician, but I don’t think he would have let his narrative do that. Elsewhere Mr Garfield’s narrative, in contrast to his dialogue, which is on the awkward side, is a forgery good enough, I should guess, to deceive. Try these four in a blindfold test:

As though he had been called into existence, like a fabulous Familiar, by a magic spell which had failed when required to dismiss him, he stuck tight to Mr Grewgious’s stool, although Mr Grewgious’s comfort and convenience would manifestly have been advanced by dispossessing him.

Ordinarily this animal – the property of the watchman and known, for sufficient reason, as Snap – was of a voracious, biting disposition; but in Vacation time lapsed into a fly-blown apathy, like the law itself, as if all unlawful appetites were but a source of dreamy speculation.

Once in London, where, as usual, the summer is unseasonably warm, and leaden, as if everybody has breathed out and nobody wants to breathe in, she proceeds ...

There has been rain this afternoon, and a wintry shudder goes among the little pools on the cracked, uneven flag-stones, and through the giant elm-trees as they shed a gust of tears.

Mr Garfield is better at the manner (his are the middle two quotations above, the first and the fourth being from Dickens’s text) than at the plot. We know in advance, from Edward Blishen’s Introduction, that he is not going to do anything outrageous. He has not taken space enough to do anything deeply complicated. Above all, he is under the great, restricting disability of the faker: he cannot do anything unDickensian. Dickens, of course, could and well might have done, it being his privilege that, the moment he did it, it would become Dickensian.

Diligently Mr Garfield extrapolates from the obvious clues in Dickens’s text and from some of what Dickens disclosed to friend (Forster), family and illustrator. (Queen Victoria’s incuriosity is a smaller loss than critics think. It is inconceivable that Dickens was offering to write her a précis of each number before he wrote the number itself. He can have been offering only to rush her an advance copy. Had she taken him up on it, we should be no better off.) The Garfield Drood is dead, and the murderer the obvious suspect, John (or, to Edwin, Jack) Jasper. Something is made of Helena Landless’s aptitude for dressing up and something of ‘that great black scarf’ which, as Dickens’s Jasper pulls it off and loops it round his arm, makes his face ‘knitted and stern’. Mr Garfield invents an amusingly lightweight Datchery, who is not any of the other dramatis personae in disguise. But when the all-important ring is finally recovered (in the manner Forster said Dickens meant it to be), he has Mr Grewgious give it away to Datchery, which Dickens’s Grewgious has invested far too much emotion in it ever to do.

Rightly, Mr Garfield makes nothing of the ‘Sapsea Fragment’, no doubt agreeing with Forster that it was designed for an early, not a later, part of the novel and then discarded by Dickens himself. He takes up Dickens’s disclosure to Forster that the story was to end in the condemned cell, that the ring was to come uncorroded through the lime that destroys the corpse, that Helena was to marry Crisparkle and that Neville Landless was to perish, but he ignores Forster’s recollection that Neville was to do so ‘in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer’.

His is clearly meant to be a reading version, sparing readers the frustration of being left in mid-air, and also a giving version. With a shamelessness that is his most deeply Dickensian stroke, Mr Garfield wrenches his story to a conclusion on another, and happier, Christmas. Like many objects designed as Christmas presents, it falls at best flat and sometimes insultingly light. It scurries through the murder trial in a light comedy tone (and did judges actually put on the black cap?), managing not a touch of the grand grotesquerie that would have been forced from Dickens by his ambivalence towards both crime and punishment. Neither does the Christmas market discharge the publisher from scholarly obligations. The notorious misprint of ‘tower’ for ‘town’, twice over, which makes nonsense of Dickens’s opening words, is repeated – a laziness that will merely direct buyers towards the Penguin edition, which will leave them in mid-air but does give Dickens’s text as it stands in his manuscript. Apart from the fact that they illustrate moments in the fake as well as the Dickens text and can therefore run all through the volume, Antony Maitland’s genteel illustrations have no advantages over the 12 (two to each number) plus frontispiece that Luke Fildes drew to Dickens’s instructions, from which they anyway borrow the characters’ clothes.

A satisfying completion of Drood will have to await a writer who can match Dickens’s confidence by a confidence on his own part of having understood not just Dickens’s style but Dickens’s mind. The use of modern language might help, by forcing the writer to decide what he thinks structural and what decorative in Dickens’s text. Pastiche can fudge it by using an idiom as ambiguous on that point as Dickens’s own. The writer destiny has up its sleeve, who cannot be appointed but must messianically recognise himself, will be confident not only that he can provide a plausible solution to the mystery of Edwin Drood but that he has solved the deeper mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood – namely, what sort of book it was to be: merely, if magnificently, another Dickens novel or a true mystery in the genre classically established by Wilkie Collins with The Moonstone, which Dickens had published two years earlier in All the Year Round?

Either answer points to considerable complexity of plot in the second half. Forster’s recollection that the story was to concern ‘the murder of a nephew by his uncle’ seems to leave no doubt that Edwin is killed. Yet Dickens’s notes, skeletal and inconclusive though they are (and broken off at the same point in the story as his text), suggest more emphasis on the uncertainty of Drood’s fate than he incorporated in the text before he left it. As well as inquiring ‘Dead? Or alive?’, his preliminary notes include ‘The flight of Edwin Drood’ and ‘Edwin Drood in hiding’. Perhaps the second half was to revive and prolong the uncertainty or perhaps it was to disclose that Drood did in fact stay alive a little longer than the first half implies. His death need not coincide with his disappearance. Three days elapse before Crisparkle finds his watch in the weir. If Jasper’s behaviour has alarmed him, he might pass them ‘in hiding’ and in ‘flight’. And indeed, although Dickens reconciles Edwin and Rosa after they have agreed not to marry, his moralism might well keep Edwin alive long enough to visit on him some ironic remorse for having misprized Rosa.

Certainly, complexity in the second half is argued by Dickens’s title for the chapter of the Christmas Eve meeting between Jasper, Neville and Edwin, after which Edwin disappears. I do not think he would have called it ‘When shall these three meet again?’ had he not planned that there should be a meeting again between Jasper, Neville and at least the corpse of Edwin – which may be what is depicted in the bottom centre vignette in the Fildes frontispiece.

Whether or not Dickens was writing a positive whodunit, he was prompted, I think, to experiment with narrative method by the dovetailed first-person narratives, the one filling in the ignorance and bafflement of the others, in The Moonstone. Perhaps he contemplated, though momentarily, a transplant of The Moonstone method, crude. The ‘Sapsea Fragment’ consists, like the narratives in The Moonstone, of a document written (by Mr Sapsea) in the first person. But what I suspect he was really after is a variation, less mechanical and more psychological, on Collins’s ingenuity.

Rereading Dickens’s text, I was astonished to notice that its first five chapters are in the present tense. They include Jasper’s opening opium dream and his introduction to Deputy’s job of stoning the drunken Durdles’s home. In Chapter Eight, where Neville and Edwin quarrel at the instigation of Jasper and Jasper’s drink, the narrative is again in the historic present. So it is in Chapters Twelve (Jasper’s night expedition to the tombs and Durdles’s ‘dream’ of Jasper abstracting the key), Fourteen (the crucial ‘When shall these three ...?’) and Nineteen (Jasper’s declaration to Rosa). Chapter Twenty-Two opens in the past tense with a round-up of what has happened meanwhile, but quickly moves into the present tense and stays there for Jasper’s opium session and Datchery’s detection.

Something very near half of Dickens’s text (ten chapters out of 22) is written in the historic present. Apart from Chapter Twenty-Two, which comes from a number where there was a mix-up, both in Dickens’s notes and in some editions, about the numbering and the division of chapters, each of Dickens’s chapters is either wholly in the past or wholly in the present tense. In other books, Dickens uses the present haphazardly, when it strikes him as apt. In Drood I think his switches of tense are systematic.

I cannot name an exact significance for each of the present-tense chapters (though I’d like an acknowledgment, please, if some other critic can), and in some cases the significance may be designed to emerge only in the second half. The effect of Wilkie Collins’s systematic jigsaw of narratives is that, for instance, Rachel Verinder can actually see Franklin Blake steal the moonstone and yet, of course, really see no such thing, since not only is his motive non-thieving but he is unaware of his own actions, being, unknown to himself, drugged by opium. My hypothesis is that, by a refinement on Collins. Dickens used the present tense in Drood for chapters where something is seen to happen and can be vouched for in good faith by the narrative and yet is not what really happens.

It is obvious how this could come about in the present-tense chapters where Jasper is drugged and in those where Edwin, Neville and Durdles are, on their various occasions, drunk (and sometimes, conceivably, drugged as well, by Jasper). Moreover, some double vision of this sort on Jasper’s part, a faculty for seeing what happens correctly yet not seeing what really happens, must, I think, be the interpretation of the most important but the most neglected of the clues Dickens gave Forster – namely, that ‘the originality’ of the story ‘was to consist in the 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’.

Thus the fears Jasper expresses, even before Edwin disappears, that Neville will do him violence are, I think, though not true to the facts, sincere: he is expressing his own temptation as Neville’s. The same is true of his stated conviction, after Edwin’s disappearance, that it is Neville who has murdered him. Jasper’s double vision has, so to speak, mistaken Neville’s infatuation with Rosa for his own, which, as he avows to Rosa, ‘is so mad that, had the ties between me and my dear lost boy been one silken thread less strong, I might have swept even him from your side when you favoured him’.

Those silken ties between Jasper and his dear lost nephew are stronger than critics have allowed. The true and desperate madness in Jasper’s love for Rosa seems to me to lie in his not being sure which of the betrothed pair, Rosa or Edwin, he is more in love with. Is he tempted to kill Edwin in order to take Rosa for himself, or tempted to keep Edwin for himself (or at least in the family) by killing Rosa – who is, quite rightly, scared of him to the point of running away to Mr Grewgious’s custody? In choosing to kill Edwin, a deed he can plausibly see, through his double vision, as done by Neville, Jasper may even seem to himself to make the right choice, since he thereby suppresses the more culpable of his two sexual passions.

The discovery, which makes Jasper faint, of what Forster calls ‘the utter needlessness of the murder for its object’, since Rosa and Edwin were not going to marry in any case, perhaps reflects Dickens’s sense of personal irony in having wounded his family and risked his respectability for the sake of a mistress with whom he was then not happy. The surname of Helena and Neville Landless is interpreted by Mr Garfield when he makes Helena exclaim: ‘We are Landless; we are homeless!’ Yet, apart perhaps from Honeythunder, the names in Drood (including Drood itself) are not of such Restoration Comedy transparency, and they have more to do with Dickens’s feelings about the people concerned than with those people’s natures. Drood is not a person to inspire either brooding or dread. Neither could one guess that Mr Grewgious, that amalgam of greed, screw and egregious, is, besides angular, good. Landless, which was changed in Dickens’s notes from ‘Heyridge or Heyfort’, owes something, I suspect, to the unusual middle name of Dickens’s mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, and the Lawless itself must, I think, have sounded in Dickens’s thoughts as an indictment of his own behaviour on her account. Jasper attributes his own guilt to Neville Landless, whose surname signified for Dickens, I think, both the lawlessness and the outlandishness of Jasper’s desires.

Dickens’s narrative could never have stated Jasper’s sexual love for Edwin, but it can and does show it even more explicitly than Our Mutual Friend shows the homosexuality of Eugene and Mortimer. Indeed, in Drood Dickens makes his point by deliberate contrasts. A disconsolate Neville, touched on the shoulder by Crisparkle, ‘took the fortifying hand from his shoulder, and kissed it’ – once, and in any case Neville is markedly not English. What Dickens expected of the English he makes clear when Crisparkle is re-united with his rescuer from drowning, Tartar: ‘The two shook hands with the greatest heartiness, and then went the wonderful length – for Englishmen – of laying their hands each on the other’s shoulders, and looking joyfully each into the other’s face.’

Those exceptional incidents throw into conspicuity the very different conduct of the dinner Jasper gives Edwin in Chapter Two, which begins with Jasper watching Edwin arrive and take off his outer clothes with ‘a look of hungry, exacting, watchful, and yet devoted affection’ and continues with Edwin’s flirtatiously bidding Jasper take him in to dinner, in pursuit of which ‘the boy’, as Edwin now significantly becomes, ‘lays a hand on Jasper’s shoulder, Jasper cordially and gaily lays a hand on his shoulder, and so Marseillaise-wise they go in to dinner’ – in the course of which Jasper lays ‘an affectionate and laughing touch on the boy’s extended hand’, presently suffers one of his glazed spells, after which Edwin ‘gently and assiduously tends him’, recovers and ‘lays a tender hand upon his nephew’s shoulder’ and then astonishes Edwin by saying he hates his job, provoking Edwin first to bend ‘forward in his chair to lay a sympathetic hand on Jasper’s knee’, next to the declaration ‘you love and trust me, as I love and trust you’ and thus to the demand ‘Both hands, Jack,’ which leads to uncle and nephew each standing ‘looking into the other’s eyes’ and holding (both) hands through five exchanges of dialogue.

It is this chapter that is, I think, destined eventually, through the disclosures of the second half, to make clear to the reader, though not necessarily, given its present-tense narrative, to the participants, why the murder is inevitable. Rosa is one of the participants by proxy, by means of the much-looked-at amateur portrait of her by Edwin that hangs on Jasper’s wall. Edwin elects himself victim by flirting with Jasper and yet not telling Jasper that his heart is not truly engaged to Rosa.

I think the same dinner discloses the method and the immediate occasion of the murder. Luke Fildes’s recollection (in 1905) was that Dickens had told him the ‘secret’ that Jasper’s ‘double necktie’ was an indispensable property because Jasper was to strangle Drood with it. So far as I can see, Fildes didn’t draw a Jasper with a double necktie. No doubt commentators are right in thinking that Dickens replaced the necktie by ‘that great black scarf’ which Jasper takes to the crucial Christmas Eve meeting. All the same, Dickens’s thoughts must have continued, in parallel, along the necktie groove. At his reconciliation with Rosa, Edwin explains to her: ‘with me Jack is always impulsive and hurried, and, I may say, almost womanish’. In the next chapter, before he goes to the Christmas Eve meeting he reflects: ‘Dear old Jack! If I were to make an extra crease in my neck-cloth, he would think it worth noticing!’

Both thoughts are foreshadowed at the Chapter Two dinner, where, while Edwin takes off his topcoat, hat and gloves, Jasper fusses: ‘Your feet are not wet? Pull your boots off. Do pull your boots off.’ Edwin replies: ‘Don’t moddley-coddley, there’s a good fellow. I like anything better than being moddley-coddleyed.’

Whether the murder was to have taken place during the Christmas Eve storm or on one of the three ensuing winter nights, I am convinced in my literary bones that it was destined to begin as an act of protective tenderness. Originally, perhaps, Jasper was to tighten Edwin’s necktie for him against the cold and Dickens replaced that by an indeed more plausible gesture where Jasper wound his own great black scarf round Edwin’s throat. Edwin, I think, was to resist being moddley-coddleyed; and only then was Jasper to make an ‘impulsive and hurried’ decision (designed, however, to refute and suppress all imputations of the ‘womanish’) to kill him instead.