Monday, 5 October 2015

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (1870; unfinished)

Originally Written in 2009

Between reading Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood I sped through a little volume of Dickens' ghost stories. Quite a few of them I'd read before but one of them really stood out - The Signalman (1866), the one Christopher Eccleston's Doctor praises in particular in the Doctor Who episode The Unquiet Dead (2005), revolving around Charles Dickens at about the point in his life he was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It's only a few pages long, but really stood out as genuinely creepy and full of a nail-biting suspense. When Dickens wants to, he can do mystery and intrigue as well as any modern author...

...as you learn when reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The more profound and fascinating psychology of unrequited, flawed or doomed love explored in Our Mutual Friend rears its head again here (bear in mind these novels are written in the wake of his obsessive affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan), but there are plenty more innovations that make this book stand out - very little action in London; opium, opium dens and its effects upon users; a greater focus on the church and the clergy; a mystery surrounding the disappearance of the titular character; and a more mature account of love - it's all here in the first half of this unfinished classic. About half of this novel was written before Dickens' death in June 1870, and it is so rich that by the end one truly wonders whether, had it been completed, it would have ranked among his best.

That is in large part due to the greatest villain yet - John Jasper, the choir master. He's chillingly real, a man consumed by his passionate love for young Rosa. Think light years away from Fagin and Quilp. Think Iago (Othello) meets Steerpike (Gormenghast). Think absolutely bloody terrifying. In the first chapter Dickens forms Jasper's character without giving us any precise information, merely from his first appearance in an opium den, and the character is unwrapped very slowly through the book. There is no doubt in my mind that Jasper killed Edwin Drood and framed Neville Landless because of his own lecherous desire for Rosa. Read spellbound as he lazes in an opium den and dreams, and next minute orchestrates the cathedral choir. Devour the mesmerising section where Grewgious tells him that Edwin and Rosa did not plan to marry, and Jasper suffers a terrifying seizure because he has killed his nephew for nothing. And shudder as he manipulates Rosa through a few choice words, yet all the time appears to be leaning carefree on a sundial.

The early pages of the novel are particularly evocative and atmospheric - in the drowsy ancient cathedral town of Cloisterham (a lightly fictionalised Rochester), Dickens asembles a shadowy setting of graveyards, cloisters and the cathedral interior itself. The opening of the first chapter is yet another corker - a murky view of the cathedral tower from the gloom of an Oriental, smoky opium den, zooming in on the desperate John Jasper like a cinematic zoom at the start of a high-budget film. Fortunately the pace never lets off from hereon in, and instances such as his description of the town of Cloisterham in Chapter 3, his portrayal of graveyards and mews by night, and a particularly fine paragraph about the morning to open the final surviving chapter are all examples of the Great Man at his best.

Dickens' lifelike denizens of Cloisterham are particularly interesting because of the prevalence of moral shades of gray. The only man you never doubt is anything other than a good guy is the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle, hard-working and decent, a true believer and not a hypocrite at all like many of the others. Mr Grewgious is another Dickens departure: a good lawyer! He might be a touch too bureaucratically bumbling, but is essentially harmless. The other inhabitants of Cloisterham are almost all unpleasant - Mr Honeythunder continues the theme of telescopic philanthropy from Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, although Honeythunder is far nastier at heart; Mr Sapsea is thoroughly plausible as a pompous and easily flattered mayor; and let's not forget the tactless gravedigger Durdles and a horribly snobbish Dean.

While these are all very entertaining, it is with his main characters that Dickens achieves most; the love triangle between Rosa, Neville and the eponymous Edwin is both the best and worst of humanity. Terrible things pass between them, but there is hope when Edwin and Rosa decide not to marry that they may get along better as brother and sister in the future. The dynamic between Edwin and Neville has overtones of the Wrayburn-Headstone dynamic; Neville is impetuous and gets angry far too easily, but at times one sympathises with him, so out of place in this society, and considers whether Edwin might be taking Rosa for granted.

Best of all, and yet most tragic, is the irony that Dickens' first fully-fledged mystery is the one that remains unfinished, and there truly is a sense that just as the story is reaching its most intriguing, mysterious part we arrive at a cruelly mocking blank page. The chapter filled with a presentiment of Edwin's murder is superbly taut, as is the following chapter where the search for the murderer begins - it's riveting stuff. This book has everything Dickens does best. We can only guess what he might have accomplished by the end, or even if he had written another 3 books in the next decade or so, but let's also be thankful that he left behind the stunning heritage that he did. Without it, literature would be so much poorer.

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