Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Mysteries of Edwin Drood

No one who ends up reading Dickens’s great unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, can come away from it without ongoing thoughts, questions, and theories. I thought so much about it after finishing the interrupted classic last week, I read one book about possible solutions and half of another – and then read Edwin Drood again in two days (far faster than my usual mode of reading). If no one has found a smoking gun in the 146 years since Dickens’s death halfway through writing the novel, it seems certain that no one ever will. We are left, then, with theories and conjectures that can never be proven. And we just have to be happy living in that state.

But for the record, let me list what I think are the main questions left unanswered and then provide my speculative answers on some of them.
• Is Edwin dead, or has he just disappeared?
• If he is alive, is he hiding deliberately or against his will?
• If dead, who killed him?
• A related question: would Dickens have lied to his loved ones about who killed Edwin?
• What does John Jasper’s opium addiction have to do with anything?
• What caused the scream that Durdles heard on Christmas Eve one year earlier?
• What does Sapsea’s crypt have to do with anything?
• How is the ring found?
• Why does Jasper have to go to the roof of the cathedral to do whatever it is he does?
• What actually happens at the Christmas Eve dinner party?
• Who is Dick Datchery?
• Who is the figure in the lantern light in the artwork of the title page?
For people who haven’t read the novel but are still reading this post for some reason, let me offer a brief outline. Everyone in Cloisterham says John Jasper, the cantor at the cathedral and a secret opium addict, loves his nephew, Edwin Drood. Edwin comes to Cloisterham to see his uncle and his fiancée, Rosa Bud. On his first night back in town, he meets hotheaded Neville Landless, who has fallen for Rosa just enough to be offended by Edwin’s careless attitude toward her. It turns out that Jasper is also infatuated with Rosa.

Then on Christmas Eve night, during a great storm, Edwin disappears, and two pieces of his jewelry are found at a dam on the local river. But most characters don’t know that Edwin has also been carrying a ring that he considered using in proposing marriage to Rosa. In the stonemason’s yard is a pile of quicklime, which will dissolve clothing, flesh, and bones but not metal or gems, so presumably the ring was to have been found in the lime later in the book either to complicate or to reveal the mystery. Dickens does everything he can in the book to make Jasper look guilty; Jasper does everything he can to make Neville look guilty. The author described to his artist what pictures should adorn the title page, so they probably hold some clues. Friends and family asked for spoilers as the monthly numbers came out, and Dickens, if he said anything at all to them, told everyone that Jasper strangled his nephew with a scarf.

Now here are my conjectures. Most readers think Jasper killed Edwin. A very few think Neville killed Edwin. But I haven’t come across anyone else who proposes what I imagine: I think that Neville killed Edwin but did so unwillingly and even unwittingly, under Jasper’s control. Let me explain. Jasper has various powers of persuasion. He clearly uses laudanum to drug people at various moments in the parts of the story that we have, and he appears to have powers of telepathy or mesmerism, as well. Everyone in town keeps saying that he has such great affection for Edwin in almost the same words, and I can’t help thinking about The Manchurian Candidate; it seems to me that Jasper has brainwashed the whole town in order to deflect suspicion from himself when he finally does away with his nephew. So I think Jasper used his drugs and his paranormal powers to manipulate Neville into doing the deed. It appears in the existing text that he drugged the two young men in order to orchestrate the original fight between them. In a later scene in which Jasper hides behind a wall and intently watches an unsuspecting Neville, I think he mystically plants the plan in Neville’s mind. Then on Christmas Eve, when Edwin and Neville were to meet, supposedly to shake hands and let bygones be bygones, I think Jasper drugged them both again and controlled them once more for his foul purposes, getting rid of Edwin and making all the evidence point to Neville, thus killing two birds – i.e. rivals for Rosa’s affections – with one stone.
Jasper goes out of his way to get the key to Mr. Sapsea’s crypt, so supposedly he would have hidden Edwin’s body there. But why bother checking out the roof of the cathedral? It’s possible Jasper only meant to give Edwin a scare at first and then lock him alive in the crypt. Edwin may have slipped (those roof tiles on the ground the next morning might not have come from the storm!) and been caught in Jasper’s scarf, suffocating as he dangled from the top of the cathedral. One way or another, I think that Jasper had a plan that in Dickens's scheme was to go awry when an opium fit came on, and that Edwin died in a way Jasper didn’t expect.

Dickens’s sense of poetic justice and his penchant for life on the boards both make it obvious to me that Datchery is Bazzard. Bazzard is melancholy because he can’t get his play produced, but in disguising himself as Dick Datchery, he finds theatrical success after all. It’s the perfect Dickensian character resolution. I have no idea what Durdles heard or who the lamp-lit figure in the artwork is. But I do have an idea that Dickens may well have led his loved ones down false paths with his private hints. Both secondary sources I read said Dickens wouldn’t lie to these people. But would it really be a lie even if untrue? Telling a story is in a sense a lie, and Dickens did that all the time. Couldn’t he merely have been trying to prolong the fun for those near him? Of course, if he did say what he said in order to throw friends and relations off the scent, then Jasper didn’t kill Edwin after all, and my whole hypothesis is gone. But we’ll never know for sure, so I choose to think that I’m on to something.

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