My Dearest Macready,
Many thanks for your kind words of remembrance. This is not all in my own hand [part of this and other letters contained a form letter-like address], because I am too shaken to write many notes. Not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was - it did not go over, but was caught on the turn, among the ruins of the bridge - but by the work afterwards to get out the dying and the dead, which was terrible.
The Letters of Charles Dickens
Thirteen years ago, when I was a first-year MA graduate student in History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I began a systematic reading of all of Charles Dickens' work. Despite having a monthly budget for maybe a handful of used fiction books, over the Fall semester of 1996, I bought and read every single one of Dickens' works. The last one was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I hesitated to buy because it had been left unfinished when Dickens died on June 9, 1870.
Around this time, I believe it was mentioned here and there in the Oxford World's Classics tradebook edition of one of Dickens' works, I first heard about Wilkie Collins, one of the finest authors of the 1860s-1870s era "sensation novels" and a friend and sometimes collaborator with Dickens. I bought Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone, enjoying them both. Each of those novels has much to recommend themselves to modern readers, even if the hodgepodge elements of scandal, mystery, intrigue, all mixed in with ordinary life might seem a bit confusing (if not bloated) to many today.
When I read that Dan Simmons had decided to write a novel based on the last five years of Dickens' life, beginning with the June 9, 1865 Staplehurst train wreck and ending with his death exactly five years later, I was intrigued. Based on previous novels, such as Illium/Olympos and The Terror, I knew Simmons could create stories that felt "real" due to the extensive research. I also knew, thus causing some trepidation, that Simmons sometimes will slant the discussion in a way as to leave out certain other interpretations of historical (or character) developments. This proved to be the case in Drood.
The story is told in an epistolary novel format, with Collins telling "his" account of the 1865-1870 last years of Dickens' life. Within the first few pages, I not only saw evidence of Simmons inserting a lot of real-life conversations and letters (such as the verbatim quoting of a letter he had written to a friend days after the Staplehurst accident), but that with how he constructed the setting to fit with Collins' 1860s "sensation novel" writing style. I was impressed by this, as it gave the novel not just versimilitude, but also lent it a feeling of mystery and terror that mixed well with the complex character interactions between Dickens and Collins.
The plot on the surface is a simple one: Dickens encounters a strange, ghoulish creature who names itself Drood while Dickens is helping to clear the trains of bodies. This odd encounter haunts Dickens and he, a mesmerist of some standing, passes the story along to Collins. Throughout the early chapters, Dickens (often dragging Collins along for the ride) goes to several unsavory places in London, including an opium den, seeking word of who Drood might be. In the process, several characters (including John Jasper) who make their appearance in slightly altered form in the real-life The Mystery of Edwin Drood, are introduced in passing. For those such as myself who are familiar with the authors' oevre, these little details add much to the subtextual reading of Drood.
As the story progresses and the mystery grows ever more omnious, Simmons subtly introduces several of Collins' personal quirks into the narrative. Not only is Collins a laudanum addict, but his real-life references to his "ghost self" that seemed to write his novels for himself are used masterfully by Simmons in several dream-like sequences to create terrifying spectacles that read as if they had come out of The Moonstone. By the halfway point of the novel, I found myself reading faster and faster, curious to see if Dickens and Collins could unravel the mystery of Drood before it claimed them, whether in real, diabolical form or metaphorically as the two characters began to sink into the mud of their own respective traumas.
However, there are places in the novel where I feel Simmons treats his characters, especially Collins, rather unfairly. The historical Collins explored social conditions in many of his novels and while perhaps it is true that his novels declined in popularity after Dickens' death, to hint that this was the sole result of Collins' own "demons" is a bit much. There is little to nothing said of how Collins grew more and more concerned about the plight of women, especially those of the working class who often were "sold" into marriage or into prostitution. Based on the plot and setting, it would have been easy to integrate this element of Collins' personal/professional life into the story without sacrificing momentum.
Futhermore, Simmons appeared to make Collins into a more and more unlikeable character as the story progresses, perhaps in order to set the stage for the penultimate chapters in which drug-induced dreams and "reality" mix together in a fashion making it near impossible to tell which is which. The Collins (and Dickens, I might add) that appears in the latter chapters is such a complete wreck that while Simmons has done a mostly outstanding job in creating a dark, destructive atmosphere surrounding the two, the ending is relatively drab, like a water-damaged firecracker. Drood is, perhaps as he ought to remain, still a complete mystery. But the Dickens and Collins of the final chapters, changed as they ought to be from the five years' experience of mystery, dread, and suffering, are strangely less as characters than they were at the story's beginnings.
Simmons has Collins brooding so much over Dickens' gregarious personality, his abilities as "the Inimitable" as compared to his own talents as a writer, that I wonder if Simmons might have envisioned Collins as John Jasper and Dickens as Edwin Drood, considering how the ending plays out. While it certainly can make for a wild ending for many, for myself, my knowledge of the two writers stood defiantly in the way of enjoying that clash. It just felt as though Simmons tried too hard at the end to have a "twist" ending in which the unreliability of the narrator would come into play. As a result, Collins and Dickens became little more than ciphers for me in those closing chapters.
Despite the relatively weak ending, for the most part Drood is a wonderfully-researched, well-plotted novel. Simmons' use of the "sensation novel" format added much to the narrative and while I disagreed with his decisions regarding his main characters and how the story concluded, I believe that most others would enjoy reading this atmospheric, highly-charged novel. Hopefully, many readers will find themselves wanting to (re)visit Dickens and Collins as a result.
Publication Date: February 9, 2009 (US). Hardcover.
Publisher: Little, Brown