The OF Blog: Observations from my reading of Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Observations from my reading of Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Currently a little over 2/3 into my first re-read of Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood since the Fall of 1996, when I was in the midst of my Dickens reading craze while I was in grad school at the University of Tennessee. I remember thinking, before I began the re-read, that there was something about how Dickens tried to tell a "mystery" tale that was a bit off-putting, but I had forgotten what it was until I had begun reading.

What I found myself reacting to was the very slow way in which the "mystery" developed. Although I am not one who reads mysteries regularly, I have become used to having the main mystery elements (persons involved, possible motives, means of mystery occurring, etc.) introduced quickly and with a focus on developing the plot in such a fashion that the puzzling out of the mystery remains the key element. However, with Dickens (and with Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and The Lady in White, from what I recall after I read each in 1996 as well), the "mystery" only transpires about halfway into the surviving manuscript (or 1/4 into the projected narrative, if Dickens had managed to survive long enough to write the 12 planned installments rather than the 5.5 that were published).

I am finding myself having to resist strongly the impulse to dismiss this tale as a poorly-plotted one. After pausing and considering what is transpiring here, it reads more as "Charles Dickens attempts a synthesis of his preferred serial narrative style with elements of the 'sensation' novels which were the rage of 1860s England" than anything else. The way Dickens develops characters such as Drood, Jasper, and Septimus Crisparkle, to name just three of the characters, is similar to how he developed a Pickwick, an Oliver, or a Pip; each character defined as much by their odd supporting casts as much as by themselves. For a 19th century reader, the combination of these familiar-feeling characters with the oddness of Dickens writing a 'sensation' novel (with its focus on a sudden, often macabre development that is designed to provoke a reaction, even if it isn't exactly what a modern reader would find to be a well-structred story) must have been confusing at times, but likely those confusing elements would be subordinate to the curiosity inspired by wondering just how that old dog Dickens would manage to perform a 'new' literary trick.

In a way, considering the times in which the novel was constructed and the sad fact that Dickens died before completing is perhaps more of a daunting puzzle for some modern readers (or at least for myself, as I can only presume what others might react to here) than the actual "mystery" surrounding Edwin Drood. With a scant 60 pages left to read, it'll be interesting to see if the novel's unfinished state will leave me sated or damning fate for robbing me of the chance of being able to discover what Dickens had in mind for solving the "mystery."


MatsVS said...

I once spent three months reading nothing but Dickens, and I remember it all fondly. This was one story I neglected to read, though, for the very reason you mention; it's unfinished state. Looking forward to hearing your final thoughts!

Camilla said...

There are different schools of "Droodiana" that interpret the book as belonging to different genres. Only one of those goes for the "whodunnit". There is another that sees Drood as prefiguring Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment, that is as a physchological crime-drama.

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