Sunday, May 03, 2009

Dickens's mysteries

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In a comment appended to my recent post on Poe and reviews, Amateur Reader directed me to a post at his own blog, Wuthering Expectations, in which he addressed Poe's two reviews of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. It's worth your clicking over there and reading the whole post (as well as his whole series of posts on Poe, written after he read all 2,800 pages of the Library of America's two Poe volumes!), but here's his main point:
Poe uses his review to use the clues at hand to solve the mystery. Today, his magazine would receive a swarm of angry "Spoiler!" emails. I don't know if Poe's readers thought this was fair game or not. Anyway, Poe correctly identifies the murderer. He proceeds to explain exactly how the story will unfold and how the murderer will be revealed.

Here, Poe is wrong in every detail, sometimes hilariously wrong (the hilarious part is that his predictions are so confident). But he's correct in one sense--the story he describes would be a much better murder mystery. One thing Poe does in his second review, of the complete novel, is to discuss, in detail, and correctly, how the murder plot is botched.
Dickens botches the plot, Poe argues, when he gets distracted by the Gordon riots. While Poe acknowledges that the riots are well-handled, their surrounding drama forces the murder into the background, from where it will never really returns to center stage.

This tells me that Poe fundamentally misunderstood Dickens's intentions: Dickens was from his first published sketches always far more interested in character and incident than the mechanics of plot--and the more his overall interest in society and its changes grew, the more his plots, however inventive and entertaining they remained, became merely the vehicle by which he could explore those interests. Dickens would seem as unlikely as anyone who ever wrote to be able to achieve the "single effect" that Poe urged as the goal of the short story writer; he always contained multitudes, and he was at his best when giving them free play.

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dickens's final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Angus Wilson makes essentially that argument, with specific recourse to Barnaby Rudge:
If [Dickens] had died before finishing Barnaby Rudge . . . we might be asking, who killed Barnaby's father, or was his father really dead at all? These seem minor questions now beside that novel's extraordinary insight into the nature of violent revolution. And so with the murder of Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House or the mystery of Rigaud's hold over Mrs Clenham in Little Dorrit; it would be an absurdity to see those two great social novels in such narrow terms. These mysteries are the essence of Dickens's plots. These plots are indeed essential to the novels, but they are only the mechanism by which the great imaginative magic lantern works; the total significance of what Dickens shows us in his novels is a hundred times greater than his plots.

Of course The Mystery of Edwin Drood in particular benefits from being approached with that understanding: rather than being frustrated by its lack of answers, a reader can instead enjoy the many typically Dickensian pleasures it offers. In its scant 280 pages, Dickens introduces a host of memorable characters. Like the odious Mr. Sapsea, who occasionally
finds the contemplation of his own profundity becoming a little monotonous in spite of the vastness of he subject.
Or the cemetery-keeper Durdles, who is first seen being pelted with stones by a wild boy, which, he explains to Mr. Jasper, is an act of charity on his part:
"Own brother, sir," observes Durdles, turning himself about again, and as unexpectedly forgetting his offence as he had recalled or conceived it; "own brother to Peter the Wild Boy! But I gave him an object in life."

"At which he takes aim?" Mr. Jasper suggests.

"That's it, sir," returns Durdles, quite satisfied; "at which he takes aim. I took him in hand and gave him an object. What was he before? A destroyer. What work did he do? Nothing but destruction. What did he earn by it? Short terms in Cloisterham jail. Not a person, not a piece of property, not a winder, not a horse, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a bird, nor a fowl, nor a pig, but what he stoned, for want of an enlightened object. I put that enlightened object before him, and now he can turn his honest halfpenny by the three penn'orth a week."
Durdles is one of Dickens's greatest creations, his boozy imperturbability supplying wonderful comedy, as in this later discussion with Jaspers over a shared bottle:
"This is good stuff, Mister Jarsper!"

"It is very good stuff, I hope. I bought it on purpose."

"They don't show, you see, the old uns don't, Mister Jarsper!"

"It would be a more confused world than it is, if they could."

"Well, it would lead towards a mixing of things," Durdles acquiesces: pausing on the remark, as if the idea of ghosts had not previously presented itself to him in a merely inconvenient light, domestically, or chronologically.
Then there's the lanky, sunburned climber-in-at-windows Mr. Tartar, who is "always afraid of inconveniencing a busy man, being an idle man," and who though he's inherited an estate, lives in a garret, for, as he explains,
[I]t would never do for a man who had been aboard ship from his boyhood to turn luxurious all at once. Besides, again: having been accustomed to a very short allowance of land all my life, I thought I'd feel my way to the command of a landed estate, by beginning in boxes.
Another of Drood's great pleasures is Dickens's depiction of the cathedral town of Cloisterham, its narrow lanes ranged about the old churchyard and shadowed by the cathedral. I visited the town of Rochester, on which Cloisterham is based, while I was reading the novel, and as I wandered its streets in the growing dusk, it was easy to imagine myself surrounded by the secrets and machinations of Dickens's characters. Like Drood itself, the town is well worth a visit for any Dickens fan.


  1. I think I could have emphasized a bit more how outrageous Poe's Barnaby Rudge reviews are. Poe had just published or was about to publish the murder mystery "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" - in other words, he had just invented the detective story. So he first assumes that the Dickens novel is also a detective story, or anyways a muder mystery, and then criticizes it for not being a proper detective story. And how could it be, since Poe invented the detective story just shortly after Dickens started publishing Barnaby Rudge!

    Poe probably did understand what Dickens was doing, but in his reviews he is hijacking the novel for his own purpose. A lot of Poe's reviews are really about Poe. Which, come to think of it, is why it is still enjoyable to read them.

    Now I want to visit Rochester. Edwin Drood is so good. I have read people saying that they don't want to read it, 'cause what's the point of an unfinsihed mystery? Now I can direct them here.

  2. We really did have a great time in Rochester, and it's not that long a train ride from London. (Plus, if you're more adventurous/tolerant than I am, you can go from there to the Dickens World amusement park--and then please tell me how strange it is!)

    And I understand people's trepidation about Drood; fears of its unfinished state kept me from reading it for years. I'm so glad I overcame them.

  3. This is off-topic, but as a fellow Wodehouse enthusiast I thought of you when I was reading the introduction to a Hugh Walpole book recently: it features an excerpt from one of P G Wodehouse's letters...

    "I [met] Hugh Walpole when I was at Oxford getting my D.Litt. I was staying with the Vice-Chancellor at Magdalen and he blew in and spent the day. It was just after Hilaire Belloc had said that I was the best living English writer. It was just a gag, of course, but it worried Hugh terribly. He said to me, `Did you see what Belloc said about you?' I said I had.—`I wonder why he said that.' `I wonder,' I said. Long silence. `I can't imagine why he said that,' said Hugh. I said I couldn't, either. Another long silence. `It seems such an extraordinary thing to say!'—'Most extraordinary.' Long silence again. `Ah,well,' said Hugh, having apparently found the solution, `the old man's getting very old.'