Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dreamland with Edwin Drood

On a day when it seems inconceivable that winter's bite could ever lessen, what better to talk of than death, and last meetings? I'll share one of the most memorable and moving bits that Robert Gottlieb dug up for Great Expectations, his book on Dickens's children. This comes from the pen of Dickens's eldest, Charley, presumably from Reminiscences of My Father, which was published posthumously in 1934. He writes of the last time he saw his father alive:
He was in town for our usual Thursday meeting on the business of "All the Year Round," and, instead of returning to Gadshill on that day had remained over night, and was at work again in his room in Wellington Street, on the Friday, the 3rd of June. During the morning I had hardly seen him except to take his instructions about some work I had to do and at about one o'clock--I had arranged to go into the country for the afternoon--I cleared up my table and prepared to leave. The door of communication between our rooms was open, as usual, and, as I came towards him, I saw that he was writing very earnestly. After a moment I said, "If you don't want anything more, sir, I shall be off now," but he continued his writing with the same intensity as before, and gave no sign of being aware of my presence. Again I spoke--louder, perhaps, this time--and he rested his head and looked at me long and fixedly. But I soon found that, although his eyes were bent upon me and he seemed to be looking at me earnestly, he did not see me, and that he was, in fact, unconscious for the moment of my very existence. He was in Dreamland with Edwin Drood, and I left him there--for the last time.
In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd calls the moment "disturbing," and while I can see his point, in this account, Charley seems to be at peace with being ignored in favor of the work, a position that surely was far from unfamiliar. The Dickens children seemed to always be proud of their father's work, even as they struggled with his failings as a parent, and I suspect that even though it likely pained him, Charley saw this final meeting as fitting.

With the family's pain a century and a half behind us, I will admit to being grateful for any time Dickens spent on Drood, a book I greatly enjoy. I wouldn't go so far as the reviewer for the Spectator in 1870 who, in an otherwise perceptive review, wrote,
However characteristic the faults of the fragment which embodies Mr Dickens's last literary effort, we feel no doubt that it will be read, admired, and remembered for the display of his equally characteristic powers, long after such performances as Little Dorrit and Bleak House are utterly neglected and forgotten.
But at the same time, I think Wilkie Collins's assessment of it as "Dickens's last, laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn-out brain" is nonsense, perhaps rooted in some protectiveness about Dickens's modest encroachment on his own more deliberately mysterious and sensational turf. It feels alive and fresh (despite recycling some of the devices, relationships, and structures of Our Mutual Friend)--and, as a reviewer for the Academy wrote in October of 1870, "there are signs of a more carefully-designed intrigue than in most of his earlier works." Solutions to Drood, including Donald Westlake's sharply analytic unpublished one, though fun, may quite possibly take the "Mystery" of the title too seriously: as many have pointed out, Dickens was never much of a mystery-style plotter, his revelations and reversals rarely that surprising. Nonetheless, Drood feels more intricate and planned than a lot of Dickens. If ever his surprises were to surprise, surely it would have been among those shadows.

We shall never know. Talking with his daughter Kate the night before he died, writes Peter Ackroyd,
He talked of his hopes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, "if, please God, I live to finish it." Then, he added, "I say if, because you know, my dear child, because I have not been strong lately."
Father and daughter talked until three in the morning. The next day, he wrote the last words we would ever get of Drood, and of Dickens: "and then falls to with an appetite." Which, while certainly, and sadly, unsatisfying, seems not wholly inappropriate. For how else do we approach Dickens's work than with an appetite? And what other writer's works do we fall to with such vigor?

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you, that is in the vigor with which I enjoy Dickens. Certainly Edwin Drood is among his best, with a wonderful air of mystery that will forever be in my mind filled with the aura of opium dens.