A Dickens Mystery Best Left Unsolved
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Published: November 22, 2012
Theater Review | 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood': Raising the Dickens in All of Us (November 14, 2012)
Original Broadway Review: 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' (Dec. 3, 1985)
Patricia Wall/The New York Times
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The show is set in a Victorian music hall, where the actors, a second-rate touring troupe from London, are putting on their own, very hammy version of Dickens’s last, unfinished novel. Theirs is a world that Dickens knew well. From a young age he was stage-struck and for a while yearned to be an actor, not a writer. Even as he became an immensely successful novelist, he delighted in putting on amateur theatricals, usually starring himself, from his own scripts. And in his later years he became famous for the public readings he gave from his books both in England and in America. These weren’t stuffy 92nd Street Y sorts of evenings but dramatic one-man shows in which Dickens acted out all the parts with such passion that by the end he would be physically and emotionally spent.
The readings may partly explain why “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was never completed. During the months he was writing it, Dickens broke a longstanding rule about not doing a reading tour while also working on a book. Already in poor health, and taking laudanum both to help him sleep and for pain in his legs, he exhausted himself and died of a stroke in June 1870, worn out at the age of 58.
Though it didn’t become known until the early 20th century, Dickens had also been living with a secret, one that overlaps with the mystery in “Drood” — and in this, the bicentennial of his birth, several new books throw additional light on it.
Set in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham, “Drood” is mainly the story of an opium-addicted choirmaster, John Jasper, secretly in love with Rosa Bud, the fiancée of his nephew, Edwin Drood, who disappears on Christmas Eve, under suspicious circumstances, shortly before the book breaks off. (Only 6 of a planned 12 serial installments were completed.) There is some dark, psychosexual atmosphere and a couple of nice comic moments, but by Dickens’s usual standards the book feels thin and underimagined.
That has not kept if from being an object of fascination. Almost from the moment the book was published it became a literary parlor game to solve its mystery, or three mysteries, really: Is Drood truly dead, and if so, who killed him? And who is the strange character Datchery, who turns up late in the tale, apparently in disguise?
There have also been countless attempts to finish the story. These include a dramatic version by Dickens’s son Charley and an 1873 book by a Vermont printer and con artist named Thomas James, who professed to have channeled Dickens through a medium, allowing him to finish “Drood” with the author’s “spirit-pen.” In a preface James also claimed to have in psychic readiness a brand-new Dickens novel, “The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap,” which he said “bid fair to equal anything from his pen while on earth.”
Mr. Holmes said recently that while growing up in Rockland County, N.Y., he was fascinated by the unfinishedness of “Drood.” He would pick up the book, look at the last page and imagine Dickens dropping dead right then and there. But he didn’t actually read the novel until sometime in the ’70s, when, now a successful record producer (for Barbra Streisand, among others) and writer of pop hits like “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” he began it on a train ride to Chicago.
“I said to myself, ‘You know, this has many of the key ingredients of a musical,’ ” he recalled. “The protagonist is a choirmaster, possessed, we’re told, of a voice angels themselves might envy. He plays the organ. He’s madly in love with his vocal student, Rosa Bud, so there’s every reason for him to sing to her, and her to sing to him.”
He wrote a few early songs for a “Drood” musical, Mr. Holmes added, but the piece was unremittingly bleak, and there was the problem of what to do about the ending. He abandoned it and didn’t return to “Drood” until the early ’80s, when Joseph Papp, the head of the Public Theater, and his wife, Gail Merrifield, encouraged him to try again.
He solved the bleakness problem by imagining “Drood” as a show within a show performed in a Victorian music hall. And he solved the ending problem by not solving it.
Halfway through the second act in his version of “Drood,” which moved from the Public’s Delacorte Theater to Broadway in 1985, the audience votes for a villain and on the identity of Datchery, and as often as not it does so not according to logic or the likelihood of guilt but out of affection for one or another member of the cast. The script, like an ingenious piece of clockwork machinery, can accommodate multiple possibilities, many of them highly unlikely.
Mr. Holmes doesn’t like to spoil the fun by revealing his own ideas about the mystery, but when pressed, he said he believed, as most scholars do, that John Jasper almost certainly killed Edwin Drood. Jasper is by far the most interesting character in the book. (Drood is by comparison something of a pill, and the reader feels no great loss when he disappears.)
In an important 1940 essay, one that changed the way Dickens was viewed by critics, Edmund Wilson wrote about the strain of dualism that runs all through the novels, counterbalancing good and evil, sometimes within a single character. No one illustrates this more than Jasper, who is practically a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure: a religious man, a gifted musician, a kindly uncle, but also an opium addict, a vindictive lover and someone driven by sexual obsession.
As Mr. Holmes pointed out, Jasper also bears a certain resemblance to his creator, for at the time of writing “Drood,” Dickens, one of the most admired and beloved men in England, seemingly a model of kindness, decency and probity, had been living a double life for years.
In 1858 Dickens announced in his magazine Household Words that he was separating from Catherine Hogarth, his wife of 22 years. He also leaked to the press an even uglier and nastier letter, in which he cruelly and falsely claimed that Catherine was a neglectful mother unloved by her children. His friends and contemporaries were astonished and upset; some of the more cynical assumed he must be having an affair with Catherine’s younger sister, Georgina, who stayed on with the family as housekeeper.
But not for decades did it begin to emerge that in 1857 Dickens had begun a relationship with an innocent-seeming 18-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan (or Ellen Lawless Ternan, to give her full name, which, as Wilson pointed out, is oddly echoed by the name of one of the important characters in “Drood,” Helena Landless.) They met in a theater, where she was acting in ‘The Frozen Deep,” a melodrama written by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and soon he was keeping her in a series of lodgings in England and France.
The most comprehensive account of the Ternan affair is Michael Slater’s new book, “The Great Charles Dickens Scandal,” which describes how the secret became known and how the public reacted, though Mr. Slater doesn’t go very deeply into the nature of the arrangement itself.
In his masterly, if eccentric, 1990 biography, Peter Ackroyd insisted that Dickens never consummated his relationship with Ternan, and that the arrangement was entirely platonic — this in spite of evidence that Dickens, the father of 10 children with a wife whom he didn’t particularly care for, was as energetic about sex as he was about everything else.
The latest big biography, by Claire Tomalin (who also wrote an earlier book about Ternan), assumes that the relationship almost certainly was sexual and tracks in great detail when and where Dickens and Ternan were together. And in “Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens,” out this month, Robert Gottlieb goes one step further and suggests that most likely, as Dickens’s daughter Kate and son Henry believed, there was an 11th child, a son born to Ternan in France, probably in January or February, 1863, and who died a few months later.
If Mr. Gottlieb is right, then Dickens at the time of writing “Drood,” still unable to acknowledge Ternan publicly, must have been carrying an incalculable weight of shame and guilt, and it’s reasonable to assume that the relationship had by then taken on a much darker, more regretful character. (Ternan later married a clergyman and claimed that the idea of intimacy with Dickens revolted her.)
The novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is a long way from touching on things like a secret pregnancy and a premature infant death, but it’s full of secrets, sorrow, anger and shame. Jasper, an older man in love with a younger woman who is sickened by his touch, hates himself but can’t help himself.
Mr. Holmes’s version is an altogether happier affair, which is another reason it would have appealed to Dickens. It’s just playacting, the character of the stage manager reminds us, and we can do it again tomorrow night and have it all come out differently.