For the discovery of Dickens’s secret in Edwin Drood it is necessary to obtain a clear view of the characters in the tale, and of their relations to each other.
About the middle of the nineteenth century there lived in Cloisterham, a cathedral city sketched from Rochester, a young University man, Mr. Bud, who had a friend Mr. Drood, one of a firm of engineers—somewhere. They were “fast friends and old college companions.” Both married young. Mr. Bud wedded a lady unnamed, by whom he was the father of one child, a daughter, Rosa Bud. Mr. Drood, whose wife’s maiden name was Jasper, had one son, Edwin Drood. Mrs. Bud was drowned in a boating accident, when her daughter, Rosa, was a child. Mr. Drood, already a widower, and the bereaved Mr. Bud “betrothed” the two children, Rosa and Edwin, and then expired, when the orphans were about seven and eleven years old. The guardian of Rosa was a lawyer, Mr. Grewgious, who had been in love with her mother. To Grewgious Mr. Bud entrusted his wife’s engagement ring, rubies and diamonds, which Grewgious was to hand over to Edwin Drood, if, when he attained his majority, he and Rosa decided to marry.
Grewgious was apparently legal agent for Edwin, while Edwin’s maternal uncle, John Jasper (aged about sixteen when the male parents died), was Edwin’s “trustee,” as well as his uncle and devoted friend. Rosa’s little fortune was an annuity producing £250 a-year: Edwin succeeded to his father’s share in an engineering firm.
When the story opens, Edwin is nearly twenty-one, and is about to proceed to Egypt, as an engineer. Rosa, at school in Cloisterham, is about seventeen; John Jasper is twenty-six. He is conductor of the Choir of the Cathedral, a “lay precentor;” he is very dark, with thick black whiskers, and, for a number of years, has been a victim to the habit of opium smoking. He began very early. He takes this drug both in his lodgings, over the gate of the Cathedral, and in a den in East London, kept by a woman nicknamed “The Princess Puffer.” This hag, we learn, has been a determined drunkard,—“I drank heaven’s-hard,”—for sixteen years before she took to opium. If she has been dealing in opium for ten years (the exact period is not stated), she has been very disreputable for twenty-six years, that is ever since John Jasper’s birth. Mr. Cuming Walters suggests that she is the mother of John Jasper, and, therefore, maternal grandmother of Edwin Drood. She detests her client, Jasper, and plays the spy on his movements, for reasons unexplained.
Jasper is secretly in love with Rosa, the fiancée of his nephew, and his own pupil in the musical art. He makes her aware of his passion, silently, and she fears and detests him, but keeps these emotions private. She is a saucy school-girl, and she and Edwin are on uncomfortable terms: she does not love him, while he perhaps does love her, but is annoyed by her manner, and by the gossip about their betrothal. “The bloom is off the plum” of their prearranged loves, he says to his friend, uncle, and confidant, Jasper, whose own concealed passion for Rosa is of a ferocious and homicidal character. Rosa is aware of this fact; “a glaze comes over his eyes,” sometimes, she says, “and he seems to wander away into a frightful sort of dream, in which he threatens most . . . ” The man appears to have these frightful dreams even when he is not under opium.
Opening of the Tale
The tale opens abruptly with an opium-bred vision of the tower of Cloisterham Cathedral, beheld by Jasper as he awakens in the den of the Princess Puffer, between a Chinaman, a Lascar, and the hag herself. This Cathedral tower, thus early and emphatically introduced, is to play a great but more or less mysterious part in the romance: that is certain. Jasper, waking, makes experiments on the talk of the old woman, the Lascar and Chinaman in their sleep. He pronounces it “unintelligible,” which satisfies him that his own babble, when under opium, must be unintelligible also. He is, presumably, acquainted with the languages of the eastern coast of India, and with Chinese, otherwise, how could he hope to understand the sleepers? He is being watched by the hag, who hates him.
Jasper returns to Cloisterham, where we are introduced to the Dean, a nonentity, and to Minor Canon Crisparkle, a muscular Christian in the pink of training, a classical scholar, and a good honest fellow. Jasper gives Edwin a dinner, and gushes over “his bright boy,” a lively lad, full of chaff, but also full of confiding affection and tenderness of heart. Edwin admits that his betrothal is a bore: Jasper admits that he loathes his life; and that the church singing “often sounds to me quite devilish,”—and no wonder. After this dinner, Jasper has a “weird seizure;” “a strange film comes over Jasper’s eyes,” he “looks frightfully ill,” becomes rigid, and admits that he “has been taking opium for a pain, an agony that sometimes overcomes me.” This “agony,” we learn, is the pain of hearing Edwin speak lightly of his love, whom Jasper so furiously desires. “Take it as a warning,” Jasper says, but Edwin, puzzled, and full of confiding tenderness, does not understand.
In the next scene we meet the school-girl, Rosa, who takes a walk and has a tiff with Edwin. Sir Luke Fildes’s illustration shows Edwin as “a lad with the bloom of a lass,” with a classic profile; and a gracious head of long, thick, fair hair, long, though we learn it has just been cut. He wears a soft slouched hat, and the pea-coat of the period.
Sapsea and Durdles
Next, Jasper and Sapsea, a pompous ass, auctioneer, and mayor, sit at their wine, expecting a third guest. Mr. Sapsea reads his absurd epitaph for his late wife, who is buried in a “Monument,” a vault of some sort in the Cathedral churchyard. To them enter Durdles, a man never sober, yet trusted with the key of the crypt, “as contractor for rough repairs.” In the crypt “he habitually sleeps off the fumes of liquor.” Of course no Dean would entrust keys to this incredibly dissipated, dirty, and insolent creature, to whom Sapsea gives the key of his vault, for no reason at all, as the epitaph, of course, is to be engraved on the outside, by Durdles’s men. However, Durdles insists on getting the key of the vault: he has two other large keys. Jasper, trifling with them, keeps clinking them together, so as to know, even in the dark, by the sound, which is the key that opens Sapsea’s vault, in the railed-off burial ground, beside the cloister arches. He has met Durdles at Sapsea’s for no other purpose than to obtain access at will to Mrs. Sapsea’s monument. Later in the evening Jasper finds Durdles more or less drunk, and being stoned by a gamin, “Deputy,” a retainer of a tramp’s lodging-house. Durdles fees Deputy, in fact, to drive him home every night after ten. Jasper and Deputy fall into feud, and Jasper has thus a new, keen, and omnipresent enemy. As he walks with Durdles that worthy explains (in reply to a question by Jasper), that, by tapping a wall, even if over six feet thick, with his hammer, he can detect the nature of the contents of the vault, “solid in hollow, and inside solid, hollow again. Old ’un crumbled away in stone coffin, in vault.” He can also discover the presence of “rubbish left in that same six foot space by Durdles’s men.” Thus, if a foreign body were introduced into the Sapsea vault, Durdles could detect its presence by tapping the outside wall. As Jasper’s purpose clearly is to introduce a foreign body—that of Edwin who stands between him and Rosa—into Mrs. Sapsea’s vault, this “gift” of Durdles is, for Jasper, an uncomfortable discovery. He goes home, watches Edwin asleep, and smokes opium.
Categories: English Literature