Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Edwin Drood

A recommendation, if you didn't see it: the current BBC adaptation by Gwyneth Hughes of Charles Dickens's half-finished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, serialised in 1870 until its termination by the death of Dickens. (see the BBC feature Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens's last mystery finally solved? and the BBC2 microsite).

Due to previously-mentioned events over Christmas, I've only just seen the concluding part of the two-part series.

Read on - if you don't mind spoilers.

The first episode set the scene in Cloisterham (a thinly-disguised Rochester) where Drood, a slappably optimistic and fortunate young engineer, is visiting his fiance Rosa Bud (to whom he is betrothed via an arrangement in her late father's will) and his uncle John Jasper (an opium-addicted choirmaster). What Edwin doesn't know is that Jasper has the hots for Rosa, and has repeated opium dreams of throttling Edwin in the cathedral. A further tension is thrown into the mix by the arrival from Ceylon of the mixed-race orphan twins Neville and Helena Landless. The hot-blooded Neville too fancies Rosa, and immediately gets into an argument with Edwin over this. But what neither of Edwin's rivals know is that Edwin and Rosa aren't that into each other, and have more or less amicably agreed to break their engagement. Things come to a head on a dark and stormy night, when Edwin and Neville, apparently reconciled, visit the cathedral at night, and Jasper gets another especially vivid vision (maybe real - we don't know) of throttling Edwin. End of episode.

Judging by both the dramatisation and the novel text - there's a nice copy of the 1870 Chapman & Hall imprint on the Internet Archive (ID mysteryofedwindr00dickrich) - Dickens was doing something rather different from his usual fare. This is not a cast-of-thousands tranche of Victorian social commentary, but an economical and claustrophobic psychological mystery. The scenario reminds me a deal of a Maxwell Gray novel: there's a guilt-ridden ecclesiastical character, as in The Silence of Dean Maitland; and a young woman with three suitors, as in The Reproach of Annesley. Maybe the simplicity was down to Dickens losing his touch; he was exhausted by a tour of America, and had sufferered a minor stoke - a precursor to the one that permanently interrupted his work on the novel. Nevertheless, he's still on form with atmosphere and characterisation.

Dickens did leave a sketch of  where he intended the story to go: essentially it came down to John Jasper having murdered Drood:

His first fancy for the tale was expressed in a letter in the middle of July. "What should you think of the idea of a story beginning in this way?--Two people, boy and girl, or very young, going apart from one another, pledged to be married after many years—at the end of the book. The interest to arise out of the tracing of their separate ways, and the impossibility of telling what will be done with that impending fate." This was laid aside; but it left a marked trace on the story as afterwards designed, in the position of Edwin Drood and his betrothed. I first heard of the later design in a letter dated "Friday the 6th of August 1869", in which after speaking, with the usual unstinted praise he bestowed always on what moved him in others, of a little tale he had received for his journal, he spoke of the change that had occurred to him for the new tale by himself. "I laid aside the fancy I told you of, and have a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The story, I learnt immediately afterward, was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle; the originality of which was to consist in the review of the murderer's career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell, to which his wickedness, all elaborately elicited from him as if told of another, had brought him. Discovery by the murderer of the utter needlessness of the murder for its object, was to follow hard upon commission of the deed; but all discovery of the murderer was to be baffled till towards the close, when, by means of a gold ring which had resisted the corrosive effects of the lime into which he had thrown the body, not only the person murdered was to be identified but the locality of the crime and the man who committed it. So much was told to me before any of the book was written; and it will be recollected that the ring, taken by Drood to be given to his betrothed only if their engagement went on, was brought away with him from their last interview. Rosa was to marry Tartar, and Crisparkle the sister of Landless, who was himself, I think, to have perished in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer.

- Charles Dickens, letter to friend and biographer John Forster, published in John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, 1876, vol. 1

But the many authors who have picked up and run with the story - see Continuations, in the Wikipedia article - have varied in whether they took up this hint. The recent BBC adaptation doesn't entirely.

Spoiler warning again.

Episode 2 begins, as did Dickens, with general consternation after the night of the storm due to Drood's disappearance. Neville naturally falls under initial suspicion, with Jasper happy to fuel that suspicion, but no real evidence implicates him.

Meanwhile, Bazzard, the geeky assistant of Rosa's guardian, is doing some detective work, finding that Neville and Helena Landless are half-siblings of Edwin, and that their mutual father appears not to have died in military service in Egypt as supposed, and is in fact alive somewhere and picking up his pension. Jasper continues to be angst-ridden, but despite this pursues increasingly aggessive attempts to court Rosa. His mental state isn't helped by the revelation that his jealousy had become misplaced after Edwin and Rosa were no longer an item.

Ultimately Bazzard's trail leads to the discovery of an unexpected corpse in the Drood tomb, just as Jasper drags Rosa into the cathedral and confesses to Drood's murder. But, simultaneously, the corpse is found to be that of an older man, apparently dead for a year or so - and Edwin, fresh back from Egypt, walks into the cathedral wondering what's been going on. He'd left town in a huff after Rosa broke off the engagement, and that was why he hadn't written.

This turn of events so fazes Jasper that his story unravels. He and Edwin aren't uncle and nephew, but half-brothers - he was the illegitimate one - and he has for years been consumed with anger at their father's favouritism toward Edwin. A year previously he had killed their father when the latter arrived in Cloisterham and snubbed him yet again: the elder Drood is the corpse in the tomb. In Jasper's opium-addled mind, the murder of the elder Drood and the fantasy of murdering Edwin had become so conflated that he had come to believe he had actually murdered Edwin. Believing himself to be haunted by Edwin, he kills himself. In the slightly feelgood aftermath, his friends and family forgive him posthumously; Edwin and Neville depart for foreign climes as half-brothers, friends and business associates; and Helena Landless becomes engaged to the Rev. Mr. Crisparkle, the canon of Cloisterham.

While perhaps the web of family connections stretches coincidence a little too far, nevertheless I think Gwyneth Hughes did an extremely good job of completing a story where the resolution could have been a little too linear. In the novel as far as Dickens wrote it, everything (including his own guilt) points to Jasper having murdered Edwin. This adaptation nicely had it both ways, with that evidence being just as valid, except for another murder, while leaving the reappearance of Edwin thoroughly plausible. The motivation for the murder - intense anger at a parent's favouritism for one sibling, exacerbated by the favoured sibling's inability to perceive a problem - is psychologically plausible. Luckily I'm not in that situation, but I know people who have been, and it's highly toxic. So all in all, a rather good production.

If you're in the UK, both episodes are currently watchable online with BBC iPlayer at the BBC2 microsite The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

- Ray

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