Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do Not Read Edwin Drood

Despite being a literary type of sorts, reading a lot of books, teaching English literature when necessary, and having a library which doesn't really fit in the house, I've never read much Dickens. As a teenager I watched a serialized 'Great Expectations', and a film of 'Nicholas Nickleby', both of which strove to convey the exquisitely stifling dullness of life in Victorian England and the inability of anyone who lived there to speak like a human being or experience any form of emotion- doubtless squeezed out of them by the collars and corsets- and conveyed these ideas very successfully; watched the musical film of Oliver Twist, which is quite fun in parts but doesn't send you running to the bookshop, and read some revolting story in which everyone ends up being nice to each other for no reason that makes any narrative sense, and decided Dickens was hugely overrated and I needn't waste my time with him.

It was only quite recently that I was finally persuaded I could be wrong. A few years ago I read 'Bleak House', and thought hmmm, there might be something here. So I read some ghost stories, and another novel here and there. And now I have read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And I urge you strongly not to be tempted.

My readership, being highly erudite, doubtless read it years ago, but this post might serve as a warning to someone, and I hope it does.

It's not that's it's a bad book. Not at all. It starts with a magnificent scene in an opium den, riddled with dramatic tension, that tells you this is going to be worth it. There is a highly complicated and largely unhappy love story, some regular fun with the local drunk and the boy he pays to stone him home at night, some witty repartee between the Misses Twinkleton and Billickin, some deeply symbolic architecture, both in Cloisterham and London, and lots of mysterious characters and activities whose identities and motives you keep trying to guess at, and a murder, probably, and you keep turning the pages to discover how Dickens unfolds and ties up all of this and whether you were right.

But you never do. You turn a page like any other and there are no more. The story stops in the middle of nowhere in particular. You never learn who the killer is- though you might think you know- nor even whether Drood is in fact dead- though everyone assumes he is- nor who the pretty young girl will marry- there are several options here- because Dickens dropped dead at this point in his labours and never got to tell us the rest of the story.

I knew it was an unfinished work. As I said, I have taught classes on Dickens and you have to know these things (no one seemed to care that I knew very little else), but I had always assumed that 'unfinished' meant that he left a few loose ends untied, or some dialogue unpolished, or the ending only in note form, or something like that. I didn't imagine it just stopped cold, leaving you feeling like Hancock in that sketch where he has a similar experience with a mystery novel.

So do not read Edwin Drood. You will find it draws you into its language and its world, and will throw you back out into the cold just when you are most keen to learn its secrets. Dickens managed to leave his last Mystery unsolved forever, perhaps a fitting tribute to what I now recognise as his genius.


Vincent said...

Thanks for the warning, but I already share your lukewarm opinion of Dickens, & certainly dislike all the adaptations (apart from Oliver! which is fun).

John Carey wrote an excellent book pulling Dickens to pieces. Sounds like you are ripe to read it.

CIngram said...

I shall look out for John Carey's book. If it saves me the trouble of reading 'The Old Curiosity Shop' it will be worth it.