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This review is from: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Paperback)There are three big questions in this great unfinished novel. Is Jasper a hero or a villain? Is Edwin Drood dead or alive? And who is Datchery?
Jasper is a villain. The one counter-indication comes in Chapter 2, where he looks at his nephew with apparent intense devotion. But that look is only on 'the Jasper face', and he has two. He is a respectable choirmaster in a sleepy cathedral town who regularly sneaks off to a sordid opium den in London. Though an accomplished liar, he says two true things in this chapter - that he takes opium, and that he hates his job. He regularly chants prayers in his white robe, but we may assume that he has long since ceased to be a Christian. Charles Dickens was a revered public figure and family man who was passionately in love with a younger woman whom the public was not allowed to know about - and didn't, until two generations after his death. The secrecy, his appalling workload and constant furtive journeys between his official base and the cottage in Slough where he lived under the name of Mr Tringham probably helped to kill him. The concealment and guilt must have fed into his brilliant portrait of the Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, Jasper.
I'm afraid Edwin is dead. Dickens said as much to four different people; he stressed the importance of the ring in Edwin's pocket, which resists quicklime, and he hints strongly in Chapter 14 that the 'poor youth' will not be seen again. His daughter wrote that 'he was quite as deeply fascinated and absorbed in the study of the criminal Jasper, as in the dark and sinister crime that has given the book its title'. If there is no murder, there is no story.
But many readers would like to think that Edwin survived because they, like Dickens, feel sympathy with young people who have not yet found their way in life. Bear in mind that he now believed that his own early marriage had been a mistake. The 'engaged' Edwin is attracted to Helena, Neville is attracted to the 'engaged' Rosa. These attractions will come to nothing because the young women will marry older and more impressive men. Rosa and Edwin are wise when they agree to end the contract which had been made for them as children.
Datchery's identity isn't obvious, and there have been some ridiculous suggestions. We can be sure that he has been sent to Cloisterham by Grewgious, who has had his suspicions from the first, but it is clear (the beginning of Chapter 18) that he has not been there before. Anyway, it's ridiculous to suppose that a person already known to Jasper could deceive him just by putting on a white wig. Datchery is either Bazzard, or Tartar, or a new character.
There are also three minor questions which are not often discussed. In Chapter 12, Durdles reveals that he heard a terrific shriek and the howl of a dog on the previous Christmas Eve. Jasper is angry and alarmed. Could there have been an earlier murder?
Then there is the title of Chapter 14, 'When shall these three meet again?' That implies that Neville, Jasper and Edwin will indeed meet again, but how can they, if Edwin is dead? Perhaps near the end Jasper and Neville will confront one another, in the crypt, by Edwin's tomb.
And finally, at the end of Chapter 21, why is Rosa left alone? She and Tartar have struck up a promising relationship, and we know that they will get married. But in our last glimpse of her 'days crept on, and nothing happened'. Could Tartar have left her temporarily to live in another town, under another name?
Dickens was not free from the racism of his time, and some of his remarks are offensive. Yet we know from his notes that the Landless twins have a 'mixture of Oriental blood', which makes narrow-minded people hostile to the dark stranger, Neville. Prejudice, arranged marriages, stalking, split minds, drugs, the darkness under the smooth surface of provincial towns. No, this novel is not dated.