"Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles, in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine calligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach."
Its texture, dialect and dialogue make The Mystery of Edwin Drood mesmerizing. Charles Dickens certainly had the ability to conjure up bickering women, like the landlady and the school marm, who battle it out over for the influence of Rose Bud, our novel’s lady-in-waiting. The drunken stonemason Durdles and the ancient opium pusher Princess Puffer, representatives of the lower classes, deliver the most honest and suggestive interpretations of the situations. The local canon Chrisparkle lives up to his name as a truly gentle and integral arbiter of truth.
Plot-wise, Drood was an improvement on many of Dickens' earlier works. The reader has the sense that there must be a twist coming. What that twist was, we will never know, but even its absence has a ghostly presence that drives us to make all kinds of speculations about who the criminal culprit may be. Both the novel and historical comments by friends of Dickens select John Jaspers as the obvious murderer. But that seems too obvious. Like many children’s books, the reader of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is encouraged to “choose your own ending.”
My tentative conclusion, upon this reading of the book, is that Edwin Drood may not be dead at all but only in hiding. If Dickens maintained his usual themes, a reconstituted set of relationships will emerge through the sacrifice of one of the characters, either Chrisparkle or Rosa Bud. I may be wrong but happily cannot be proven so.
Dickens died only hours after working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The following quote read in this historical context is prescient:
"It was a journey, a difficult and dangerous journey. That was the subject in my mind. A hazardous and perilous journey, over the abyss where a slip would be destruction. Look down! Look down! You see what lies at the bottom there?"
Whether Dickens was reminiscing about his former near death experience in a train-wreck five years earlier, or anticipating his death is hard to tell. The slip had been made and the journey from the father of Christmas to the exhausted, prematurely aging man, family in tatters, his adult children retreating from him, and his mistress Ellen Ternan only tolerating him, had been difficult. Sad circumstances but his life was no less mysterious than his concluding novel of which there is no bottom of imagination.