One of the few misjudgments in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life--which is for the most part very good at suitably pointing out what is bad within Dickens while praising what is good and original--is her assessment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The incomplete nature of Drood almost guarantees it a place as one of the most contested of Dickens novels, and while I won't make grand claims for it, I do think it's unquestionably a remarkable return to form from a man who had been nearly five years away from serious fiction. Tomalin acknowledges its "haunting and melancholy descriptions of Rochester, the city of [Dickens's] childhood," but she gives Dickens's comedy short shrift. It's only "moderately funny," she writes; the only thing she has to say about its most creatively absurd character is that he is a "nicely done bad child who throws stones and pronounces cathedral 'KIN-FREE-DER-EL,' which Dickens may have heard and appreciated on the streets of Rochester."
That's selling the boy, Deputy--and the target of his stones--well short. Take this exchange, which I quoted a couple of years ago, fresh off a visti to Rochester. Mr. Durdles, having been discovered in the act of being stoned, explains the who and why of the constant pelting he receives:
"Own brother, sir," observes Durdles, turning himself about again, and as unexpectedly forgetting his offence as he had recalled or conceived it; "own brother to Peter the Wild Boy! But I gave him an object in life."Today as I flipped through a book that Tomalin's bibliography turned up for me--after years of fruitless searching based on a one-time sighting of it in college--Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, I was pleased to discover a contemporary reviewer who agreed with me that Drood, while far from perfect, is nonetheless quite good. An unsigned review for the Spectator of October 1, 1870, argues that it deserves to take its place with Dickens's stronger works:
"At which he takes aim?" Mr. Jasper suggests.
"That's it, sir," returns Durdles, quite satisfied; "at which he takes aim. I took him in hand and gave him an object. What was he before? A destroyer. What work did he do? Nothing but destruction. What did he earn by it? Short terms in Cloisterham jail. Not a person, not a piece of property, not a winder, not a horse, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a bird, nor a fowl, nor a pig, but what he stoned, for want of an enlightened object. I put that enlightened object before him, and now he can turn his honest halfpenny by the three penn'orth a week."
We sincerely believe that the picture of Durdles, the Cathedral stonemason, and of the young imp who stones him home at night, would have been welcomed twenty-five years ago with as much delight as was at that time the picture of Poll Sweedlepipes, barber and bird-fancier, and his distinguished customer, Bailey Junior.Drood, the reviewer (thought to be R. H. Hutton), goes on to say,
shows his peculiar power of grasping the local colour and detail of all characteristic physical life, in the exceedingly powerful sketch of the den of the East Indian opium smoker; it shows a different side of the same faculty in the abundant and marvellous detail as to the precincts and interior of the Cathedral; while all his old humour comes out in the picture of Miss Twinkleton's girls'-school, of Billicken the lodging-house keeper, and in the figures to which we have before referred, the Cathedral stone-mason and his attendant imp.Usually even the best of Dickens's comic characters verge on wearing out their welcome by the end of his doorstoppers; to me, the fact that they don't get that chance is--far more than the unsolved mystery--the strongest reminder of the loss signified by the unfinished Drood.