A Life Defined by Writing
by Michael Slater
Yale, 720 pp., $35
To begin with a mild apology: This reviewer’s first serious encounter with Charles Dickens (apart from A Christmas Carol, which English-speaking children once heard from their cradles) was with David Copperfield, under the genial tutelage of Professor Harry Kitsun Russell in Chapel Hill, circa 1954. Since we are approaching the writer’s 200th birthday in 2012, this bicentennial reprise demands some refinement of memory, and since my last Dickens binge passed decades ago and, moreover, I feel no present urge to reread Copperfield (Dickens’s own favorite at 974 pages, his only plausibly autobiographical novel) or Bleak House (at 933 pages, one of his midcareer masterpieces), a remedy suggested itself: a first reading of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the detective story he had only half finished when he was mortally stricken one June day in 1870, aged 58.
The “mystery” of the story is that having broken his childhood engagement to the fetching Rosa Bud (Dickens’s penchant for odd names is sometimes cringe-making) young Drood abruptly disappears, and foul play is suspected of two other male characters, themselves smitten by Rosa, jealous of Drood, and unaware that the engagement has been broken—with what warrant Dickens doubtless intended to reveal in the last serial numbers of his tale. Many guesses have been made at the outcome, including a farcical “trial” of the chief suspect in London in January 1914. It starred such participants as George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton (as presiding judge), and Arthur Waugh, father of Evelyn, and it ended with the suspect found guilty. Dickens’s novels invariably contain a vein of mystery but Drood was to be his first contribution to the detective-story genre, inspired in part by the whodunits of his younger friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins.
Dickens died shockingly young by our standards, and to read Drood today is to find his fabulous powers undimmed. No point exploring the entrancing but incomplete Drood in detail, except as it illustrates the undiminished power of the novelist’s characterizations—for instance, in the person of Hiram Grewgious, London barrister and trustee of Rosa Bud:
He was an arid, sandy man, who, if he had been put into a grinding mill, looked as if he would have ground immediately into high-dried snuff. He had a scanty flat crop of hair . . . so unlike hair that it must have been a wig but for the stupendous improbability of anybody’s voluntarily sporting such a head.
Here, we are reminded of such improbable but unforgettable figures as Mr. Krook, of Bleak House, who, overfilled with gin, expires of “spontaneous combustion.”
No matter how many inventive twists the art of fiction has undergone since Dickens left Drood unfinished, he remains in the forefront of our literary consciousness, as firmly fixed there as Chaucer and Shakespeare, his mentors in the creation of the unforgettable. Like the foregoing Mr. Grewgious, his characterizations transcend odd names to insinuate themselves as permanently in the readerly imagination as Falstaff or Macbeth or the Wife of Bath. Who can forget Uriah Heep, or Mr. Micawber, or Scrooge, et al., nearly ad infinitum, or the tags they trail along: Heep’s cringing humility, or Micawber’s improvident but incurable optimism, or Scrooge’s gruff stinginess?
But in Dickens’s history there is an enduring touch of the cultic, too. At a recent New York auction, the novelist’s ivory and gold toothpick, engraved with his initials, was purchased for almost $10,000. And at almost the same time it was reported that the young Vincent van Gogh, sent at 20 to London, fell in love with the city as imperishably mediated by the pen of—Charles Dickens. And Holden Caulfield, of Catcher in the Rye, could be sure that readers of his punkish pseudo-autobiography would get the point when he promised to omit “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”