The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Published in incomplete serial form in 1870 chapers 7 & 10
What is prettier than an old lady--except a young lady--when her eyes are bright, when her figure is trim and compact, when her face is cheerful and calm, when her dress is as the dress of a china shepherdess: so dainty in its colours, so individually assorted to herself, so neatly moulded on her? Nothing is prettier, thought the good Minor Canon frequently, when taking his seat at table opposite his long-widowed mother. Her thought at such times may be condensed into the two words that oftenest did duty together in all her conversations: 'My Sept!'…
Mrs. Crisparkle's sister [was] another piece of Dresden china, and matching her so neatly that they would have made a delightful pair of ornaments for the two ends of any capacious old-fashioned chimneypiece, and by right should never have been seen apart…
There was no impatience in the pleasant look with which Mr. Crisparkle contemplated the pretty old piece of china as it knitted; but there was, certainly, a humorous sense of its not being a piece of china to argue with very closely.
observations: Charles Dickens (the bicentary of whose birth fell this year) is the man for Christmas – usually associated with a mind’s eye picture of a happy Victorian family (like Victoria and Albert without the strictness), or the ultimate cheerfulness of A Christmas Carol as Scrooge gets happy.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood has a creepy and unsettling climax (in the existing part) over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, far from the brightness and warmth just mentioned. There is a lovely description of a girls’ school breaking up for Christmas, and various social events – but then, at midnight, two men walk the dark empty streets of Cloisterham in a wind storm, going down to look at the river. The next day, one has left town and the other has disappeared.
Dickens was working on the book when he died in 1870, and had completed only about half of it. It wasn’t an age of detective fiction, so providing a major twist wasn’t really expected: one character seems an obvious villain, and that seems to be that.
Mrs Crisparkle is one of Dickens’s dear old ladies (they vary – his own mother was no angel of light), and he quite annoyingly refers to her as the china shepherdess every time she appears. She and her son the Rev Sept are representing the forces of good, though there is a lot of stress on the fact that her son is only a minor Canon.
Links up with: David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickelby have both appeared on the blog. Dickens is important in the true ending of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, and you can find out how Tom and Jerry preceded the Pickwick Papers here. Special Xmas entries this week and next.
The china shepherdess pictured is from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.