Tag Archives: Dickens

Floating Academy: Drood, Ghost-Dickens, and the Fourth Dimension

* The following is a guest post by Beth Seltzer, who holds a PhD from Temple University and is an Educational Technology Specialist at Bryn Mawr College. She can be found at bethseltzer.info or on Twitter at @beth_seltzer.*

Want to know what happened at the end of The Mystery of Edwin Drood? Why not ask the author?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) was only about half completed at Dickens’s death, its many mysteries still unresolved. What’s happened to the missing Edwin Drood? Has he been murdered by his uncle John Jasper (an opium addict obsessed with crypts and with Edwin’s fiancée)? And who is Datchery—the shadowy detective figure who might be another character in disguise? Victorian and modern reading audiences have speculated on the answers through hundreds of theories and completions, often seeking authority through careful close-reading or reports from the author’s friends and family.

Others seek a loftier authority—the author himself, post-mortem. Ghost-Dickens presents a surprisingly coherent voice over different texts, testifying to the resilience of the Dickens persona. Ghost-Dickens is reassuring and occasionally playful, remains concerned about the reception of his works, writes prolifically, and actively keeps up with contemporary fiction.

Take, for example, the so-called 1873 “Spirit-Pen” edition of his novel, supposedly completed after Dickens’s death through a medium. Rather brazenly, this edition reprints the original novel alongside the new material without a break, and opens with two prefaces—one from the medium, and one from the “author.”

Ghost-Dickens has an author’s natural concern over the reception of his first posthumous work, stating: “Since the fact of this work being in preparation was first made public, I have been pained to observe the ridicule which was apparent in some published articles” (James xii). But he also finds the time to reassure his readers about the afterlife. He even offers encouragement to those who are concerned that their loved ones might be in hell, stating that spiritual communication will soon offer reassurance on this point:

…Thousands who are in this happier world…will be glad to know that the dear ones they have left behind regard their absence as a blessing certain, and so abandon the harrowing thought that it is possible a dear mother, father, sister, brother, wife, child or friend may be engulfed in a flaming sea which is to burn them for ever and ever…(James xi)

The medium’s preface gives us further insight into the work of Ghost-Dickens. The medium, Thomas Power James, first clears up some minor points about the construction of the novel (explicitly denying that Satan was involved the construction of the work, for example), and then looks forward to his continued collaboration with Ghost-Dickens’s future projects, concluding:

I am happy to announce that the first chapter of the next work,—“The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap,”—is finished; and, opening with all the peculiar characteristics of its author, bids fair to equal anything from his pen while on earth. (x)

Bockley Wickleheap, alas, never materialized, and it remains a bit unclear whether the text was intended as a joke or a con (certainly, there were readers who took it seriously).

Decades later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle asked Ghost-Dickens about the Spirit-Pen edition at a séance, as reported in the October 1927 issue of Light. Ghost-Dickens is again helpful and eager to cooperate, though he here denies that he wrote the Spirit-Pen version. He is, however, understandably reluctant to cast doubt on spirit writing in general, and leaves open the possibility that another spirit might have written it:

Q. “Was that medium who finished ‘Edwin Drood’ inspired?”

A. “He was not by me.”

Sir Arthur now asked, “Is Edwin Drood dead?”

Now comes the crucial reply. “I prefer to write it all out through you. No; he is alive, and Cris [clearly Crisparkle] is hiding him” (Reuter 476, parenthetical in original)

Having offered this confirmation, Ghost-Dickens adds that he is sorry not to have rescued Edwin Drood, and notes, “I always hoped you would put Sherlock on his track” (Reuter 476). Thus “Dickens,” who died long before the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes novel, suggests that he has been following Doyle’s career from the afterlife and keeping up-to-date on his earthly reading. (For Doyle’s own report of the séance, see Doyle’s Edge of the Unknown.)

Ghost-Dickens cannot avoid a final joke, any more than Dickens could. Doyle brings up the controversial question of Datchery’s identity: was he Drood himself, the beautiful Helena Landless in drag, or the drab clerk Bazzard?

Rather than giving a name for the true identity of Datchery, Ghost-Dickens returns the elusive answer: “What about the fourth dimension?” (Reuter 476).

Perhaps Ghost-Dickens is a product of sheer frustration with the unfinished ending (only Dickens, of course, really could conclusively answer the text’s questions). Or perhaps he is exhumed accidentally, his missing presence becoming entangled with that of Edwin Drood, the real character readers seek to recover.

Even in more modern Drood writing, we find attempts to “channel” the late author when discussing his final novel. Two 2009 novels—Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens and Dan Simmons’s Drood—both weave explorations of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with fictionalized versions of Dickens’s biography, suggesting that even if he is not summoned through a medium, we still imagine Dickens as having a say in his final text.

And really, isn’t that what Dickens would have wanted?

Works Cited

James, Thomas Power, and Charles Dickens. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Complete. Part Second of the Mystery of Edwin Drood. By the Spirit-Pen of Charles Dickens, Through a Medium. Brattleboro, VT: T. P. James, 1873. Web. HathiTrust. 4 May 2016.

Reuter, Florizel. “The Edwin Drood Case. New Light on the Mystery.” Light October 1, 1927: 476-7. Print.

Floating Academy: Close Reading Christmas Comedy

By Constance Crompton

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech.
Image courtesy of Philip V.
Allingham and the Victorian Web

One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).

I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge, make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well.

I hadn’t expected that the class wouldn’t find the novel funny. Which they didn’t. Not a whit (or wit, if you will pardon me the pun). This afforded me the perfect opportunity to continue our discussion about close reading and distant reading. Distant reading is the practice of algorithmically discerning patterns in a single text or in a corpus. The class had done some distant reading using the Voyant tool set for visualizations, but in the context of an undergraduate classroom it turns out that humour requires real close reading.

It is easy to skip over what Scrooge leaves unsaid in his dismissal of his nephew:

“‘Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.’
Scrooge said that he would see him—-yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first” (10).

Furthermore, the contemporary meaning of intercourse can obscure just why we should be tickled by the novella’s concluding lines:

“[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards” (166).

Even though I was glad to have the opportunity to talk about close reading, I was puzzled by the students—as a rule engaged and conscientious readers—missing the jokes. What’s not to love in

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail” (1)?

I think I have found a culprit, or rather culprits. None of the other adaptations that the students had been watching and hearing were humorous. The adaptations from the second half of the 20th century, which we weren’t addressing in class, with Alastair Sim’s bulging eyeballs and Miss Piggy’s karate chops are pleasingly zany (say what you like about the Muppet Christmas Carol’s conflation of the narrator with Charles Dickens, Gonzo-as-Dickens’ delivery of the all-caps closing vociferation that “Tiny Tim did NOT die” is delightful). The Edison film, however, doesn’t make one smile, and Lionel Barrymore with his flat east coast accent breaking through his attempt to sound British (backed, best of all, by earnest American carolers), is suitably heartwarming but is far too staid to be funny. While the Price version is campy it cuts out Scrooge’s Spirit-related abstemiousness. I can tell that distant reading won’t help me here: why do Dickens’ jokes end up on the cutting room floor in the adaptations of the first half of the 20th century?

Originally published on the Floating Academy blog November 10, 2014