POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

07 December 2008

Edwin Drood #4 (chaps 13-16) July 1870

Dear Serial Readers,

Is anyone out there in Serial Reading Land? I would love to know that you're reading along serially, either the novel or these entries, or both! For the next selection, how about branching out with a Trollope or Collins novel? Check the MOUSEHOLD WORDS catalogue which includes both Trollope's HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT and Collins's THE EVIL GENIUS. Or Trollope's wonderful THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON (a magazine serial) would be a nice change of pace. If you'd like to vote on one of these, or suggest another Victorian serial, please indicate your choice here or email me. We'll be ready to start the next novel in early January. And one more thing--I'd appreciate it if you'd email the link to SERIAL READERS to at least one other person, and encourage anyone to share this blog with book club readers. There was an article in the New York Times yesterday about book clubs including the online variety (Joanne Kaufman, "Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?") in which the mere suggestion of reading Trollope appears to prompt a violent reaction. I hope whoever wants to read Trollope joins THIS group!

This fourth (of six) installment of DROOD is superb! Rather than the "mystery of Edwin Drood" and his rather predictable disappearance at the hands of Jasper, we're prompted to pay close attention to the peripherals, especially the somersaulting mind and behaviors of Jasper, and the accumulation of clues, even circumstantial evidence that we know adds up to a false accusation against Neville.

Again, I marveled at all the allusions to time--the early reference to the "revolving year" (crucial to the serial form itself) as Miss Twinkleton's young ladies leave for the holiday season; the references to time of day as well as time of year in chapter 14 where Edwin's watch has stopped, the description of Edwin "surrounded by vestiges of old time and decay," the image of time torn asunder--the hands of the Cathedral clock destroyed by the night wind, and finally in chap 16 the discovery of Edwin's watch in the Weir, "run down, before being cast into the water." All these sundry references in the larger context of putting readers (both internal and external) on the watch--for the "mystery" of Edwin's disappearance, for signs of his body, for signs of Jack's guilt. The most melodramatic instance of this last item is Jasper fainting upon hearing that his motive for removing his nephew as an obstacle to his marriage plotting against Rosa no longer holds. And all this time I thought that illustration of the body on the floor *was* the Mystery of Edwin Drood!

Related to this halting of time is chapter fourteen, where Dickens employs that increasingly suspenseful present tense. I loved the staginess of this chapter which begins with sentence fragments without verbs at all, like stage directions to set the scene: "Christmas Eve in Cloisterham. A few strange faces in the streets..." Then the chapter divides into three parts, each following the key actors of the scene, all bound to converge at Jack's house for the fateful encounter, as each of these sections on, respectively, Neville, Edwin, John Jasper concludes with "And so *he* goes up the postern stair." Yet of course that pivotal scene is foreclosed from the narrative. We can only speculate and test our hunches against the narratives Neville and Jasper provide of last seeing Edwin.

The last point I want to mention is the treatment of Neville as suspect. Besides the heap of circumstantial evidence, all given with many large grains of salt, Dickens suggests the prejudice of racism--the mayor's assessment of Neville's guilt ("the case had a dark look") linked to Neville's "Un-English complexion," and then the passage about "the wildest frenzy and fatuity of evil report arose against" Neville. Here these rumors picture Neville as a ruthless imperious force who "had caused to be whipped to death sundry 'Natives.'" I found this passage especially double-edged, since on the one hand it seems to ridicule the ignorance of Cloisterham people about others across the globe, Neville included. On the other hand, Dickens seems to ridicule their ideas of "Natives" as "nomadic persons" who were "vaguely supposed in Cloisterham to be always black, always of great virtue..." Neville's "Un-English complexion" incriminates him in the eyes of these cloistered English people, yet the narrator sets the reader up as more worldly, less prejudiced, since we know--as much as we can for certain--who is responsible for Edwin's disappearance. And here I must mention the female opium eater Edwin encounters just before he goes to his uncle's house. He recognizes in her curious state the signs of opium usage he'd noted in Jack. But there is another mystery: how does this woman know that "Ned" is a "threatened name"? We know she must be the "haggard woman" of the opening of the novel in an opium den in London. But how does she make her way here with this remark about "Ned"? Although she's less a character than a suspense intensifier, I'm still intrigued by the female characters in this novel, and wish Helena had appeared in this installment!

I'm steeled for many unresolved pieces of this story, since I know Dickens had already died in July 1870 when these words were first read in the fourth number.

Serially devoted,