Edwin Drood, and the end of a journey

Dear Charlie,

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Well isn’t this just the saddest picture… :-(

It’s a funny thing about friends. Once you’ve made them, it’s very hard to unmake them.

I had no idea when this little project began, that I would grow so surprisingly fond of you, Charlie, in spite of the fact that you’re dead. Yes, you cheated on your wife, and maybe you weren’t the world’s greatest dad, and you were so racist as to make me want to go all Chuck Norris on you in a dark alley. But you were also intelligent, curious, observant, witty as all heck, and genuinely cared about calling attention to and righting the social evils of your time.

Having befriended you, Charlie, it’s hard to turn around now and say “alright, dead Victorian white dude, your year is up. Back into the ether you go.” You’re not going to be easy to get rid of. Not that I want to.

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Mystery and murder and opium. What a story to leave unfinished!

Maybe it would be easier if you’d actually finished Edwin Drood. As it is, however, there will always be a small portion of my brain spinning out possible endings. I really tried to remain aloof as I read, knowing that it was unfinished and not wanting to get too invested. But noooo, I had to go and get into the damn thing. Why’d you have to make John Jasper such an incredibly interesting character? I want to know what tales he’ll tell under the spell of his opium addiction. I want to know if he killed Edwin or if, like Bradley Headstone, he merely left his victim for dead. Or maybe he didn’t kill his nephew at all, or someone else did, or the whole thing is an elaborate set-up on your part (although, knowing you, I kind of doubt it). And then I start to wonder what parts the opium-selling woman and the slightly mysterious white-haired stranger would have played in the unfolding drama, and who else was waiting in the wings to add their story to the mix. I don’t even know if this was going to be a one- or two-volume story, so I don’t know how much was still to come!

Oh, Charlie, why’d you have to go and die??

aaaaMHclock1My (small) consolation is that whoever put this edition together, whatever their other faults, were clever enough to make sure that this final volume ended, not on the mother of all cliffhangers, but with Master Humphrey’s Clock, which throws us back to the 1840s, almost to the beginning of our time together. It’s definitely helping to soothe these frustrated thoughts. I’ve already been cheered by the most intricately framed tale I’ve ever read – the tragic love story of an Elizabethan apprentice as told in a story about two statues coming to life, as told by a deaf gentleman, whose manuscript Master Humphrey dug out of his old clock. Good lord, man!

But it’s nice to imagine walking into a cozy old room with a gently ticking clock, and sitting down next to old Master Humphrey to listen to a few good, old fashioned stories. I imagine that this is how you envisioned spending your old age, before all the popularity, public readings, train wrecks and infidelity made your hectic life what it became. I’m glad you got to experience it in fiction, even if you never had the chance to enjoy it in reality. Oh man, I’m getting all misty now.

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Yes, let’s just stay here, telling stories and drinking pineapple rum.

OK, on to lighter topics.

I must confess that I don’t have a plan. Stopping this blog dead seems a little harsh, especially since you now seem to pop up with great regularity on the interwebz and in reality, and I might like to write to you about things like your biographies, related books, or more ugly Pickwick pottery. And I want to post the infographic I’ve been working on as soon as it’s finished. So let’s not do anything rash and just see how this develops, shall we?

This is definitely NOT goodbye, my friend.

Affectionately,

Melissa

Unconventional travels

Dear Charlie,

It’s kind of fitting, I think, that I finish The Uncommercial Traveler while traveling. I’m ensconced in a lovely cottage on BC’s Sunshine Coast (which, at the moment, isn’t living up to its sunny name). I’ve accepted the fact that this year-long project will take slightly more than a year – if you can swan off and die leaving Edwin Drood unfinished, then I can take a few extra days to finish reading it.

The Morgue at Paris. The Last Scene of a Tragedy.

And here I thought Dickens was just a big morbid weirdo…

But speaking of death, and getting back to your uncommercial travels, one of the most striking images in the entire collection has to be your experience in the Paris morgue. You’ve written about visits to the morgue before, and at first I thought maybe you were a little bit odd for feeding such a grim fascination. But judging from the party-like atmosphere accompanying some poor old dude who got his head bashed in with a falling stone, it seems more like any other family entertainment. What struck me the most was your description of the drowning victims in said morgue, ignored by everyone but two girls, one of whom was pointing out the bodies to her frickin’ doll.  “Honey, where shall we take the kids today? The park? The zoo?” “Oh, no, dearest, I hear there are two fresh drowning victims in the morgue. Do let’s go and see those.” “Why, of course, sweet one, why didn’t you say so!” So I apologize for thinking you were uniquely odd. Maybe morgue outings were the Victorian equivalent of watching CSI…

What I really like about the majority of your uncommercial travels is how often you simply explore your own city, taking your readers into odd nooks and crannies, and revealing to them the many lives and conditions of its inhabitants, which seem through your eyes to be positively exotic. I loved that little sabbatical you took during London’s off season, where the lives of servants and the other people who tend to get lost in the fashionable bustle come to life when the streets are quiet and they are revealed <gasp> to have lives of their own!

And I don’t know how much was because of your celebrity, and how much because of your genuine sympathy and curiosity, but people seem more than willing to welcome you into their worlds and show you around their factories, canteens, workhouses, hospitals or hovels. I don’t know about your contemporary readers, my friend, but I found it absolutely fascinating to see these portraits of the people and things that were so often marginalized. Your novels give us wonderfully individual experiences and drama, but these non-fiction explorations very much help to put those characters into a larger context.

And now, my friend, my morning coffee is ready, and I must get ready to listen to some authors and try to reconcile my overly optimistic wardrobe with an uncharacteristically rainy day. I’m not exactly sure when I’ll be reading Edwin Drood. :-/

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

P.S. Wifi is sketchy out here. Sorry there aren’t more photos or links. :-(

A rushed curtain call, for both of us

Dear Charlie,

We’re getting down to the wire, my friend. Our Mutual Friend has moved to the “finished” pile and I’m halfway through The Uncommercial Traveller, leaving a volume of Edwin Drood and some miscellaneous “Household Words” to finish by the 17th (or the end of August, or somewhere in between).

I don’t know if it’s because I’m trying to read more quickly, but the end of Our Mutual Friend felt a bit hurried and in some ways a little too gift-wrapped. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That’s what fiction means.” But that isn’t always such a good thing. Not that I think you should have changed anything regarding your principal heroes and villains – Harmon and Bella deserved a happily ever after, and Riderhood and Headstone deserved everything nasty that came to them.

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Grrr! I’m a big, stingy meanie and I hate you!
Just kidding! LOL. :-/

It’s the supporting cast I’m a little disappointed with. The Lammles sort of fade away quietly, and there’s not that same parade of characters across the stage to take their final bows that characterize some of your earlier works. Part of me was overjoyed that Mr. Boffin was only pretending to be a grouchy miser to teach Bella a lesson, but I gotta admit, it seemed a bit forced. A bigger part of me wanted him to NOT be faking, but to have some Scrooge-like epiphany (minus the ghosts) that his behavior wasn’t at all cool and to try to make amends, especially to his long-suffering wife.

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Lightwood and Harmon finally meet!

And about Harmon. I loved the dramatic meeting between him and Lightwood, I raced through the resulting tension as the authorities try to determine if Harmon might have actually murdered himself. That’s great stuff, Charlie, but it was wrapped up so quickly I felt a bit cheated. That’s the central drama for god’s sake! That’s why we’ve known about Harmon’s disguise for hundreds of pages! At least put him in a little bit of jeopardy – imprison him for awhile or something! Maybe bring in the interesting but vastly underused Pleasant, who’s actually seen him in disguise!

I admit, though, that you do have a really good excuse for being less than caught up in the end of your novel. I should be pleased that it turned out as well as it did, considering you were physically and mentally recovering from a train wreck, as well as navigating tricky personal waters with a wife and a mistress – a public figure like yourself would have found that difficult, I imagine.

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I love this illustration of Jenny Wren. It captures her intelligence perfectly. From Jessie Willcox Smith’s “The Children of Dickens” (1925)

And generally speaking, those are small complaints against an otherwise pretty satisfying ending. I loved Harmon’s violent reaction to Wegg, and I’m glad Mr. Venus got his girl. I’m really glad that you didn’t conveniently kill off Eugene and left him to rebuild a (hopefully) better life with Lizzie. I like that hint of Romance between Sloppy and the awesome Jenny Wren. And really, who cares what happened to Charlie – the guy was a total ass. I hope he fell into a lock as well. Miss Peecham and her maid are better off without the objects of their desire.

Finally, I like that you rounded off the novel as you began it, narrowing focus of the final pages on the eccentric Mr. Twemlow, who surprised me (and everyone else) by sticking up for Eugene’s marriage and putting the stuffy Podsnaps in their place.

Now on to the next. It’s fitting that I’m reading The Uncommercial Traveller, since I’ll be taking myself off to Sechelt, BC for the Sunshine Coast Writer’s Festival coming up. Hopefully I’ll have some time for at least a short letter, or maybe a postcard. I’m already convinced that curious, exploring, travelling Dickens is the cutest, most engaging aspect of your personality. The unfaithful, defensive dude who was kind of weird with his kids…not so much. But whatever your current mood, I still remain,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

Channeling Homer?

Dear Charlie,

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Finally going to be able to put your work into better context!

I’m quite excited, Charlie, because yesterday I found Peter Acroyd’s e-frickin’-normous biography of you at a used book store. At over 1,000 pages, it rivals even your longest works for epic-ness. Before this year, I would have avoided such books out of sheer intimidation at their size, but now that I know I can not only survive but enjoy such hefty tomes I bought it with a light heart. You’ll forgive me though, Charlie, if I wait a few months before cracking it open to discover all the nooks and crannies of your life.

But while we’re on the subject of epic tomes, I wanted to mention a few interesting things I noticed while reading Our Mutual Friend. I’m about ¾ of the way through it and, while the plot is slowly coalescing, it’s taking its sweet time about it. Now, I know you had a lot going on while you were writing this – an affair with a younger woman and the breakdown of your marriage, not to mention a traumatizing train accident, would throw off anyone’s focus. Add in the inherent pressures of serialization and it’s little wonder that I find myself wondering where everything is going.

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The manuscript of Our Mutual Friend was saved from the wreckage, along with your mistress of course.

After a promising introduction, Georgiana Podsnap has been rescued but has subsequently vanished into the ether, and the delightfully mercenary Lammles never seem to get any traction in their plots to relieve other people of their money. Their plans for the Boffins seemed pretty solid, but you wouldn’t give them an inch (but what a fantastically uncomfortable breakfast the four of them endured!). And speaking of the Boffins, after setting up a fairly solid partnership, Venus has suddenly admitted his part in a blackmail plot against the increasingly unstable Mr. Boffin, which seems a little arbitrary at the moment.

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At least one happy ending!

There are an awful lot of pieces in play, and I’m worried that some of them are in danger of falling off the board entirely. But you are the master of the many-character storyline, and I trust that you’ll tie up as many of the loose ends as you can, my friend, but for the last few chapters it kind of seems like you’re just writing for writing’s sake. At least Bella grew up a little and she and John have been united; that’s something.

With so many characters, even I, who am reading at breakneck speed, have a tendency to forget who all the players are. It must’ve been even more challenging for your original reader who had to wait months for the next installment. But I did notice something neat in this book that helped me, and I’m not sure if it was deliberate on your part.

Back in University I took a course on ancient Greece, and had to read The Illiad. I don’t remember a great deal, but I do remember that every character was given a descriptive epithet or two, to help the narrator narrate and the listener to remember. Whenever the main actors in the drama are named, they are also described, such as, “Achilles, cheeseburger-eater,” or “Odysseus, that hairy-chested dude,” or “Helen, the total babe,” (I may be paraphrasing slightly).

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Brave Achilles, Pac-Man Player

Interestingly, you do the same thing, Charlie. So in this epic of yours we have Twemlow, “rooms-above-the-stable dweller,” the Veneerings, “the people of the camels,” and Mrs. Podsnap, “she of the horse-like features.” Every character’s introduction is accompanied by some snippet of information that helps the reader remember who they are and where they stand. With such a multitude of characters, I’ve found it hugely helpful, and I’m sure your initial reading public would have found it even more so. I’m really curious to know if this was a deliberate move on your part, whether it was a nod to ancient epics, and whether you’ve done it before, since this is the first time I’ve really noticed it.

And now, as I venture into the last quarter of Our Mutual Friend, I wonder if I should now refer to you as “Busy Charlie, overworked survivor of train wreck?”

I think I’ll just stick with “my friend.”

Affectionately,

Melissa

A creepy interlude

Dear Charlie,

I know I owe you a proper letter about Our Mutual Friend, and I’ve made good progress into volume two (and I’ve finally figured out who I’m supposed to be rooting for), but this evening I have a bone to pick with you.

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This is the stuff of nightmares, my friend. And it’s your fault.

It’s about clowns.

Now, I’m not alone in finding clowns more creepy and deeply suspicious than they are fun and entertaining. I would cheerfully watch any number of horror movies rather than be in the same room with one. But it wasn’t until I read this article on Smithsonian.com today that I found out that you, my dear, played a part in the creepification of the clown. This saddens me deeply.

Just when you think you know a guy…

Granted, I’m pretty sure you didn’t set out to unsettle unsuspecting circus-goers when you set out to write about the most famous clown of your day, Joseph Grimaldi, but it just goes to show you how the most benign things can take on a life of their own. A damned disturbing life, as it happens.

Which reminds me of something I saw for sale on Etsy a few months ago.

I love The Pickwick Papers even more than I dislike clowns. So you can imagine my distress when a search for “Charles Dickens” on that venerable online store brought me face to face with quite possibly the ugliest piece of pottery that ever claimed kinship with your popular book. Just look what Beswick did with the wonderful Sam Weller:

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Look into his dead, dead eyes and then tell me you’ll sleep absolutely soundly tonight…

The scariest part of all? The damned thing was produced from 1935 to 1973! Do you know how many of those things must be lurking about in china cabinets around the world?? It gives me the willies just thinking about it. Please, someone, buy the damn thing already and stop it looking at me.

But it goes to show the remarkable popularity of the character, that just sticking his name on something so disquieting would make it sell for frickin’ decades. I can’t think of a comparable twentieth century literary character (who hasn’t had a movie tie-in) who has such a wide appeal or such a presence in popular culture. But seeing how frightening this is, maybe that’s not such a bad thing…

All of this makes reading about bodies being pulled out of the Thames positively cheerful in comparison, Charlie. So I’ll bid you a good night and return to the stories of Lizzie and Bella and Rokesmith and Riderhood and Boffin.

But I just might leave a light on tonight…

Affectionately, except for the whole clown business,

Melissa