|Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, “the Phantom named Drood”
Time and place: London and its surroundings, 1865 – 1870
First sentence: “My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name.”
Verdict: Four stars out of five.
“This true story will be about Charles Dickenss final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—-if man he was—-named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called my Babylon or the Great Oven.”
Thus begins Wilkie Collins’ manuscript. These are his memoirs of the strange things happening to him (and his friend Charles Dickens) after an unfortunate event caused an encounter between Oliver Twist’s author and a mysterious character calling himself (or itself) Drood.
I am not usually fond of the idea of having real people act out an author’s fantasies, especially when the book has paranormal elements mixed in. And yet in this case I have very much enjoyed having two of my favorite authors have “their” adventures brought to life. I loved the way the events in the book mingle with the real ones — the Staplehurst accident for example has actually happened (although at first I was tempted to dismiss it in an “yeah, right, of course Dickens’ carriage was the only one to survive, could this be any more obviously fabricated?” kind of way); Dickens’ infatuation with Ellen Ternan was real, as was Inspector Field; if we take into consideration the fact that Dickens’ last (& unfinished) novel was called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the book starts to get a sort of an aura of authenticity that makes it very enjoyable to me.
(when I say “authenticity” I do not mean, of course, that the things in the book have/may have actually happened, but that there is no real-life element interfering with my suspension of disbelief when reading the novel; it is one of the things I love most when reading historical fiction novels :) ).
The characters themselves are part of the illusion, as they behave very much in the way I would have expected them to.
Well, to be fair, I do not know enough of Mr. Collins’ life & personality, but the Wilkie in the book (other than carrying out his personal life just like real life Wilkie, up to and including his “Other Wilkie” doppelganger) acts and thinks in just the way I would have expected from him on seeing his picture:
Not that I usually judge people by the way they look like, nor do I consider myself a great judge of character; however in this particular case the image and the feelings on the inside felt like they matched. Wilkie of the book seems born to be a sidekick (and he himself realizes that) : quite intelligent, and a capable author in his own right, he nevertheless lacks the easy-going confidence that make Dickens one of the most, if not the most appreciated author of the time. By his own admission, Wilkie does not care a fig about what society makes of him/his living arrangements; and this unwillingness to make some amends to make people like him is very likely one of the reasons for the status quo. In his own words, he’s “small, cherubic, usually pleasant, rarely-taken-seriously“; everything about him seems less impressive than the corresponding traits of his friend’s. In simpler terms, Dickens was born to lead and make people obey his entreats; Wilkie Collins was born to agree to do other, stronger people’s bidding.
It is a pity Dickens (the real one) didn’t dedicate himself to becoming an actor (no, scratch that, I think we — the posterity — are better off having his books rather than not). Thing is, I was always impressed (and am even more so after having read this book) by how much of a performer Dickens was, and how much he enjoyed the spotlight and giving performances. If Wilkie is the type that never stands out — despite his literary successes and his very real talent –, Dickens is pretty much the opposite. People are drawn to him, people admire him, people end up worshiping him; he is a celebrity of his time, and I always was impressed by his managing to achieve that. One hundred years before Michael Jackson, people were fainting at his shows. The Dickens in the book goes on to flesh out these impressions I had. Dickens-the-character is a perfectionist, every performance rehearsed, every book passage rewritten and improved as needed. Even more impressive was his elephantine memory, knowing every one of his novel by heart, being able to recite them at will, while at the same time editing and improving the prose.
Dickens, during one of his readings:
Outside the stage, Dickens was still, in many ways, a child. He loved to laugh, sometimes in the most unfortunate circumstances; he lived to impress people; sometimes he even played pranks. He was not perfect (his pride was perhaps his greatest sin), but his personality shines through the pages in the book. I consider a sign of the author’s skill the fact that, although the narrator (Wilkie) and Dickens grow apart, driven away by their shared Drood experiences and in no small measure by Wilkie’s own jealousy, although by the final chapters the narrator’s feelings for Dickens become less than amiable ones, Dickens-the-character (“a complex, sensitive, and paradoxical man“) is nonetheless a very likable one. Or at least I liked him a lot. So much so that the last part of the book, as the dates approached the day he was going to die in (five years after the Staplehurst accident, to the day), made me grow sadder and sadder, feeling the loss.
As the book opens, Wilkie and Dickens are close friends. However, their Drood-related adventures start taking a toll on their easy relationship ever since the night Wilkie found himself, against his better judgment, traversing the city sewers alongside Dickens, hunting Drood. It is the first time that Wilkie feels mistreated by his friend and mentor, and it is by no means the last. Quite the contrary actually; the frustrations pile up and Wilkie’s feelings for Dickens slowly turn into downright hate. I have a theory actually regarding that: perhaps the reason things turn out so is that Dickens and Drood were superimposed into one and the same deep down in Wilkie’s mind (after all, Drood has entered his life via Dickens — people often mistake a cause and an effect); thus his inability to find and destroy the one that ruined his life reflects itself onto the other, affecting W & D’s relationship in the way described. Although of course, pure professional jealousy also has a part in it (as old Wilkie finally manages to acknowledge, his first and foremost problem with Dickens was that in the end, “despite all of his weaknesses and failings (both as a writer and as a man), Charles Dickens was the literary genius and I was not“).
The London we come to associate with the world of Drood is a side of London I have not noticed being mentioned before: a stinky city with a sewer system that sent all human waste into the Thames. Even the citys cemeteries are overflowing, and it does not improve the atmosphere one bit. And then there is the Undertown, the ‘town’ below London, where people live like rats, or worse. I dont think I can properly imagine the sights there — and yet a human being can get used to anything, as proven by Wilkie himself, whose quest for opium attracts to the area again and again and again.
A very picturesque description:
Twenty thousand tons of horse manure per day were gathered from the reeking streets and dumped in what we politely and euphemistically called “dust heaps”—-huge piles of feces that rose near the mouth of the Thames like an English Himalaya.
The overcrowded cemeteries around London also stank to high heaven. Grave diggers had to leap up and down on new corpses, often sinking to their hips in rotting flesh, just to force the reluctant new residents down into their shallow graves, these new corpses joining the solid humus of festering and overcrowded layers of rotting bodies below. In July, one knew immediately when one was within six city blocks of a cemetery—-the reeking miasma drove people out of surrounding homes and tenements—and there was always a cemetery nearby. The dead were always beneath our feet and in our nostrils.
For me, the book was character driven, as I loved discovering bits and pieces of the two authors lives. Which is why I did not pay that much attention to the plot itself. What I did find interesting about it was how fluid it was, everchanging. There wasn’t one big arc (or at least it was not an obvious one), but many smaller ones, developing from one another like so many plan Bs.
Example: Dickens sees Drood and takes Wilkie on a hunt for him; the two of them do not discover his lair *but* Dickens does, behind the scenes; enter Inspector Fields and his own quest to discover Drood, getting Wilkie entangled in the story almost without his will; however Wilkie’s spying on Dickens offers no useful results, so the detective rennounces their collaboration *but* about that time Wilkie meets Drood himself, and is irrevocably changed by the encounter; and so on.
What I liked
One of the things I enjoyed the most consists of Wilkie’s ruminations about his future books, and the way he ‘put aside’ in his head all sorts of events and characters, for future use. My favorite such thoughts were the ones regarding The Moonstone (initially The Eye of the Serpent or maybe The Serpents Eye), and the various iterations it went through until reaching the shape it was published in. Alas, Wilkie’s feelings/themes/ideas were probably quite interesting in regards to the other novel he writes in the course of the book too (Man and Wife), but I have not read that one so I couldn’t enjoy comparing the drafts with the finished form, like I did with The Moonstone.
Speaking of which, my reading list has lengthened with no less than three books after reading this one: I added Our Mutual Friend (written at the height of the writer’s infatuation with Ellen Ternan and showing a passionate side of Dickens I never saw of thought of before), Armadale (Wilkie’s pride and joy prior to writing The Moonstone), and Man and Wife (if only to discover what was the way our female hero, a representation of Wilkie himself, was forced by law to marry someone she did not want).
What I did not like
Two things, both more or less spoilers (and both more or less nitpicks) :
Thoughts on the title
Everything that happens in the book can be traced to Drood, one way or another. Which makes the title nothing less than perfect :)
Thoughts on the ending
Ah, the ending. The ending is… sad. The kind of ending that makes me like the book a little less (remember Atonement?), despite the fact that it makes the book better, not worse.
Recommend it to?
People who like dark, Gothic novels :)
Also, people who enjoy Wilkie Collins’ plots, as the book did remind me about him and his novels now and then, for more reasons than the obvious fact that ‘he’ was the narrator.
Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | An article about Dickens’ public readings | a site about Wilkie Collins (with details about Dickens and some of the events in the book) | read Dickens’ works online