Au­dio­books Paul Kee­gan

PAUL KEE­GAN The Mystery of Ed­win Drood

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

The plot – as we have it – is sim­ple, and is set in the quiet cathe­dral close of Clois­ter­ham (a town very like Dick­ens’s Rochester). John Jasper – ir­re­proach­able choir­mas­ter, dis­creet opium eater, youth­ful and dot­ing un­cle to Ed­win Drood – is its heart of dark­ness. Rosa, his mu­sic pupil, is of­fi­cially pledged to young Drood (rather too full of him­self), in ac­cord with the wishes of their re­spec­tive par­ents, de­ceased. And she has caught the at­ten­tion of a re­cent ar­rival in Clois­ter­ham: hot, un­ruly and Drood­de­test­ing Neville Land­less, an­other or­phan. Jasper too is se­cretly be­sot­ted by his lovely pupil, who is ter­ri­fied of him. On Christ­mas Eve, when the storm rages and the river is in spate, Drood goes miss­ing... Dick­ens be­gan The Mystery of Ed­win

Drood in Oc­to­ber 1869. On 8th June 1870, af­ter a day of writ­ing, he suf­fered an apoplec­tic seizure, and died the fol­low­ing evening. He had fin­ished six of twelve planned monthly in­stal­ments. He left be­hind a few teas­ing, cryptic notes to him­self for what was al­ready writ­ten, but no clue as to what came next, aside from some prospec­tive re­marks to his fu­ture bi­og­ra­pher, John Forster.

The mystery is wrapped in an enigma, break­ing off be­fore we dis­cover ei­ther corpse or cul­prit – if in­deed ei­ther ex­ists. Drood ev­i­dently van­ishes, and there are ob­vi­ous sus­pects. But in his notes Dick­ens tan­ta­lised him­self with al­ter­na­tive moves: ‘Dead? Or alive?’ (as a pos­si­ble ti­tle), ‘The flight of Ed­win Drood’, ‘Ed­win Drood in hid­ing’, and so on. Much of the story is cast in a strange and self-con­sum­ing present tense, as if to chal­lenge the reader, and it bris­tles with in­ti­ma­tions of its own in­com­ple­tion. Much is made of un­fin­ished phys­iog­nomies, un­fin­ished talk, the cross-pur­poses of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the puz­zle of its in­suf­fi­cien­cies.

The na­tional sus­pense Dick­ens aroused by se­rial pub­li­ca­tion was height­ened in this case by re­sem­blance to the de­tec­tive story mode es­tab­lished by Wilkie Collins in The Moon­stone. In tune with her sub­jects, Queen Vic­to­ria un­for­tu­nately ne­glected to take up Dick­ens’s of­fer to dis­close the plot of

Drood. There have been many at­tempts to fin­ish the job, but they ex­trap­o­late from what is given, while the story hints it will veer off in un­likely di­rec­tions.

The au­dio­book con­ven­tion de­mands that a reader of Dick­ens must do the po­lice in dif­fer­ent voices, don­ning and cast­ing off speech id­ioms like a quickchange vir­tu­oso. This is how Dick­ens him­self per­formed in pub­lic read­ings. For Vir­ginia Woolf, he ‘made his books blaze up, not by tight­en­ing the plot, but by throw­ing an­other hand­ful of peo­ple on the fire’. But Drood is dif­fer­ent.

Drood steers with care, is rel­a­tively un­der­peo­pled and seems more pri­vate than the rest of Dick­ens – with an air of talk­ing to it­self.

Put dif­fer­ently, char­ac­ters are as ful­somely present here as any­where else in the nov­els, but the nar­ra­tive is this novel’s lead­ing voice, tele­graphic and brood­ing. This is dif­fi­cult for the to­tal-im­mer­sion ap­proach, of which David Tim­son is a prodi­gious ex­po­nent. You could not wish for bet­ter in this vein, and he gives sep­a­rate voice to char­ac­ters large and small. But be­cause these are so em­phat­i­cally de­lin­eated, is­sues of in­ter­pre­ta­tion arise. Is Tim­son’s Jasper not a lit­tle too upbeat, too leg­i­ble? We need a Jasper for whom life is a tone­less mut­ter­ing, we need his drawl and his blood­less chill, his re­ces­sive­ness, his opi­ate day­dream which sees what it imag­ines and imag­ines what it sees. At some level Jasper should be script­ing the whole story. And is Tim­son’s Rosa quick or per­verse enough (‘her beauty re­mark­able for a quite child­ish, al­most baby­ish, touch of saucy dis­con­tent, com­i­cally con­scious of it­self’) – it seems vi­tal to es­tab­lish the sex­i­ness of her whimsy and her in­no­cence. And does Tim­son al­low Drood to flirt suf­fi­ciently with his un­cle – the close­ness of un­cle and nephew be­ing part of the novel’s trail­ing un­ease. Whom does Jasper re­ally love, boy or girl?

Paul Scofield ef­fort­lessly caught a lot of this in his 1987 (very abridged) record­ing of Drood. He con­veys the novel’s air of make-be­lieve, which forms like a film of ice over char­ac­ters and story, bind­ing them to­gether. And he con­veys its bagatelle-like qual­ity, its trim and throw­away fleet­ness. Scofield is in­tent on telling a story, not stag­ing a per­for­mance, and he con­spires with the soli­tary lis­tener. In­stead of chang­ing voice or ac­cent, Scofield changes tempo and pitch, merely im­ply­ing speech and mo­tive and, above all, keep­ing mov­ing. The re­sult is won­der­fully un­der­stated and feline. But for the whole that is

Drood (and how­ever un­fin­ished, it is imag­i­na­tively a whole), David Tim­son is nev­er­the­less a com­mit­ted and un­stint­ing reader.

with the rep­e­ti­tions, sorted out the use of Span­ish ac­cents, which are largely miss­ing, and been con­sis­tent about the trans­la­tion of Span­ish terms, some­times given, some­times not. Nor will Cata­lan read­ers be pleased to have their gov­ern­ment, the Gen­er­al­i­tat, al­ways re­ferred to in its Castil­ian form.

Be­yond ex­cur­sions into his­tory, ar­chi­tec­ture and bloody are­nas, the book tends to the anec­do­tal and is full of fas­ci­nat­ing snip­pets. Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words from the Cross’ was com­mis­sioned for an or­a­tory in Cádiz, while Queen Vic­to­ria paid the first ever visit to Spain by a reign­ing Bri­tish monarch in 1889, on a day trip from Biar­ritz to San Se­bastián. She made sure she was back in France for din­ner. There are also vi­gnettes of Spa­niards who came to Bri­tain, like the Catholic zealot Luisa de Car­va­jal in the reign of James I, whose hobby was col­lect­ing relics from mar­tyred English Catholics and ar­rang­ing for them to be smug­gled back to Spain, or the bru­tal Carlist gen­eral Cabr­era, who mar­ried an English Protes­tant and re­tired to em­brace the life of a gen­tle­man in Vir­ginia Wa­ter.

What I missed, though, was any co­her­ent sense of the ap­peal of this dif­fer­ent land. Richard Ford and Ge­orge Bor­row, who wrote so mem­o­rably about their ex­ten­sive trav­els in Spain in the 1830s and 1840s, flit in and out of the pages, but we never learn what drew them there. Their con­tem­po­rary Wil­liam Stir­ling Maxwell, who did so much to bring Span­ish art to the at­ten­tion of the Bri­tish pub­lic, is a no­table ab­sen­tee. Even so, there is much here to in­form and de­light.

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