Audiobooks Paul Keegan
PAUL KEEGAN The Mystery of Edwin Drood
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.