Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Drood Remains Revisited: "First Fancy"

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Drood Remains Revisited: "First Fancy"

Article excerpt

Let us begin at the beginning, with (despite its familiarity) John Forster's original testimony:

   His first fancy for the tale was expressed in a letter in the middle
   of July. "What would you think of the idea of a story beginning in
   this way?--two people, boy and girl, or very young, going apart from
   one another, pledged to be married after many years--at the end of
   the book. The interest to arise out of the tracing of their separate
   ways, and the impossibility of telling what will be done with that
   impending fate." This was laid aside; but it left a marked trace on
   the story as afterwards designed, in the position of Edwin Drood and
   his betrothed. (11, 2, 807)

However, as George H. Ford pointed out in 1952 (279), the lines Forster quotes are almost identical with those of an entry in a notebook Dickens kept for some years, starting in January of 1855: "The idea of a story beginning in this;--two people--boy and girl, or very young--going apart from another"; with the rest being identical, even as to punctuation, with the contents of the letter as quoted by Forster. (1)

Felix Aylmer, commenting on this in The Drood Case (1964), says uncompromisingly:

   Forster has copied this out verbatim, and presents it as a personal
   letter written to himself. The notion that Dickens might have turned
   up the entry and copied it is clearly as improbable as that it
   should fall from his pen seven years later in identical words. (2)

The language of the first half of that second sentence rather prejudices the matter. There is nothing inherently improbable in a writer consulting an old notebook and deciding to use some idea he finds there as the subject of a new work; and we know that Dickens requisitioned from this notebook some names used in three of his compositions of the late 1860s: "George Silverman's Explanation" (1868), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (begun 1869) and the so-called Sapsea Fragment (to which I will assign no date at the moment). (3)

Still, there remains the curious coincidence of phrasing that troubled Ford and Aylmer, and there is something else too that arouses suspicion. Forster included in the Life a chapter, "Hints for Books Written and Unwritten" (9, 7), in which he reproduces most of the entries he found in the Book of Memoranda, but among those he does not reproduce--"for some reason, perhaps a perverse one," says Ford (279)--is the one supposedly echoed in the letter of July of 1869. But Forster's failure to disclose the passage he quotes as being also a notebook entry is of doubtful evidentiary value. Its appearance in the earlier "Hints" chapter would not only undercut the strong dramatic interest of the letter but would also have another undesirable effect: Dickens's dredging up of a notebook entry made a dozen years before as inspiration for his new book would, as Forster had reason to know, confirm the judgment of "those who have asserted that the hopeless decadence of Dickens as a writer had set in before his death" (11, 2; 810).

As it happens, there is an instance in which Forster presents one of Dickens's ideas as both a notebook jotting and as the contents of a letter, and this provides us with a means of comparing the two cases.

   Open a story by bringing two strongly contrasted places and strongly
   contrasted sets of people into the connexion necessary for the
   story, by means of an electric message--flashing along through
   space--over the earth and under the sea.

This is Kaplan's entry 89. Forster quotes it, with minor inaccuracies (9, 7; 751), as a notion from the Book of Memoranda, and also, in a footnote on the same page, as among the contents of a letter Dickens had written him on 25 August 1862. I think this second version should be given in full too, to demonstrate its evident authenticity:

   I am trying to coerce my thoughts into hammering out the Christmas
   number. … 
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