Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Drood Remains Revisited-The Sapsea Fragment

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Drood Remains Revisited-The Sapsea Fragment

Article excerpt

What I have had to say on this subject over the years has been so consistently misrepresented that I have come to recognize that my exposition must have been at fault. However, what I would like to do now is not so much to clarify what I wrote in the past as to take the opportunity to re-think the subject entirely.

The first news of the existence of the Sapsea Fragment, as it is called--most modern editions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood include it as an appendix under that title--came near the end of the third and last volume of John Forster's Life of Charles Dickens (1874). After some discussion of the unfinished novel, Forster adds:

   This reference to the last effort of Dickens's genius had been
   written as it thus stands, when a discovery of some interest was
   made by the writer. Within the leaves of one of Dickens's other
   manuscripts were found some detached sheets of his writing, on
   paper only half the size of that used for the tale, so cramped,
   interlined and blotted as to be nearly illegible, which on close
   inspection proved to be a scene in which Sapsea the auctioneer is
   introduced as the principal figure, among a group of characters new
   to the story. (Forster bk. 9, ch. 2; Ley 810)

Forster has, even here at the inception, struck a false note. We might well expect the writing of the Fragment to be somewhat cramped since it is on sheets of paper much smaller than those used for the novel, but the handwriting is of the same size as on the larger sheets, the lines are the same distance apart and, being shorter, they are easier to read. True, the pages are heavily blotted, but so are most of those of the novel (1), and there is less revision--that is to say, less interlineation. Reading them, the impression one has, despite the blottings, is of light and effortless composition, even, unmistakably, of improvisation. It is curious that an editor of Forster's experience and ability, and one with his intimate acquaintance with Dickens's handwriting, should have described as "nearly illegible" a manuscript that is no more difficult to read than that of the work of which it is a satellite, or, for that matter, any of the later novels. It looks very much as if he were trying to invest his discovery with an even greater mystery than it already has.

I find that I am skeptical too of his statement that the Fragment was discovered "within the leaves of one of Dickens's other manuscripts." My guess is that it was found either with the manuscript of Drood itself, or with the notes for the book (which would mean that the assertion is technically correct). The only statement Forster makes about the discovery that can be accepted without any hesitation or qualification is that it was written "on paper only half the size of that used for the tale." Dickens wrote his major works on sheets of blue stationery roughly 7. 25 by 9 inches in size. The Sapsea Fragment is written on such sheets torn in half; that is, on sheets that are approximately 7. 25 by 4. 5 inches--the size of the pages on which he habitually wrote his notes and incidental writings.

Forster published this broken bit of manuscript in the Life under the title "How Mr. Sapsea Ceased to be a Member of the Eight Club. Told by Himself," without bothering to inform the reader that this was not the author's title and that we do not have the actual beginning of the "chapter," as he called it. For the Sapsea Fragment is actually a fragment of a fragment: it consists of five sheets numbered at the top center in Dickens's hand as pages 6 through 10 and in the upper right-hand corners, in pencil and almost certainly by Forster, as pages 2 to 6; the missing page 1 probably bearing, for the benefit of the printer, the title Forster gave the piece. It has been supposed that Dickens himself discarded the first five pages (Forsyte 20, 23), but that is unlikely: if he had done so, he would have re-numbered the remaining five, rather than allowing them to stand as pages 6 through 10. …

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