“This Unclean Spirit of Imitation”: Dickens and the “Problem” of Collins's Inﬂuence
A mystery novel, Edwin Drood is also a novel of imitations and parodies, one in which a host of characters model themselves on—and sometimes mock—their betters. Self-important and socially ambitious, Cloisterham's mayor strives to become the “Fetch” of the Dean, “studying his original in minute points of detail” (148). He “`dresses at' the Dean, ” and “has been bowed to for the Dean, in mistake” (62), while Miss Brobity, the woman who admires and marries the mayor, adopts his rhetorical style in the “dictation-exercizes” she gives to her pupils (64). Conversely, the irreverent schoolgirls at Miss Twinkleton's Seminary for Young Ladies parody masculine behavior; they pretend “to be their brothers”—and also Edwin Drood—when dancing at Rosa's birthday ball (56), and Miss Ferdinand “clap[s] on a paper moustache, ” comically reenacting the struggle between Neville Landless and Drood, with the help of Miss Giggles (109). Imitation enables characters to emulate or mock those placed above them, but it can also mark their social descent. Thus Jasper exhibits the “unclean spirit of imitation” with which the novel opens, modeling himself on his opium-smoking inferiors and signaling his racial degeneration and downward mobility (39).
For generations of Dickens critics, the “unclean spirit of imitation” that pollutes John Jasper became a symbol of Dickens's own, as the “master” of English ﬁction unwisely modeled himself on his artistic inferior, Wilkie Collins, and became a mere “mechanician” in consequence. In an essay published soon after Dickens's death, A. W. Ward expresses the regret that Dickens “attempted plots of extreme intricacy” in his later works, “under the inﬂuence of Mr. Wilkie Collins's example”: