Race, Power, and Performance in 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

July 27, 2020


Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, the William E. "Bud" Davis Alumni Professor of English at Louisiana State University, uses the occasion of a performance to describe the complex power dynamics where "hierarchies of race, gender, pedagogy, performance, and sexual attraction" are at play in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.



Hi. I’m Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, speaking to you from my home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I’m delighted to participate in Dickens-to-Go.

The passage I’ll be reading and discussing today comes from Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens was exactly half-way through writing it when he died of a stroke on June 9, 1870. I’ve chosen this text because it speaks to our current national conversation about race, addressing some issues that our Dickens Project colleagues Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy Wong raise in their recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which calls for scholars to pay more attention to race. Besides the novel, I’ll talk about how considering adaptations can help push us to toward this goal. Some of my remarks come from a chapter in my new book, Victorians on Broadway, that grew out of a lecture on Drood I first gave at the Dickens Universe in 2013.

Now, to set up the passage, a quick recap of the novel: The callow youth Edwin Drood (“Ned”) and pretty ingénue Rosa Bud (whom he calls “Pussy”) have been promised in marriage to each other by their long-dead fathers. Rosa is about to graduate from Miss Twinkleton’s seminary for young ladies. Now old enough to choose for themselves, Rosa and Ned have pretty much decided against the match. John Jasper is Ned’s uncle (Uncle Jack). An opium addict, Jasper is secretly, passionately obsessed with Rosa, who takes voice lessons from him. Rosa finds Jasper controlling and scary. She prefers the handsome, headstrong Neville Landless, just arrived from Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) with his twin sister Helena. The Reverend Crisparkle welcomes the newcomers and combats the town’s xenophobia. Although he lives with his mother, who resembles a delicate pastel porcelain figurine, he is smitten by the beautiful and valiant Helena. Rosa and Helena become good friends. Ned begins to compete with Neville, who is jealous of Ned’s air of casual proprietorship over Rosa.

While the rest of the main characters are white, Neville and Helena appear to be of mixed race. When first introduced in Chapter 6, the narrator describes them as

An unusually handsome lithe young fellow, and an unusually handsome lithe girl; much alike; both very dark, and very rich in colour; she of almost the gipsy type; something untamed about them both; a certain air upon them of hunter and huntress; yet withal a certain air of being the objects of the chase, rather than the followers. (84-5)

Scholars such as Hyungji Park and Patrick Bratlinger have already examined race in this novel, and the Orientalism in this passage is clear. Neville is repeatedly portrayed as a stereotype: for example, in Chapter 8, he is hot-tempered with “something of the tiger in his dark blood.” Yet, as we’ll see, Dickens creates his heroine in Helena; and in Neville, many adaptors have found the novel’s hero.

The passage I’m about to read from Chapter 7 does not focus on race, but it reveals through a performance the complex power dynamic among those assembled to hear Rosa sing, exposing a struggle for domination amid hierarchies of race, gender, pedagogy, performance, and sexual attraction.

Mr. Jasper was seated at the piano as they came into his drawing-room, and was accompanying Miss Rosebud while she sang. It was a consequence of his playing the accompaniment without notes, and of her being a heedless little creature, very apt to go wrong, that he followed her lips most attentively, with his eyes as well as hands; carefully and softly hinting the key-note from time to time. Standing with an arm drawn round her, but with a face far more intent on Mr. Jasper than on her singing, stood Helena, between whom and her brother an instantaneous recognition passed, in which Mr. Crisparkle saw, or thought he saw, the understanding that had been spoken of, flash out.  Mr. Neville then took his admiring station, leaning against the piano, opposite the singer; Mr. Crisparkle sat down by the china shepherdess; Edwin Drood gallantly furled and unfurled Miss Twinkleton’s fan . . . (92)

The parlor recital scene is illustrated by Samuel Luke Fildes, who visibly renders the darker skin of the Landless twins. Its theatricality displays the group’s volatile tensions. Rosa must sing for Jasper to follow her lips in his accompaniment. He must play to communicate his terrifying attraction to her. Neville must hear her sing to fall in love with her. Helena must witness the fearful interaction between teacher/accompanist and pupil/soloist to understand and to protect her new friend and to demonstrate her own characteristic fearlessness. The Reverand Crisparkle must witness Helena’s commanding presence to become entranced.

Dickens describes Jasper as “playing the accompaniment without notes,” without sheet music. Fildes shows the sheet music closed on the piano as Jasper plays. The narrator insinuates that Jasper focuses an excessive intensity of concentration on Rosa. Yet this is precisely what an accomplished accompanist does in order to follow a soloist’s lead. Jasper’s playing the keynote occasionally, “from time to time,” suggests that he does not play the melody line, something a weak or inexperienced student would need. Such minimal accompaniment means that Rosa holds her own musically, not so “apt to go wrong” after all, with Jasper supplying the musical undercurrent that enriches the sound. Yet he attempts to control her vocal line by emphasizing the keynote while rejecting the musical text that Fildes depicts as right in front of him. The musical power struggle and the tension between who leads and who follows becomes the story here.

Fildes’s illustration looks like a play set, depicting each character’s point of view precisely as they jockey for power: Rosa performs; Neville and Jasper watch her intently; Helena watches Jasper; Crisparkle watches Helena; Miss Twinkleton watches everyone; the minister’s mother, Mrs. Crisparkle, sleeps; and Ned twiddles a fan. The passage continues:

The song went on. It was a sorrowful strain of parting, and the fresh young voice was very plaintive and tender. As Jasper watched the pretty lips, and ever and again hinted the one note, as though it were a low whisper from himself, the voice became less steady, until all at once the singer broke into a burst of tears, and shrieked out, with her hands over her eyes: “I can’t bear this! I am frightened! Take me away!” (92)

Rosa shrieks to break Jasper’s hold on her. Helena effectively stops Rosa from further speech by placing her hand “on the little rosy mouth” (exactly where we suspect Jasper wanted his hand to be, instead of on the keyboard), shielding her lips from Jasper’s predatory gaze. Helena commands, “Don’t speak to her for one minute” (93). This conveys her ascendancy over both the sinister Jasper and the clueless Ned. The passage goes on:

Jasper’s hands had, in the same instant, lifted themselves from the keys, and were now poised above them, as though he waited to resume.  In that attitude he yet sat quiet: not even looking round, when all the rest had changed their places and were reassuring one another.

“Pussy’s not used to an audience; that’s the fact,” said Edwin Drood.  “She got nervous, and couldn’t hold out.  Besides, Jack, you are such a conscientious master, and require so much, that I believe you make her afraid of you. No wonder.”

“No wonder,” repeated Helena.

“There, Jack, you hear! You would be afraid of him, under similar circumstances, wouldn’t you, Miss Landless?”

“Not under any circumstances,” returned Helena. (93)

Helena’s dry responses declare her preeminence here. Though Ned sees nothing, brave Helena recognizes Jasper for the sexual and perhaps violent threat he is.

Because the novel is incomplete, Neville must wait for its adaptations to manifest his full potential as hero. The earliest British dramatization is Walter Stephens’s 1871 Lost. The play’s title recalls the novel’s monthly wrapper illustration (the cover for each installment); on the left side of the image, a young woman examines a flier with the word “Lost” posted on a door, simultaneously evoking both a theatrical poster and a missing-person notice. When the novel breaks off, unfinished, Ned has disappeared and is presumed dead. Racism and xenophobia make Neville the murder suspect, but it is Jasper who looks very guilty to the readers.

Like all adaptors of this truncated novel, Stephens must finish the story somehow. He innovatively offers a choice between two endings: to conclude either with Neville triumphantly exposing Jasper as Edwin’s killer or with an additional silent scene entitled “A Dream of the Future,” a tableau of a double wedding: Helena to Reverend Crisparkle and Rosa to Neville. The first ending emphasizes the villain’s comeuppance and leaves the marital conclusion likely but not certain. The second intensifies the happy ending with weddings, while simultaneously making a statement about race and empire. It explicitly joins the mixed-race Landless twins in marriage with the whitest and most English of characters, Rosa Bud and the Anglican minister Crisparkle. Their light complexion and their Englishness in the novel could not be more evident. Dickens repeatedly tells us that the crisply sparkling clergyman is “rosy” (124) or “fair and rosy” (42). Rosa’s rosiness is reiterated often, quintupled even, as in a single sentence in Chapter 3 in which Rosa rolls up “her little pink gloves, like rose-leaves” and puts “her pink fingers to her rosy lips” (58).

Flexibility in concluding Stephens’s dramatization with or without the double wedding encourages those mounting the play to decide how to end it themselves, underscoring the mercurial quality of the Victorian theater and the recognition that acceptance of racial intermarriage varied even among nineteenth-century audiences. Stephens’s option of two conclusions indicates how far Dickens’s writing of race in this novel encourages Victorian readers to go in 1871. Examining sites of performance both within the novel and within the novel’s adaptations allows us to extend our thinking about race how functions in Dickens.

I have lots more to say about The Mystery of Edwin Drood and its adaptations in Victorians on Broadway, but that’s all I have time for here. Thank you for listening, and please come back soon for the next installment of Dickens-to-Go.