Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Sunday, 20 December 2020

The Mystery before Christmas - M. R. James and The Edwin Drood Syndicate (part two)

The Mystery before Christmas -  M. R. James and The Edwin Drood Syndicate (part two)


M R James had a special affection for the novels of Charles Dickens, to which he was first introduced at Eton. In his self-penned memoirs “Eton and Kings”, James wrote;

The collection of books in Tea-room, called College Library”, contained the whole works of Dickens, which were not on our shelves at home. Upon these I fastened like a leech, and mastered them all..., I put Charles Dickens in the forefront of the accessions to my pleasure which Eton gave for it was wholly new.

However, the question that needs to be asked is to why did The Mystery of Edwin Drood hold such a fascination for James? The answer would seem to lie in the unsolvable nature of the mystery of Edwin Drood lent to it by that of Dickens’s death, his death ensuring that the novel took on the air of supernatural fiction. With its absent author ensuring the mystery of the novel could never be solved. As Michael Cook notes in his “Detective Fiction and The Ghost Story”, there are links between the antithetical forms of the Ghost Story and Detective fiction, both having narrative roots in the earlier century’s gothic and the sensation fiction so beloved of James’s time. In the mind of a ghost story writer like M R James the novel then becomes a ghost story with no rational end, unless he takes pains to lend order to the chaos by turning detective himself to solve the mystery.

As Julian Symonds remarked in his 1951 book Charles Dickens, Dickens has as good a claim as Edgar Allan Poe to be called the father of the modern detective story. As Angus Wilson notes, Dickens’s earlier plots were not especially well crafted, with mysteries only being unravelled in the final chapters, often – as in Little Dorritt – harking back to family relationships contrived well before the action in the novels began.

Indeed, the technical perfections that Edwin Drood offers do not – again as Wilson notes – “Belong to the Victorian era”, but are rather products of this century’s mastery of the detective story form, “Like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes”. Holmes was another fascination for James, as his friend Stephen Gaslee records: “apart from Dickens, Sherlock Holmes was among his favourites, and visitors to James’s rooms at Kings will remember “the piles of Penny Dreadfuls and Holmes novels nestling with Dickens in harmony on his bookshelves”.

It was through attempting to solve the mystery of Edwin Drood that James developed key elements that were to feature in his ghost stories. He often utilised the plot devices of detective fiction, such as a series of artefacts as clues, to guide the reader along the path of unmasking the ghostly revenant, such as letters or antique manuscripts, to provide a back story to the present day action. These devices are present in stories such as, Mr Humphrey’s and His Inheritance, where the main protagonist, tries to uncover the mystery behind his late uncles bequest, and his “A School Story”, containing an historical death as well as a present crime –in the form of a body discovered at the bottom of a well, an unsolvable plot device, much like the death of Dickens ensuring that the mystery at the heart of the novel Edwin Drood could never be solved.

In late-1905, James, put these devices to use himself, turning detective to attempt to solve Dickens’s unfinished plot narrative. The results of his investigations were presented to the senior member’s magazine of King’s College, “The Cambridge Review” over two weekly evenings, on the 30th of November and the 7th of December 1905. As Michael Cox, James’s biographer notes, the document “took the form of a report of an imaginary syndicate, and was couched in the language of real syndicate reports which “James knew only too well”.

James introduced his article with the plot device he often utilised himself in his ghost stories: namely, the sudden appearance of an artefact – in this case his usual copy of the college magazine. He thinly disguised the “Cambridge Review” under the pseudonym of “The University Reporter”. James’s introduction continues: “There was something very odd about this particular ‘reporter,’ the print and paper were the accustomed ones, and as good as ever; but the matter was I felt sure unusual.”

His article then focuses on the section that interested him most – the reports of the Edwin Drood Syndicate. The reports took the form of presentations of thoroughly researched forensic accounts of detective work of the ‘Senate of the Syndicate’, which investigated the case of ‘Edwin Drood.’ Their two pronged investigations homed in on two distinct areas:

1 Did John Jasper succeed in murdering Edwin Drood?

To which the Syndicate answered in the negative, and

2 Who was Mr Datchery?

James argued that Datchery, in an ingenious plot turn by Dickens, was none other than Edwin Drood himself.

James continued “That the members begged leave to report”;

i.              That Jasper on the Christmas Eve in question, after the walk that Edwin had taken with Neville Landless, (to view the storm hit river), set upon his nephew with a murderous rage and strangled him with his long black silk scarf.

ii.            That in the time of the said attack Mr Drood had upon his personage, secreted probably in his coat breast pocket, Rosa Bud’s inherited betrothal ring, gold set with jewels, to which the existence was unknown to Mr Jasper.

iii.           That after the attack Mr Jasper concealed the body of Mr Drood in the tomb of Mrs Sapsea after removing from his body the watch chain and shirt pin, which he thought were the only personal effects that Drood had on him. These would not have succumbed to the quicklime that Jasper had put into the Sapsea monument to hasten the decomposition of Drood’s mortal remains.

iv.           That Mr Datchery, the “Strange Old buffer” who made his sudden appearance in Cloisterham in Chap 18 was actually someone already known, but who was disguising themselves.

James summed up the proceedings of the syndicate at this point in his report as posing two questions:

1.    Did Mr Jasper succeed in murdering his nephew Edwin Drood or did Edwin somehow evade this gruesome end?

2.    Who is the disguised personage known to the reader as the “Buffer, Mr Datchery?”

At this point, then, the syndics as a majority were agreed upon one area;

i. Mr Jasper did not succeed in murdering Mr Drood (although later in his review of Henry Jackson’s monologue on The Edwin Drood mystery, James admitted this was just his own personal naive hope).

This hope for Drood’s salvation, as it were, rested on the method of Drood’s supposed murder, strangulation, which seems to have been decided upon by Dickens in order to leave a loophole (no pun intended) for some artistic method of escape. To address the issue of survivability, the syndics tried several attempts at strangulation on each other, but only managed to render several of their number unconscious!

The question then arose among the syndics arose as to why the knife or the bullet was not a better method to have been employed by Dickens, but the syndicate viewed the absence of these methods as pointing to the fact that Dickens did not ultimately want Drood to come to a bad end, however the syndics were aware that this was a subjective consideration as Dickens could not now be quizzed on the matter.

James went on to suggest that the syndics drew their conclusion that Dickens did not intend Drood to have actually been murdered by Jasper, since in chapter 15 Droods inner narrative concentrates on trying to envisage a life after Cloisterham, perhaps in Egypt as an Archeologist, for which he has trained for many years. Also in the pictures which accompanied the monthly editions of Edwin Drood, one in particular illustrates John Jasper entering a small dark chamber, his lantern beam illuminating a figure standing, which the syndics take to be Edwin Drood.

ii.The other matters James went on in his report, that the Syndics intended to illustrate were the mystery of “The Buffer Datchery’s” identity, to which they drew the conclusion that he was in fact Edwin Drood, afflicted by amnesia, but driven to solve the mystery of why his memory was missing, and how he had come to be in this predicament.

The syndicate also recommended, James summarized, upon solving the part of the mystery of Drood’s disappearance, that after suffering amnesia as a result of the cutting off of oxygen to the brain from Jasper’s savage act of strangulation on his personage, that Datchery is in fact Drood, his appearance having aged and his hair having gone white from the assault. Hence, we might say, Dickens’s emphasis on Datchery being an “Old Buffer” – the irony being that he was in actuality anything but.

The report of the syndicate led to the actual formation on the 3rd to the 6th of July 1909, of the ‘Cloisterham Syndicate’, comprising James, Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Cambridge, Henry Jackson and one of Dickens’ grandsons from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The syndicate took a journey down to Rochester, (Dickens’s Cloisterham), Cloisterham illustrating the gothic basis of Edwin Drood with its crypts and tombs adding to the ghostly sephucral air.

On those dates they examined in detail the supposed reality of various Droodian theories, E.g. What access was there to the crypt? Is there an actual Sapsea monument? What were the geographical points and distance of the vineyard, Durdles Yard and Minor Canon Corner? James noted, “We attained clearness on some points but did not hit on any illuminating facts!”

Henry Jackson was sufficiently inspired by the Droodian investigations to write his own monograph, About Edwin Drood, published in 1911 by Cambridge University Press. “Jackson”, declared James in Eton and Kings “considered Drood to be the best thing apart from The Pickwick Papers that Dickens ever wrote’. James reviewed Jackson’s monologue in “The Cambridge Review” on March 9th 1911. The language James used in reviewing Jackson’s monograph was decidedly more academic, in that Jackson’s assertions included the idea that Edwin Drood was murdered by Jasper with his ‘long black silk scarf,’ and his body flung over the tower where it fell to the ramparts. Edwin’s body was then deposited in a heap of quick lime in the crypt of the cathedral.

Jackson also disagreed with previous declarations that Edwin Drood managed to escape the lime pit. However, James in his review admitted the strength of Jackson’s argument, though “Hoped and preferred to still think that Drood is not dead and is disguised as Datchery”.

To conclude, then, for a mind like James’s, which appears to have been that of a natural detective who relished making order out of chaos – amply demonstrated by his devotion to cataloguing manuscripts, such as the manuscript collection of the medieval collection at Gonville and Caius, – and whose preferred reading material consisted of detective novels by such authors as Conan Doyle and Sheridan Le Fanu, the appeal of solving a tragic real-life mystery such as Dickens’s unfinished masterpiece is obvious.

Dickens’ influence on M R James was, as his work on Edwin Drood shows, extremely significant. The episode of the syndicates investigation inspired later Jamesian works, because as Julia Briggs found, the protagonist of later James stories such as The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, and Casting the runes often uses a series of well placed clues throughout the narrative, similar to the detective format to arrive at the denouement of the unmasking of the ghostly revenant. Dickens’s last ghostly novel Edwin Drood with its elements of the detective novel, well placed clues and the disappearance of its main protagonist, and the ghost story with an unsolvable plot due to the death of its author was one of the influences behind the later Jamesian ghost story..


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