The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Moonstone: Race and Empire Represented by Dickens and Collins

Ⅰ Introduction
While Dickens gave a harsh comment on Collins’ The Moonstone as “[t]he construction is beyond endurance, and there is a vein of obstinate conceit in it that makes enemies of readers,” (Rance, 131) Collins returned the compliment by referring to The Mystery of Edwin Drood as “the melancholy work of a worn out brain” (Rance, 131). Edmund Wilson points out that there is acute rivalry between the two writers: “The publication in 1868 of Wilkie Collins’ detective story, The Moonstone, in which a band of Hindu devotees commit a secret murder in England, seems to have inspired Dickens with the idea of outdoing his friend the next year with a story of a similar kind” (Wilson, 71). Furthermore, Lillian Nayder discusses that The Mystery of Edwin Drood reveals “not only Dickens’ “intense rivalry” with Collins, but also “his desire to rework Collins’s vision of empire and race relations to a more conservative end” (Nayder, 165-166). By comparing Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood with Collins’ The Moonstone, let us examine differences and similarities between their views of British colonialism.

Ⅱ The two writers’ response to the Indian Mutiny
Before discussing their views represented in their works, we will look at their ideas about the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858) expressed in their letter or essay. Dickens wrote in a letter that “I [Dickens] wish I were Commander in Chief over there [India]!” and showed his desire to “exterminate the race [Indians] from the face of the earth”[Dickens to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 4 October 1875]. On the other hand, Collins suggests that Indians “may learn from their own Oriental literature” in “A Sermon for Sepoys” and calls into question the British use of Christian means to pacify Indians [“A Sermon for Sepoys” in Charles Dickens’s Household Words: A Weekly Journal, no.414, Saturday, February 27, 1858, 244-247]. Collins’ views of Indian culture is also represented in a British explorer Mr Murthwait’s remark in The Moonstone: “There is a mystery about their [three Indians’] conduct that I can’t explain. They have doubly sacrificed their caste – first, in crossing the sea; secondly, in disguising themselves as jugglers. In the land they live in, that is a tremendous sacrifice to make. There must be some very serious motive at the bottom of it, and some justification of no ordinary kind to plead for them, in recovery of their caste, when they return to their own country.”(Collins, The Moonstone 129)[hereinafter shortened to MS] Here Mr Murthwait argues that Indians have their own way of thinking and their behavior is based on their own logic. This means he respects Indians’ custom, belief and way of life, however different they may look from those of the British. When we compare Dickens’ remark with Collins’, it seems that Dickens is a jingoistic imperialist while Collins is a tolerant progressive thinker. However, it could be a little too simplistic to take the two writers’ above remark literally. For instance, Collins compares Indian rebels to “the human tigers” in “A Sermon for Sepoys” and reveals his prejudice against them. Furthermore, Dickens caricatures and mocks Mr. Sapsea who is described as a typical racist in The Mysyery of Edwin Drood. This may demonstrate Dickens is critical about racism in general. Therefore, we will have to examine their works more closely so that we can understand their views of colonialism more accurately.

Ⅲ Split personality in The Moonstone and Collins’ view of colonialism
Dickens and Collins both describe how another personality can appear under an unconscious state. This dual personality can be implicitly related to their views of the British Empire, in which people behave like a gentleman at home while they control and exploit other countries. First, let us study how Collins describes Franklin under the influence of opium in The Moonstone and discuss Collins’ view of colonialism.
Franklin, an English gentleman, steals his fiancée Rachael’s Diamond under the influence of opium, which was secretly put into his drink. Franklin’s friend, Ezra Jennings, carries out an experiment to prove Franklin committed “theft” unconsciously. According to Jennings’ instruction, Franklin takes opium again under the same circumstances as the last year when he committed the “crime.” Then Franklin goes into Rachael’s bedroom and steals a fake diamond. Franklin involuntarily says to himself: “It was safe in the bank. […] How do I know? […] The Indians may be hidden in the house.” (MS 495) It is clear that Franklin is occupied with worries that Indians may steal the Diamond. Thus Franklin’s act is justified because it is proven that Franklin did so to protect Rachael’s Diamond. However, as Tamar Heller points out, “[Franklin] Blake’s reason for stealing the jewel mirrors the rationalization of imperialism as “the white man’s burden,” protecting people who presumably cannot take care of themselves.” (Heller, 146) Though Collins expresses tolerance to different ways of thinking in his essay, he also shows the views which defend British colonialism by justifying Franklin’s theft.

Ⅳ Jasper’s dream in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and British imperialism
Next, we will examine John Jasper’s dream, in which British established order is put into question. Jasper is a choirmaster as well as an opium addict and he falls into a slumber in an opium den. Jasper’s dream thus begins: “An ancient English Cathedral Town? How can the ancient English Cathedral town be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here!” (Dickens, 3) [hereinafter shortened to ED] Here “English Cathedral Town” represents Western established order or Christianity, which may lead to imperialism and colonialism, as colonizers used evangelization as an excuse to colonize other countries. However this Western order is put into question by repeatedly using interrogative sentences such as “An ancient English Cathedral Town?”(ED 3)
Let us examine another part from Jasper’s dream: “What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan’s order for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one”(ED 3). The “spike” which appears in Jasper’s dream may represent an image of the Orient that the West created: unrestricted desire, violence and gratuitous cruelty. According to Lillian Nayder, Jasper’s dream “relies and reinforces familiar stereotypes of the Orient, its transgressive pleasures and dangers.” (Nayder, 185) However, this “spike” is identified by Jasper as “the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead” (ED 3) as Jasper wakes up. In this way, violence and cruelty depicted in Jasper’s dream are found to belong to the reality such as “town” “tower” (ED 3) in which he acts as a choirmaster in his daily life. Thus Jasper’s dream is contradictory in that it strengthens the distorted image of the “orient” while exposing desire and criminality of the British society. This also implies Dickens’ contradictory attitude towards British colonialism; Dickens’ desire to dominate and control foreign lands as well as his criticism of the violent British way of exploiting people there.

Ⅴ Creation of outsiders and Orientalism
It is noteworthy that Jasper’s skin is dark and he has “thick, lustrous, well-arranged black hair and whiskers” (ED 10) Philip Collins points out the possibility that Jasper may have come from “the East.”(Philip Collins, 301) However, Jerome Meckier argues that Jasper’s Oriental appearance does not show Jasper has Oriental blood but it is primarily “signs of a violent nature firmly self-repressed” (Meckier, 183). Meckier’s argument seems more cogent, for Dickens has consistently attacked a social evil hidden in the British institutions, not foreign lands. However, Dickens also displays racial prejudice by “Orientalizing” Jasper to depict evilness.
Jasper can be the intensified version of Godfrey Ablewhite in The Moonstone in that they are both described as “Orientalized” white criminals. After Diamond falls into Ablewhite’s hand, he tried to go to Amsterdam to cut it into pieces, but on his way, he was killed by Indians who were the original possessors of Diamond. Let us pay attention to the scene in which Ablewhite’s duality is exposed: “He [ Sergeant Cuff ] traced with his finger a thin line of livid white, running backward from the dead man’s forehead, between the swarthy complexion and the slightly-disturbed black hair. ‘Let’s see what is under this,’ said the Sergeant, suddenly seizing the black hair, with a firm grip of his hand” (MS 520). Here “a thin line of livid white” reveals a criminal is a white man who is disguised as an Oriental man. According to Tamar Heller, the death of Ablewhite, murdered by the Indians while he paints his face black, represents “the novel’s most horrifying image of what happens when white men go native.” (Heller, 163) Here we can see Collins’ sense of guilt for the British imperialism and fear of a reversal of the roles; namely, the Britain being colonized by India.

Ⅵ Conclusion
We have studied views of imperialism and race represented by Dickens and Collins. Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Ablewhite in The Moonstone are depicted as “Orientalized” British which have the potential for subversion of British traditional values. According to Edward Said, “his [Orientalist’s] Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized” (Said, 104). Then an image of the Orient in their works can be an embodiment of decay and corruption which lies in British society. In this way, Dickens and Collins criticize their society through depiction of Jasper and Ablewhite, the symbol of hypocrisy and corruption. As far as British colonialism is concerned, Dickens shows more conservative views than Collins, but there is something in common between the two writers; though they both seem to attack the British society while they partly defend its institutions whether they intend to or not.

Works Cited
Collins, Philip. “The Mysteries in Edwin Drood,” in Dickens and Crime. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Ontario: Broadview Press Ltd., 1999. [ Citations from this text are put with the page number and an abbreviation MS ].
Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Everyman, 1996. [ Citations from this text are put with the page number and an abbreviation ED ].
Heller, Tamar. “Blank Spaces: Ideological Tensions and the Detective Work of The Moonstone,” in Dead Secret: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992.
Meckier, Jerome. “Inimitability Regained: The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation. Lexington: The University of Kentucky, 1987.
Nayder, Lillian. “Crimes of the Empire, Contagion of the East: The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Rance, Nicolas. “’Wilkie! Have a Mission’: The Demise of Sensation Fiction,” in Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Wilson, Edmund. “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” in The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1947.


About estherhawdon

a University lecturer, teaching English, engaged in translation, research on British novels from the 19th century to 21st century, love movies, music, meeting new friends
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One Response to The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Moonstone: Race and Empire Represented by Dickens and Collins

  1. S.C. Hickman says:

    Enjoyed your reading! For me it opens up other readings that might be more informed by a Lacanian-Zizekian approach in which we see two enframings of India from within the Symbolic Order of 19th Century English Culture. The ethical dimension rather than the economic and political seems to be at the heart of these two normative visions of India within Dickens and Collins. Although I admire the post-Colonial reductions, they seem to leave out more than they fulfill in their gamble to confront Imperialism and Race relations as the central motif in interpretation. I’ve seen in the past few years to see these things in a larger overlapping of multiple factors within the disperse space of the symbolic order. To localize it and reduce to a set of particular conceptual relations seems spurious at best, and less than satisfying in a full reading. Don’t get me wrong it is still a viable approach, only that it is partial and will remain a partial reading that centers on a political engagement in social relations rather than in the overarching philosophical paradigm itself.

    Either way… I’ll be reading through your wonderful essays! Thanks!

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