Copyright © 2009 by Dan Simmons
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BONUS MATERIAL: The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens
also by DAN SIMMONS
Song of Kali
Phases of Gravity
The Fall of Hyperion
Prayers to Broken Stones
Summer of Night
The Hollow Man
Children of the Night
Fires of Eden
The Rise of Endymion
The Crook Factory
A Winter Haunting
Worlds Enough & Time
Hard as Nails
“What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?
Some demon whispered — ‘Wilkie! Have a mission.’ ”
— A. C. Swinburne
Fortnightly Review, Nov., 1889
My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name. Some say that I am a gambling man and those that say so are correct, so my wager with you, Dear Reader, would be that you have neither read nor heard of any of my books or plays. Perhaps you British or American peoples a hundred and twenty-five or so years in my future do not speak English at all. Perhaps you dress like Hottentots, live in gas-lighted caves, travel around in balloons, and communicate by telegraphed thoughts unhindered by any spoken or written language.
Even so, I would wager my current fortune, such as it is, and all future royalties from my plays and novels, such as they may be, on the fact that you do remember the name and books and plays and invented characters of my friend and former collaborator, a certain Charles Dickens.
So this true story shall be about my friend (or at least about the man who was once my friend) Charles Dickens and about the Staplehurst accident that took away his peace of mind, his health, and, some might whisper, his sanity. This true story will be about Charles Dickens’s final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—if man he was—named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called “my Babylon” or “the Great Oven.” In this manuscript (which, as I have explained—for legal reasons as well as for reasons of honour—I intend to seal away from all eyes for more than one hundred years after his death and my own), I shall answer the question which perhaps no one else alive in our time knew to ask—“Did the famous and loveable and honourable Charles Dickens plot to murder an innocent person and dissolve away his flesh in a pit of caustic lime and secretly inter what was left of him, mere bones and a skull, in the crypt of an ancient cathedral that was an important part of Dickens’s own childhood? And did Dickens then scheme to scatter the poor victim’s spectacles, rings, stickpins, shirt studs, and pocket watch in the River Thames? And if so, or even if Dickens only dreamed he did these things, what part did a very real phantom named Drood have in the onset of such madness?”
THE DATE OF DICKENS’S DISASTER was 9 June, 1865. The locomotive carrying his success, peace of mind, sanity, manuscript, and mistress was—quite literally—heading for a breach in the rails and a terrible fall.
I do not know if you Dear Readers living so many years hence still record or remember history (perhaps you have renounced Herodotus and Thucydides and dwell perpetually in the Year Zero), but if any sense of history remains in your time, you must know well the important events of the year we called Anno Domini 1865. Some events, such as the end of the fraternal conflagration in the United States, were considered of some drama and considerable interest by many in England, although not by Charles Dickens. Despite his great interest in America—having travelled there already and written books about it, not altogether flattering books one must add, and after having struggled so fiercely to receive some recompense for the piracy of his works in that copyright-flaunting chaos of former colonies—Dickens had little interest in a war between some distant North and more-distant South. But in 1865, the year of his Staplehurst disaster, Charles Dickens had reason to be very satisfied indeed with his own personal history.
He was the most popular novelist in England, perhaps in the world. Many people in England and America considered my friend to be—outside of Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer and Keats—the greatest writer who had ever lived.
Of course, I knew this to be nonsense, but popularity, as they say (or as I have said), breeds more popularity. I had seen Charles Dickens stuck in a rural, doorless privy with his trousers down around his ankles, bleating like a lost sheep for some paper to wipe his arse, and you will have to forgive me if that image remains more true to me than “the greatest writer who ever lived.”
But on this June day in 1865, Dickens had many reasons to be smug.
Seven years earlier, the writer had separated from his wife, Catherine, who obviously had offended him in their twenty-two years of marriage by uncomplainingly bearing him ten children and suffering several miscarriages, all the while generally putting up with his every complaint and catering to his every whim. This endeared his wife to him to the point that in 1857, during a walking trip we were taking in the countryside during which we had sampled several bottles of local wine, Dickens chose to describe his beloved Catherine to me as “Very dear to me, Wilkie, very dear. But, on the whole, more bovine than entrancing, more ponderous than feminine… an alchemist’s dull brew of vague-mindedness, constant incompetence, shuffling sluggishness, and self-indulgent idleness, a thick gruel stirred only by the paddle of her frequent self-pity.”
I doubt if my friend remembered telling me this, but I have not forgotten.
Actually, it was a complaint that did Catherine in, domestically speaking. It seems (actually, it does not “seem” at all—I was there when he purchased the blasted thing) that Dickens had bought the actress Ellen Ternan an expensive bracelet after our production of The Frozen Deep, and the idiot jeweller had delivered the thing to the Dickenses’ home in London, Tavistock House, not to Miss Ternan’s flat. As a result of this mis-delivery, Catherine had given forth several weeks’ worth of bovine mewlings, refusing to believe that it was merely her husband’s token offering of innocent esteem to the actress who had done such a wonderful (actually, I would say barely competent) job as the hero’s beloved, Clara Burnham, in our… no, my… play about unrequited love in the Arctic.
It is true, as Dickens continued to explain to his deeply hurt wife in 1858, that the author had the habit of showering generous gifts on his fellow players and participants in his various amateur theatricals. After The Frozen Deep he had already distributed bracelets and pendants, a watch, and one set of three shirt studs in blue enamel to others in the production.
But, then, he wasn’t in love with these others. And he was in love with young Ellen Ternan. I knew that. Catherine Dickens knew that. No one can be sure if Charles Dickens knew that. The man was such a convincing fictionalist, not to mention one of the most self-righteous fellows ever to have trod the Earth, that I doubt if he ever confronted and acknowledged his own deeper motivations, except when they were as pure as springwater.
In this case, it was Dickens who flew into a rage, shouting and roaring at the soon-cowed Catherine—I apologise for any inadvertent bovine connotation there—that his wife’s accusations were a slur on the pure and luminously perfect person of Ellen Ternan. Dickens’s emotional, romantic, and, dare I say it, erotic fantasies always revolved around sanctified, chivalric devotion to some hypothetical young and innocent goddess whose purity was eternally beyond reproach. But Dickens may have forgotten that the hapless and now domestically doomed Catherine had watched Uncle John, the farce that we had put on (it was the tradition in our century, you see, always to present a farce along with a serious drama) after The Frozen Deep. In Uncle John, Dickens (age forty-six) played the elderly gentleman and Ellen Ternan (eighteen) played his ward. Naturally, Uncle John falls madly in love with the girl less than half his age. Catherine must have also known that while I had written the bulk of the drama, The Frozen Deep, about the search for the lost Franklin Expedition, it was her husband who had written and cast the romantic farce, after he had met Ellen Ternan.
Not only does Uncle John fall in love with the young girl he should be protecting, but he showers her with, and I quote from the play’s stage directions, “wonderful presents—a pearl necklace, diamond ear-rings.”
So it is little wonder that when the expensive bracelet, meant for Ellen, showed up at Tavistock House, Catherine, between pregnancies, roused herself from her vague-minded shuffling sluggishness and bellowed like a milk cow with a Welsh dairyman’s prod between her withers.
Dickens responded as any guilty husband would. But only if that husband happened to be the most popular writer in all of England and the English-speaking world and perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived.
First, he insisted that Catherine make a social call on Ellen Ternan and Ellen’s mother, showing everyone that there could be no hint of suspicion or jealousy on his wife’s part. In essence, Dickens was demanding that his wife publicly apologise to his mistress—or at least to the woman he would soon choose to be his mistress when he worked up the courage to make the arrangements. Weeping, miserable, Catherine did as she was bid. She humiliated herself by making a social call on Ellen and Mrs Ternan.
It was not enough to assuage Dickens’s fury. He cast the mother of his ten children out.
He sent Charley, his eldest son, to live with Catherine. He kept the rest of the children to live with him at Tavistock House and eventually at Gad’s Hill Place. (It was always my observation that Dickens enjoyed his children until they began to think and act for themselves in any way… in other words, when they ceased behaving like Little Nell or Paul Dombey or one of his other fictional constructs… and then he quickly grew very bored with them.)
There was more to this scandal, of course—protests by Catherine’s parents, public retractions of those protests forced by Dickens and his solicitors, bullying and misleading public statements by the author, legal manoeuvrings, much terrible publicity, and a final and irrevocable legal separation forced on his wife. He eventually refused to communicate with her at all, even about the well-being of their children.
All this from the man who epitomised, not just for England but for the world, the image of “the happy home.”
Of course Dickens still needed a woman in his house. He had many servants. He had nine children at home with whom he did not wish to be bothered except when he was in the mood to play with them or dangle them on his knee for photographs. He had social obligations. There were menus and shopping lists and florists’ orders to prepare. There was much cleaning and organising to oversee. Charles Dickens needed to be freed from all these details. He was, you must understand, the world’s greatest writer.
Dickens did the obvious thing, although it might not have seemed so obvious to you or to me. (Perhaps in this distant twentieth or twenty-first century to which I consign this memoir, it is the obvious thing. Or perhaps you have, if you are smart, abandoned the quaint and idiotic institution of marriage altogether. As you will see, I avoided matrimony in my time, choosing to live with one woman while having children with another, and some in my time, to my great pleasure, called me a scoundrel and a cad. But I digress.)
So Dickens did the obvious thing. He elevated Catherine’s spinster sister Georgina to the role of surrogate wife, mistress of his household, and discipline-mistress of his children, hostess at his many parties and dinners, not to mention Sergeant Major to the cook and servants.
When the inevitable rumours began—centred on Georgina rather than on Ellen Ternan, who had receded, one might say, from the gaslights to the shadows—Dickens ordered a doctor to Tavistock House. The doctor was told to examine Georgina and then was ordered to publish a statement, which he did, declaring to all and sundry that Miss Georgina Hogarth was virgo intacta.
And that, Charles Dickens assumed, would be that.
His younger daughter would later say to me, or at least say within my hearing, “My father was like a madman. This affair brought out all that was the worst—and all that was the weakest—in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.”
If Dickens was aware of their unhappiness, or if it mattered to him if he was indeed aware, he did not show it. Not to me, nor to his newer and ultimately closer friends.
And he was correct in his assumption that the crisis would pass without his readers’ abandoning him. If they knew of his domestic irregularities at all, they had obviously forgiven him. He was, after all, the English prophet of the happy home and the world’s greatest writer. Allowances must be made.
Our male literary peers and friends also forgave and forgot—with the exception of Thackeray, but that is another story—and I must admit that some of them, some of us, tacitly or privately, applauded Charles’s freeing himself of his domestic obligations to such an unattractive and perpetually dragging sea anchor. The break gave a glimmer of hope to the bleakest of married men and amused us bachelors with the thought that perhaps one could come back from that undiscovered matrimonial country from which it was said that no man could ever return.
But, I pray you, Dear Reader, remember that we are speaking of the man who, sometime earlier, shortly before his acquaintance with Ellen Ternan, as he and I cruised the theatres for what we called “the special little periwinkles”—those very young and very pretty actresses we found to our mutual aesthetic satisfaction—had said to me, “Wilkie, if you can think of any tremendous way of passing the night, in the meantime, do. I don’t care what it is. I give, for this night only, restraint to the Winds! If the mind can devise anything sufficiently in the style of Sybarite Rome in the days of its culminating voluptuousness, I am your man.”
And for such sport, I was his.
I HAVE NOT forgotten 9 June, 1865, the true beginning of this cascade of incredible events.
Dickens, explaining to friends that he was suffering from overwork and what he had been calling his “frost-bitten foot” since mid-winter, had taken a week off from his work of finishing Our Mutual Friend to enjoy a holiday in Paris. I do not know if Ellen Ternan and her mother went with him. I do know they returned with him.
A lady whom I have never met nor much wish to, a certain Mrs William Clara Pitt Byrne (a friend, I am told, of Charles Waterton—the naturalist and explorer who reported his bold adventures all over the world but who had died from a silly fall at his estate of Walton Hall just eleven days before the Staplehurst accident, his ghost later reported to be haunting the place in the form of a great grey heron), loved to send little bits of malicious gossip to the Times. This malevolent morsel, reporting the sighting of our friend on the ferry from Boulogne to Folkestone that day of the ninth of June, appeared some months after Dickens’s accident:
Travelling with him was a lady not his wife, nor his sister-in-law, yet he strutted about the deck with the air of a man bristling with self-importance, every line of his face and every gesture of his limbs seemed haughtily to say—“Look at me; make the most of your chance. I am the great, I am the only Charles Dickens; whatever I may choose to do is justified by that fact.”
Drood by Dan Simmons / Horror / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes