Even as Dickens begins The Mystery of Edwin Drood in an opium den in London's East End, his focal character — John Jasper, organist, choirmaster, and solid member of the Church of England — is haunted by the image of "Cloisterham" (Rochester) and its venerable cathedral: “An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral?” (Ch, 1). The initial chapter in the April 1870 instalment of the novel asserts the dominance of the Kentish cathedral in Jasper's thoughts:

That same afternoon, the massive grey square tower of an old Cathedral rises before the sight of a jaded traveller. The bells are going for daily vesper service, and he must needs attend it, one would say, from his haste to reach the open Cathedral door. The choir are getting on their sullied white robes, in a hurry, when he arrives among them, gets on his own robe, and falls into the procession filing in to service. [Chapter 1]

Dickens based his version of the old cathedral on his boyhood memories and more recent impressions of Rochester, a town still dominated by twin relics from the middle ages, its cathedral and castle. Both, Dickens notes, dominate the skyline and the psyche of Cloisterham. Gradually, chapter by chapter and instalment by instalment, Dickens brings The image of Rochester Cathedral into focus. In Chapter 5, "Mr. Durdles and Friend," Dickens gives the reader an impression of this other world and life of the drug addicted organist: “John Jasper, on his way home through the Close, is brought to a stand-still by the spectacle of Stony Durdles, dinner-bundle and all, leaning his back against the iron railing of the burial-ground enclosing it from the old cloister-arches.” Later in that same chapter Dickens filters images of the cathedral's precincts through two very different consciousnesses, those of the gruff sexton Durdles and his street-wise "Deputy":

They have but to cross what was once the vineyard, belonging to what was once the Monastery, to come into the narrow back lane wherein stands the crazy wooden house of two low stories currently known as the Travellers' Twopenny: — a house all warped and distorted, like the morals of the travellers, with scant remains of a lattice-work porch over the door, and also of a rustic fence before its stamped-out garden; by reason of the travellers being so bound to the premises by a tender sentiment (or so fond of having a fire by the roadside in the course of the day), that they can never be persuaded or threatened into departure, without violently possessing themselves of some wooden forget-me-not, and bearing it off. [Chapter 5]

Indeed, the reader gleans most of the details of the Cathedral, particularly of its mysterious crypts in which, implies Dickens, lies the mouldering body of young Edwin Drood, from the surly, alcoholic sexton whose entire being is so intimately welded to the mediaeval edifice:

Durdles is a stonemason; chiefly in the gravestone, tomb, and monument way, and wholly of their colour from head to foot. No man is better known in Cloisterham. He is the chartered libertine of the place. Fame trumpets him a wonderful workman — which, for aught that anybody knows, he may be (as he never works); and a wonderful sot--which everybody knows he is. With the Cathedral crypt he is better acquainted than any living authority; it may even be than any dead one. It is said that the intimacy of this acquaintance began in his habitually resorting to that secret place, to lock-out the Cloisterham boy-populace, and sleep off fumes of liquor: he having ready access to the Cathedral, as contractor for rough repairs. Be this as it may, he does know much about it, and, in the demolition of impedimental fragments of wall, buttress, and pavement, has seen strange sights. He often speaks of himself in the third person; perhaps, being a little misty as to his own identity, when he narrates; perhaps impartially adopting the Cloisterham nomenclature in reference to a character of acknowledged distinction. [Chapter 4]


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens

Last modified 20 February 2012