On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground" by Sir Luke Fildes. Second plate for May 1870. Facing page 63 for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 16.4 cm wide by 10 cm high, vertically mounted.

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Having met the principals individually, we encounter all in the third plate, and in the fourth all save Rosa, whose presence is implied both in the portrait above the fireplace (only partially realised in the illustration) in the rivalry between Neville Landless (in the chair, left) and Edwin Drood (leaning against the fireplace, right), with John Jasper (gesturing, centre) apparently trying to play the peace-maker. The scene, as in Dickens's text, is John Jasper's comfortable rooms in his "bachelor gatehouse" (62), with "the wine and glasses . . . on the table" (62):

The air of leisurely patronage and indifference with which this is said, as the speaker [Edwin] throws himself back in a chair and clasps his hands at the back of his head, as a rest for it, is very exasperating to the excitable and excited Neville. Jasper looks observantly from one to the other, slightly smiles and turns. . . . [63]

Here is yet another side of the choirmaster, the affable host and mentor of youth, himself not out of his twenties. The presence of the wine glasses and decanter would seem to suggest that Jasper has anticipated that he would have visitors this evening (facilitating his administering some opium to Neville). The interior scene, with fireplace and table, recalls a very different scene with which the narrative-pictorial sequence began, "In the Court." While Edwin here is consistent in face , form, and dress with the Edwin in "At the Piano" (the initial plate for May), John Jasper seems taller and more slender. While his costume is much the same as in the first plate, his waistcoat sits higher, his neck seems thinner and longer, and his shoulders less broad. Indeed, we can scarcely tell that this is the same man, which surely is Fildes' point.

In the text, Edwin "throws himself back in a chair" (63), and Fildes repeats Neville's pose from "At the Piano." In this third plate, the young men had regarded each other, as well as Rosa and Helena, from across the room, Neville in casual pose (left, leaning against the piano), Edwin less distinct and less self-composed, toying with Miss Twinkleton's fan (right). Whereas Fildes sketched Edwin in lightly at the back of the room in the initial plate for May 1870 in order to shift the focus to newcomer Neville in the foreground, in the second plate for May Fildes has more clearly defined Edwin. By virtue of their relative positions (again, Jasper is centre, and very much in control-- conducting, so to speak), the other two (standing) figures dominate the scene.

However, one catches little or nothing of Neville Landless's smouldering resentment of Edwin Drood in Fildes' illustration. The artist has significantly placed both John Jasper and the portrait of Rosa Bud between Edwin and Neville. As in the text, the choirmaster seems suave, urbane, at ease, while Edwin exudes an "air of leisurely patronage and indifference" (63), but he is hardly "provoking" in his self-confidence, so that while the textual perspective of Edwin is either Jasper's or Neville's, the visual perspective is less subjective, suggesting a scene on stage. In the text, John Jasper fuels Neville's antipathy towards Edwin, implying that his nephew is Neville's rival for Rosa's affections by calling attention to the portrait above the mantle. In the picture, Fildes draws our attention to Neville, implying his future importance in the plot. We should be alert to the fact that behind the smiling visage and easy pose of John Jasper, affable uncle and gracious host, lurks the cunning schemer and depraved drug-addict.


Cohen, Jane Rabb. "Chapter 18: Luke Fildes." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980. Pp. 221-228.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Other Stories. Charles Dickens. With Illustrations [by Sir Luke Fildes, R. A.] London: Chapman and Hall Limited, 193, Piccadilly. 1880.

Last modified 1 June 2005