Durdles Cautions Mr. Sapsea Against Boasting

Durdles Cautions Mr. Sapsea Against Boasting" by Sir Luke Fildes. Facing page 112 for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 16.3 cm wide by 10.1 cm high, vertically mounted.

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This was originally the second plate for the June 1870 instalment, complementing Chapter 12, "A Night with Durdles." It places John Jasper (identifiable by the music portfolio he carries) within his appropriate social sphere, the patriarchal clergymen and the embodiment of the commercial interests (Mayor Sapsea) that run Cloisterham. In contrast, Stony Durdles, representative of the proletariat, possesses the expert knowledge of the cathedral, its crypt and precincts, that John Jasper will need to carry out his diabolical designs against his nephew. Apparently, Dickens based Durdles the stone-mason on a local Rochester character, whose physical features and mode of dress he may well have described to his illustrator at one of their Hyde Park meetings:

He was a German, or of German origin, who occupied himself with carving figures out of fragments of stone in the crypt; he carried his treasures in a coloured handkerchief and hawked them among the people of the district; he lodged in the inn "The Fortune of War," and, like [Robert Burns's] Tam o' Shanter, was "glorious" — especially after a profitable day. [Walters, xxxiv]

Aside from introducing us to various "Cloisterham" characters and providing some comic interaction between the self-important Mayor and his down-to-earth foil, the scene introduces Jasper's have made an arrangement ("as agreed") to be treated to a nocturnal tour of the crypt by the surly Durdles. The scene in the street occurs shortly after Mr. Sapsea, by trade an auctioneer but by ambition the secular Bishop of Cloisterham, comes upon the Dean, the Verger, and the Choirmaster conversing in the street. Appropriately enough for the author of a murder scheme and the device of incriminating another for his own dark deed, John Jasper, says the Dean, intends to write a book about Cloisterham society — at least, this intention would offer an explanation for his journey through the cathedral's dark side. However, Jasper quite denies that he has any intention to turn either "author, or archaeologist," putting his tour down to a "whim" stemming from his love of the "picturesque."

To distinguish the proletariat from the complacent, Daumier-like bourgeoisie in the left-hand register of Fildes' illustration, simply contrast the dust-covered, berumpled working man's garb and worn boots with the spotless, black broadcloth, well-maintained shoes, and respectable silk hats of the clerical group. Although not an Anglican clergyman himself, Mayor Sapsea, left of centre, "dresses" the part of the Bishop of Cloisterham to admiration, so that only his extroverted pomposity and corpulence distinguish him from the genuine articles: Mr. Tope, the Verger (extreme right, holding the umbrella); the Dean, restraining a laugh, centre rear; and Mr. Jasper, the choirmaster (his identity unequivocally established by his music portfolio). The "sign" of Stony Durdles' profession (aside from his being emphatically not a "Mr.") is his dinner-bag. Significantly, John Jasper stands tentatively on the curb between the respectably-clad power-brokers on the sidewalk and the self-assertive worker in the middle of the narrow street.

In a sense, the plate thrusts us both forward and backward in the text: we suspect that the projected tour of the crypts is involved in his plan to eliminate his rival for Rosa's affections, and recall the earlier descriptions of the expansive, xenophobic Sapsea at the beginning of Chapter 4 ("Mr. Sapsea"), when the Mayor consulted the choirmaster about the design of his wife's tomb, and of the churlish, laconic, Cockneyish Durdles a few pages later:

In a suit of coarse flannel with horn buttons, a yellow neckerchief with draggled ends, an old hat more russet-coloured than black, and laced boots of the hue of his stony calling. Durdles leads a hazy, gipsy sort of life, carrying his dinner about with him in a small bundle, and sitting on all manner of tombstones to dine. [Penguin ed., 41]

This is by far Fildes' most effective group scene, with each of the characters well distinguished and depicted in reasonable scale and detail, and the backdrop well delineated. The realistic backdrop Fildes based on sketches he had made in the immediate vicinity of Rochester Cathedral, "although in the published design there is substituted a gateway different from that existing at this spot, in order to assist, no doubt, in promoting the novelist's obvious intention of disguising the identity of 'Cloisterham' " (Kitton, 211).

Behind the group are buildings with chimney pots (presumably residences), a buttress and a gothic window, and to either side of the road tombs, tombstones, and the iron railing of a cemetery, all suggestive of the profession of the stone-mason rather than the vocation of the ecclesiastical gentlemen, whose respectable tailcoats, trousers, and silk hats mark them as outsiders in Durdles' sphere. Perhaps the necessity of remaining in Durdles' good graces prevents John Jasper from joining in the suppressed laughter of the others on the pavement.

The caption itself relates to Mayor Sapsea's concern about the safety of his "friend" the choirmaster in the potentially-dangerous tour of "tombs, vaults, towers, and ruins" that he is about to undertake. Durdles (serving as Dickens's spokesperson against such pretension) chastises the politician for abusing the term "friend":

'With submission to his Reverence the Dean, if you'll mind what concerns you, Mr. Sapsea, Durdles he'll mind what concerns him.'

'You're out of temper,' says Mr. Sapsea, winking to the company to observe how smoothly he will manage him. 'My friend concerns me, and Mr. Jasper is my friend. And you are my friend.'

'Don't you get into a bad habit of boasting,' retorts Durdles, with a grave cautionary nod. 'It'll grow upon you.'

David Paroissien's editorial note about the manuscript reading is pertinent here since it sheds light on Durdles' motivation: 'You'll be boasting, before long, that His Reverence the Dean is your friend, And if you don't check yourself we shall have you, next, claiming the bishop.' (Penguin edn., 353). Thus, Durdles deflates the social climbing civic official as an abuser of the language, confusing "acquaintance" and "friend." The muted gaiety of the observers of this interchange, then, is at the expense of Sapsea rather than of Durdles, who remains separated from the group as much by his blunt forthrightness as by his working-class clothing.


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.

Kitton, Frederic G. Dickens and His Illustrators: Cruikshank, Seymour, Buss, "Phiz," Cattermole, Leech, Doyle, Stanfield, Maclise, Tenniel, Frank Stone, Landseer, Palmer, Topham, Marcus Stone, and Luke Fildes. Amsterdam: S. Emmering, 1972. Re-print of the London 1899 edition.

Walters, J. Cuming. The Complete "Mystery of Edwin Drood" by Charles Dickens: The History, Continuations, and Solutions (1870-1912). With a portrait illustrations by Sir Luke Fildes, R. A., F. G. Kitton. Facsimiles and a Bibliography. London: Chapman & Hall, Ld., 1912.

Last modified 24 June 2005