Creative Commons License
Victorians Institute Journal Annex content in NINES is protected by a Creative Commons License.
Peer Reviewed

"Bird's-Eye View": The Tower Raven Myth, Nonhuman Panopticism, and Dickens’s Construction of Cloisterham in Edwin Drood, by Max Hohner, Arizona State University

Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex

A well-known legend involving the famous former prison called the Tower of London and the group of ravens that inhabit it says that the “day the last of the king’s ravens disappears from the tower, the walls of London’s medieval fortress will crumble and her dominions will cease to exist.”@ While this myth surrounding the Tower Ravens is known throughout the world, the history of how it came about has been neglected and misunderstood. For instance, many think the Tower Raven Myth originated during the reign of Charles II but ravens were not placed in the Tower until 1883.@ Others consider the Tower Raven Myth a Victorian flight of fancy, even though the legend did not appear in print until July, 15 1947.@ Because of the popularity of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” (1845), the Baltimore Ravens professional football team, the dark coloring of ravens, and their reputation for consuming flesh, most US readers, and many other readers throughout the world, likely consider the raven to be a foreboding symbol. However, because of the Tower Raven Myth, in England, ravens have come to be “celebrated as a symbol of Britain”.@
How exactly the Tower Raven Myth became popular, though, has yet to be fully uncovered. We do know that the Tower Raven Myth, which foretells the end of Britain, was first mentioned in print three days before the Indian Independence Act 1947 received royal assent. I argue that the idea behind the Myth implies that the Tower Ravens can watch over and maintain a vast empire, that this idea emerged in the nineteenth century, and that Charles Dickens directly contributed to the Tower Raven Myth’s rise to prominence. In the nineteenth century, viewing the ravens as guardians of the Empire could function as a means of assuaging the anxieties of British citizens who saw the stability of their empire threatened by colonial uprisings such as the first two Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-42; 1878-81) and the Indian Mutiny (1857-59). In Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), the ancient cathedral city of Cloisterham is overwhelmed by the influx of non-English objects, goods, and people from the Colonial East, such as opium, Oriental sweetmeats, and the Landless twins, yet the rooks who inhabit the cathedral continuously keep watch.@ Rooks are close relatives of ravens in that both species of bird belong to the corvidae family and are collectively known as “corvids.”@ Dickens introduced the idea of a group of corvids who inhabit a tower helping to maintain the dominions of empire well before the Tower Raven Myth was first mentioned in print. Before proceeding with my analysis of Edwin Drood, I examine recent scholarship on the topic of empire in the novel, the history of the constantly changing cultural perception of ravens in Britain, Dickens’s own fondness for ravens, and the concept I call “nonhuman panopticism” to provide pertinent context for understanding how Dickens establishes the Cathedral Rooks as defenders and surveyors of the Empire.
The constant inflow of colonial goods in Edwin Drood makes the topic of empire a subject that scholars of the novel consistently focus on.@ Martin Dubois accurately outlines the current state of the critical discussion concerning empire in Edwin Drood when he posits that “most recent commentators seem agreed that the customary forms of Cloisterham life [. . .] are under pressure from the colonial margins” but “There is disagreement over whether the saturation of Cloisterham by the East is reversible, and over whether Dickens desired or intended to have it reversed.”@ Dubois’s assessment implies that critical discussion of empire in Edwin Drood often focuses on what the novel can tell us about Dickens’s stance on both the continuous import of Eastern objects and whether or not its effects, such as colonial contamination, the destabilization of English identity, and the realization that maintaining a vast empire is very difficult, can be reversed. However, I argue that the issue at stake in Edwin Drood is not whether the effects of vast colonial importation can be reversed, but how those effects can best be managed.
One significant effect, which emphasizes the importance of management, and waste management in particular, is colonial contamination. Several critics note the contaminating influence of imported objects in Edwin Drood. For instance, Marlene Tromp posits that, in Edwin Drood, “the English homeland becomes a site of contamination, rather than healing – a result of economic contact with a polluting Eastern world.”@ The import of colonial goods alters the landscape of England, turning it into a wasteland so to speak. Moreover, according to Grace Moore, “by the end of his career, Dickens had conflated colonial commodities with imperial waste.”@ Avid readers of Dickens know that he focuses heavily on the topic of waste in his last completed novel and the predecessor to Edwin Drood, Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), in which human “watermen” that Dickens refers to as “birds of prey” scavenge the Thames.@ Dickens portrays a similar concept in Edwin Drood, but shifts his focus more directly to imperial waste and presents the rooks who occupy Cloisterham Cathedral as the birds that manage the waste.
One might wonder if developing the Cathedral Rooks to symbolize the maintenance of empire indicates that Dickens assumed an imperialist stance in composing Edwin Drood. In examining Dickens’s attitude toward the influx of colonial goods, scholarship on the subject of empire in Edwin Drood tends to address whether the novel can be considered an imperialist or anti-imperialist work. Dickens certainly expressed trepidation over the threat posed by colonial uprisings in pieces such as “The Peril of Certain English Prisoners” (1857), which he and Collins composed during the Indian Mutiny for an extra Christmas number of Household Worlds.@ Critics often cite “The Peril of Certain English Prisoners” as a clear instance where Dickens displays an imperialist attitude. For example, Maria K. Bachman posits that “Rather than unleashing actual violence against the Hindu and Muslim Sepoys who had rebelled against and murdered British officers, women, and children, Dickens used the extra Christmas number of Household Worlds as a vehicle to publicly vent his fury and to provoke further nationalist hysteria.”@ While “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners” certainly demonstrates an imperialist attitude on Dickens’s part, that short story was primarily written as a reaction to the atrocities committed during the Indian Mutiny. Christopher Herbert highlights Dickens’s “violent, uncontrollable loathing of slavery” and the effect the Mutiny had on the British population if its events “could induce a man [opposed to slavery] to utter the kinds of racially abusive sentiments that he did [. . .] in his notorious Christmas story.”@ Herbert’s comments point to both the fear British citizens felt with regard to colonial uprisings and the fact that Dickens, as a British citizen, expressed both imperialist and anti-imperialist sentiments throughout his life. In exploring Dickens’s construction of the Cathedral Rooks in Edwin Drood, I suggest shifting scholarly focus away from whether the novel is an imperialist or anti-imperialist text and toward the intricacies of how Dickens dealt with the trepidation induced by colonial uprisings.
Dickens grapples with the fear that the British Empire might fall by portraying the Cathedral Rooks in Edwin Drood as protectors and surveyors of empire as well as managers of imperial waste, and does so by drawing on the lengthy and complex history of the constantly changing perception of ravens in British culture. As far back as the sixteenth century, ravens were appreciated by the British people and even protected by British law because “they eat carrion, which would otherwise putrefy” and “infect the air.”@ Through their willingness to scavenge, ravens help with the management of waste in Britain. However, the Crown’s legal posture regarding ravens changed in the seventeenth century when Charles II allowed for bounties to be placed on the corvids because they consume grains in addition to carrion and waste and could thus impact the economic viability of farmers.@ The results of this shift in legal attitude are demonstrated by parish records from the county where Edwin Drood takes place, Kent, which show that only 14 ravens were killed prior to 1676, but 198 more were slain by 1690.@ One bounty hunter, Robert Smith, notes that the decline in the raven population was not immediately visible to the average British citizen because “ravens continued to be fairly common in London for well over a century after [the reign of Charles II].”@ According to Boria Sax, though, by the nineteenth century, “the work of bounty hunters such as Smith began to take its toll” and “ravens in London had become rare.”@ Sax goes on to explain that “Ravens began to seem exotic as they gradually disappeared from the skies of London in the early nineteenth century.”@ The rarity of spotting a raven sweeping through London’s skies in the early nineteenth century caused British citizens to exoticize the birds and subsequently appreciate them once again, albeit in a different way. Over the span of 300 years, ravens went from being valued for their help in the disposal of waste, to being hunted out of the skies because they consume grain and crops, and to being prized again, but in an exoticized way, once their numbers were depleted due to the hunting.
The cultural perception of ravens in Britian continued to change throughout the nineteenth century as well. Ravens went from being adored for their rareness and exoticism in the early nineteenth century to being considered “harbingers of doom” in the late nineteenth century because of their dark complexion, proclivity to consume flesh, and penchant for gathering around foreboding sites such as scaffolds. @ Beginning in 1883, ravens were brought to the Tower of London and domesticated there to help dramatize executions specifically because they were considered harbingers of doom. @ The first two known visual depictions of ravens at the Tower also appeared in 1883.@ These include an illustrated children’s book entitled London Town and a special issue of the newspaper The Pictorial World that focuses entirely “On the Tower of London” and features J. O’Connor’s illustration of a raven near the scaffold where executions took place.@ Dickens draws on the numerous roles ravens have fulfilled culturally throughout British history when depicting the Cathedral Rooks in Edwin Drood. As scavengers that prevent carrion from putrefying the air, corvids embody the effective management of waste, and, when positioned as sentries in a city saturated with colonial influence, they possess the potential to embody the effective management of imperial waste. Furthermore, birds of prey are generally known for their superior eyesight, which helps Dickens establish the Cathedral Rooks as overseers of the Empire. Dickens also challenges the idea that ravens are harbingers of doom, which was popular at the time he composed Edwin Drood and still persists in many circles today, by making the Cathedral Rooks a reassuring symbol rather than a foreboding one. Because of the Tower Raven Myth, ravens fulfill a reassuring and hopeful role in British culture today as a symbol of that nation’s perseverance. Dickens’s portrayal of the Cathedral Rooks in Edwin Drood influenced this most recent shift in the cultural perception of ravens in Britain.
Dickens’s decision to portray corvids, other birds of prey, and additional birds in his fiction stems from his own fondness for avian creatures, which inspired him to keep two ravens as pets. His first fictional raven, Grip, appears in Barnaby Rudge (1841) as the eponymous character’s companion.@ In the preface to the 1849 edition of the novel, Dickens explains that “The raven in this story is a compound of two great originals, of whom I have been, at different times, the proud possessor.”@ Dickens goes on to give a brief account of his time with the two pet ravens who both unfortunately passed away, and remarks that he wanted to be sure to mention his ravens in the preface since concern over the possible extinction of ravens persisted at the time.@ Dickens later adopts the persona of a raven for a poem he published in Household Words on April 6, 1850 called “Perfect Felicity. In a Bird’s-Eye View.” The raven narrator says,
I AM the Raven in the Happy Family—and nobody knows what a life of misery I lead!
The dog informs me (he was a puppy about town before he joined us; which was lately) that there is more than one Happy Family on view in London. Mine, I beg to say, may be known by being the Family which contains a splendid Raven.@
Dickens gestures to the uniqueness and joy of keeping ravens as pets in the last line of the poem and to the potential extinction of ravens when the raven narrator exclaims that he leads a life of misery. The idea that certain species of birds may be nearing extinction due to the bounties placed on them is also emphasized in David Copperfield (1849-50) by the irony of the fact that David’s father names the Copperfield home Blunderstone Rookery even though all the nests on the property have been empty for years.@ Dickens’s concern over the loss of his own ravens and the possible extinction of ravens and other species of birds indicates that Dickens was very fond of corvids and did not want to see them become extinct. In Edwin Drood, Dickens challenges the cultural perception that ravens are harbingers of doom in an effort to remake their image and potentially slow the rate at which they were hunted out of the skies.
The Cathedral Rooks from Edwin Drood represent hope rather than doom by symbolizing the effective maintenance and surveillance of empire through what I call “nonhuman panopticism.” Following Bentham’s Panopticon design, the concept of “nonhuman panopticism” places corvids or other birds of prey in a “guardian” type of position, only the avian creatures survey colonial intruders rather than prison inmates. Bentham’s Panopticon design is based on the illusion of being watched; because the inmates cannot see the guardian, they must assume a guardian is always present and act accordingly.@ While the Panopticon model obviously exerts tremendous influence over prison inmates, one should also consider the impact it has on the public outside the prison. Knowing that society’s most contemptible offenders are not only locked away but locked away in a place where they will be psychologically conditioned to behave in a certain manner must be a comforting thought. The Tower Raven Myth also provides a false sense of security by reassuring British citizens that the Crown will not fall as long as ravens are present in the Tower. Likewise, the rooks from Edwin Drood create the illusion that colonial intruders are being constantly watched, monitored, and surveyed so that the imperial waste accumulating in Cloisterham does not overtake the ancient Cathedral city. The parallels between the Tower Raven Myth and the function of the Cathedral Rooks from Edwin Drood indicate that Dickens’s final novel impacted the development of the Tower Raven Myth.
Readers unfamiliar with The Mystery of Edwin Drood should note that the novel’s plot revolves around life in Cloisterham, which is Dickens’s fictional stand-in for the ancient cathedral city of Rochester. The eponymous character and a young woman called Rosa Bud are both orphans who were betrothed to each other in their fathers’ wills. Edwin’s uncle, John Jasper, is the choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral and an opium addict who is obsessed with Rosa. Opium is only one of the numerous Eastern objects that appears in Cloisterham. When Neville and Helena Landless, who are twins from Ceylon, arrive in Cloisterham, both the colonial presence in the cathedral city and the dramatic tension in the novel are heightened. Ceylon is known today as Sri Lanka and is located just off the coast of the Indian Subcontinent. Dramatic tension is heightened when Neville falls in love with Rosa and immediately despises Edwin, which leads to several important events that unfold on Christmas Eve when Jasper arranges a meeting between Edwin and Neville so that the two can resolve their differences. Prior to the meeting, Edwin and Rosa mutually decide to break off their engagement, and Edwin disappears before Christmas Morning. Neville is immediately arrested for the disappearance of Edwin but released to the custody of his mentor, Reverend Septimus Crisparkle, who serves as the minor canon of Cloisterham Cathedral. Neville, Crisparkle, Jasper, and others work to solve the mystery of Edwin’s disappearance, but great suspicion surrounds Jasper and Dickens only completed six of twelve planned installments before he passed away in 1870. The sixth and final installment Dickens completed provides the same image the novel opens with: Jasper desperately trying to arrive at choral service on time after spending the night in a London opium den. My analysis focuses first on Dickens’s construction of Cloisterham and his positioning of the Cathedral Rooks at a central vantage point, then on the members of the clergy who are referred to as “rooks” and conduct surveillance, and finally on the process which enables the Cathedral Rooks to constitute a reassuring image.
Dickens’s Construction of Cloisterham in Edwin Drood
Dickens coveys the idea that the Cathedral Rooks can manage and watch over the vast British Empire in Edwin Drood through the novel’s setting. The narrative mainly unfolds in Cloisterham, which is based on the real cathedral city of Rochester.@ Because Rochester is best known for its impressive cathedral, this structure is the centrepiece of the city, and thus Dickens places the rooks at a central vantage point when he explains that they inhabit the Cathedral. When first describing the city, the narrator says that “In a word, a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral-bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, [and] its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath.”@ By referring to Cloisterham as a “city of another and a bygone time” Dickens connects Cloisterham to the concept of Englishness. The city represents England’s rich history and longstanding presence as a power in the world because Cloisterham, like England, has been around a very long time. The rooks are cited, along with the Cathedral-bell and clergy, as one example that demonstrates the ancientness of Cloisterham. Thus, the rooks are also connected to the concept of Englishness, and one can infer that, as long as the rooks still hover about, the Cathedral will stand, and England will still be a prominent power in the world. Because the rooks hover about the Cathedral tower, they occupy one of the highest vantage points in the city. This gives the reader the impression that the birds, with their superior eyesight, can see everything that goes on in Cloisterham.
The ability of the Cathedral Rooks to monitor everything that goes on in Cloisterham is dependent on two factors: height and centrality. These factors are emphasized by the serial illustration that opens Edwin Drood and the map of Cloisterham that accompanies the novel, respectively. Both Cloisterham Castle and Cloisterham Cathedral appear in the opening illustration, which is titled “The Medway with the Castle and Cathedral” (See Figure 1). The two structures are somewhat obscured by dense foliage, which heightens the aura of mystery surrounding the text, but the highest point of each building is clearly visible. Before the first chapter, readers know that the Castle and Cathedral are the two tallest features of Cloisterham. This illustration also reveals that the Castle and Cathedral are both located near the River Medway that borders Cloisterham, and several boats appear on the waterway in the image. Because Dickens connects Cloisterham to the concept of Englishness in the first description of the city from Edwin Drood, the vessels sailing the River Medway in the illustration could be perceived as ships carrying foreign invaders. Moreover, since the River Medway empties into the Thames Estuary where the Thames meets the North Sea, the ships in the picture really could be carrying foreign invaders. If so, Cloisterham Castle and Cloisterham Cathedral stand tall as imposing structures that would intimidate any intruder. The choice of “The Medway with the Castle and Cathedral” as the opening illustration for Edwin Drood firmly establishes the layout of the city so that readers know the Castle and Cathedral are the two highest structures in Cloisterham and the ancient city stands ready to defend itself from foreign intrusion. Because the novel is set in the nineteenth century, though, rather than the medieval period for instance, defense of the city from foreign intrusion manifests in a metaphysical rather than physical manner. No sentry literally guards the gates of the city, but the rooks who inhabit Cloisterham Cathedral keep watch.
Figure 1
While “The Medway with the Castle and Cathedral” illustration demonstrates the height of Cloisterham Cathedral, the map of Cloisterham that also accompanies the novel displays the Cathedral’s centrality (See Figure 2). Even though Cloisterham Castle appears slightly taller than Cloisterham Cathedral in the opening illustration, the map indicates that the Cathedral still provides a better vantage point for the rooks because of the Cathedral’s central location. The castle is located off to the side, which means that if the rooks were to inhabit it, they might not be able to see everything that goes on in the city. At its central location, the Cathedral provides the optimal position for the rooks to conduct surveillance. With the idea of nonhuman panopticism in mind, the central location of the Cathedral is crucial to the rooks representing the effective maintenance and surveillance of empire. If one compares the map of Cloisterham to William Reveley’s 1791 illustration of Bentham’s Panopticon prison design, parallels between the location of Cloisterham Cathedral and the position occupied by Bentham’s guardian figure become clear (See Figure 3). The guardian is placed exactly in the middle of the prison, which actually possesses a circular design, so that every prisoner knows he or she can be seen by the guardian. Although Cloisterham does not possess a circular design, when considering the centrality of the Cathedral on the map, the height of the Cathedral in the opening illustration, and the superior eyesight that birds of prey possess, the rooks who inhabit the Cathedral can easily see everything that occurs in Cloisterham.
Figure 2
Figure 3
Winged and Earthbound Rooks as Figure of Surveillance
When Dickens mentions the “hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath” in the first description of Cloisterham from Edwin Drood, he refers to the clergy who inhabit the cathedral, and the correlation between the corvids and the clerics affirms that the birds live in a mode of surveillance. The rook is a traditional image for the clergy, and the clergy in Edwin Drood are constantly monitoring the movements of other characters. For instance, in one early scene, the Dean at Cloisterham Cathedral inquires to Mr. Tope, the Cathedral’s verger, about Jasper. Jasper’s late-night activities at a London opium den in the first chapter nearly cause him to be late for choral service, so Tope reports to the Dean that Jasper “‘has been took a little poorly.’”@ In reply, the Dean instructs Tope to say “taken.” Dickens’s narrator then points out the condescending aspect of the Dean’s personality by explaining that his words should be interpreted as “‘You may offer bad grammar to the laity, or the humbler clergy, not to the Dean.’”@ The Dean’s patronizing tone reinforces his authority, and his inquiry about Jasper implies that the Dean is a figure who gathers information and scrutinizes the actions of other individuals very closely. The Dean is concerned with Jasper’s disorderliness and charges Tope with keeping an eye on the choirmaster. Therefore, Dickens establishes that both the winged and earthbound rooks of Edwin Drood concentrate on conducting surveillance.
When describing the Dean and Tope, Dickens refers to both men as rooks, therefore reinforcing the connection between the corvids and clergy who occupy the Cathedral. The connection between the two types of rooks from the novel is crucial because the clergy function as the only form of authority in the ancient Cathedral City besieged by colonial influence. Bentham thought the Panopticon design could be beneficial to hospitals, schools, workhouses, lunatic asylums, and other similar institutions as well as prisons. Each of the examples just listed features some type of authority figure, such as chief administrator, headmaster, or warden, who presides over the institution. The aspect of authority is significant because the inmates being watched must assume that, if they do not behave accordingly and the guardian observes their misconduct, they will be disciplined. While the Cathedral Rooks clearly demonstrate the ability to survey and manage the influx of colonial goods and people, they do not necessarily possess the authority necessary to bring order to a vast and chaotic empire. The clerics do provide that authority, though, at least in Cloisterham, the ancient city that Dickens stipulates is representative of Englishness.
That authority may even be transferrable to the birds, because the clerics are also called rooks and, like their avian counterparts, inhabit the Cathedral. When describing the clergy, Dickens describes behavioral patterns that emphasize authority and animalistic conduct. According to the narrator,
Whosoever has observed that sedate and clerical bird, the rook, may perhaps have noticed that when he wings his way homeward towards nightfall, in a sedate and clerical company, two rooks will suddenly detach themselves from the rest, will retrace their flight for some distance, and will there poise and linger; conveying to mere men the fancy that it is of some occult importance to the body politic, that this artful couple should pretend to have renounced connexion with it.”@
The behavioral pattern described by the narrator elucidates how, within the hierarchy of the clergy, certain clerical rooks work to reinforce the authority they hold over other members of the clergy. Two clerical rooks will break off from the rest of the group and congregate as a pair to emphasize the importance of the privileged topic on which they focus. Although Dickens discusses the clerical rooks in this passage, he uses animalistic terms, such as “detach,” “flight,” “poise,” and “couple,” to describe the behavior of the clergy. Dickens’s choice of language implies that the nonhuman rooks likely behave in a similar manner. If detachment and isolation emphasize authority for both types of rooks amongst other rooks of their own kind, then the height of the Cathedral, which isolates its tallest point from the rest of city, helps emphasize the authority of the nonhuman rooks.
The behavioral pattern of the clerical rooks described by the narrator is demonstrated with the specific example of the Dean and Tope, when they part from the rest of the clergy just after choral service to discuss Jasper. Since both the winged and earthbound rooks conduct surveillance in Edwin Drood, paying attention to which members of the clergy monitor the habits of other characters is key to understanding how authority is established in the novel. Just after describing the behavioral pattern of rooks, the narrator says that, “Similarly, service being over in the old Cathedral with the square tower, and the choir scuffling out again, and divers venerable persons of rook-like aspect dispersing, two of these latter retrace their steps, and walk together in the echoing Close.”@ The two “rook-like” clerics who detach from the rest of the group in this instance are the Dean and Tope. While Tope’s position as verger is a minor one, he mainly conducts surveillance of Jasper on behalf of the Dean, who commands authority as the most senior clergyman. In addition to the Dean and Tope, the other members of the clergy who also take part in the art of observation are Crisparkle and Jasper. Like the Dean, Crisparkle and Jasper both command authority through their positions in the clergy. Even though Crisparkle serves as minor canon, he is offered the unique opportunity of watching over the colonial interlopers, Neville and Helena Landless. Although Jasper ends up detaching from the rest of the clergy in a more insubordinate way and only conducts surveillance for his own gain, Jasper’s title of choirmaster evokes the idea of authority through the term “master.” Because the three primary figures who engage in surveillance, the Dean, Crisparkle, and Jasper, all hold some position of authority among the clergy, and the clergy and nonhuman rooks are continuously connected throughout the novel, Dickens indicates that both groups behave in a hierarchical manner, thus reinforcing the idea that both groups hold authority and enforce discipline.
The characters being observed by the clergy provide examples of Eastern influence encroaching on the very ancient and highly English landscape of Cloisterham. The Dean and Tope observe Jasper, who through his addiction brings the corrupting presence of opium to the cathedral city, while the Ceylonese Landless twins that Crisparkle watches evoke the immigration of colonial subjects from the Eastern margins to the English homeland. The traditional, ancient, historical, and very English setting initially described by the narrator is disrupted by the influx of colonial goods and people. On the day that Crisparkle learns the Landless twins will be arriving in Cloisterham the narrator describes the reverend’s home as calm and serene. According to the narrator, “Minor Canon Corner was a quiet place in the shadow of the Cathedral, which the cawing of the rooks, the echoing footsteps of rare passengers, the sound of the Cathedral bell, or the roll of the Cathedral organ, seemed to render more quiet than absolute silence.”@ Crisparkle’s home is “quiet” despite the noises of caws, footsteps, bells, and organs. All these sounds render the scene “more quiet than absolute silence” because they are associated with traditional Englishness, which is considered a placid condition in the novel. When first describing Cloisterham, Dickens associates the rooks and the Cathedral-bell with Englishness, so one can assume that other aspects of the Cathedral, such as the organ, would be considered very English as well. The footsteps do not disrupt the tranquility of Crisparkle’s home because they are rare. Minor Canon Corner is dwarfed by the shadow of the Cathedral to once again emphasize how high the Cathedral reaches. The peacefulness of the scene foreshadows the disruptive presence of the Landless twins.
While Crisparkle’s surveillance of the Landless twins follows the pattern already established by the Dean and Tope of monitoring colonial objects or people that interfere with traditional English life in Cloisterham, Jasper breaks with the pattern by focusing his attention on three individuals caught in a love triangle, Edwin, Rosa, and Neville, for his own purposes because Jasper himself is infatuated with Rosa. Neville’s fiery passion for Rosa introduces tension to the comfortable way of life in Cloisterham, but Jasper’s own affection for Rosa sets a dramatic sequence of events in motion even before Neville’s arrival. The first description of Cloisterham actually occurs in the third chapter, just before readers are first introduced to Rosa and Edwin arrives at the Nuns’ House, where Rosa is receiving her education, to meet with her. After mentioning that Cloisterham is a city of a “bygone time” with a hoarse Cathedral-bell, “hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower,” and hoarser rooks in the stalls beneath, Dickens’s narrator goes on to describe Cloisterham as a “drowsy,” “monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthly flavor throughout, from its Cathedral Crypt.”@ Dickens associates the cathedral city with Englishness by calling Cloisterham a city of a “bygone time,” and Edwin and Rosa could function as the quintessential couple, but the setting of their courtship is a “drowsy,” “monotonous,” “silent,” and very bleak one, their engagement is prearranged, and they eventually break it off. As the opium addict with a dangerous and violent passion for Rosa, Jasper poses a threat to Edwin and Rosa’s romantic relationship. When Chapter 3 opens, the bleak and foreboding imagery that surrounds the rooks and Cloisterham implies that Jasper may be watching the scene that unfolds between Edwin and Rosa in Chapter 3, because he has just met with Edwin in Chapter 2 and inquired about Rosa during their conversation. Jasper’s choices to consume Eastern products, such as opium, and utilize his clerical position of authority to monitor the daily activities of Edwin and Rosa consequently help undermine the authority of the clerical rooks and highlight the difficulties of maintaining a vast empire.
Jasper conceives an elaborate plan, which may or may not be to murder Edwin since Dickens did not finish the novel, and the process through which Jasper constructs his plan helps illustrate both the observational power of the Cathedral Rooks and the tension they must monitor. When conceiving his plan, Jasper scouts the Cathedral’s crypt, and, while exploring the crypt one night, Jasper and his guide Durdles hear “the chirp of some startled jackdaw or frightened rook” and “the heavy beating of wings in a confined space” just before reaching the top of the massive tower where “At last [. . .] they look down on Cloisterham, fair to see in the moonlight: its ruined habitations and sanctuaries of the dead, at the tower’s base.”@ The ascent of Jasper and Durdles embodies the potential rise of the trapped rook they encounter on their way to the top. A sensation of freedom comes over the reader as Jasper and Durdles are able to look down at last. Here these two human characters are given the bird’s-eye view, or point of view that the rooks possess, which enables the reader to better grasp the immensity of the rooks’ field of vision. What Jasper and Durdles see is intriguing as well because Cloisterham is still described as ancient but no longer peaceful. The “ruined habitations” at the “tower’s base” indicate the landscape has become more of a wasteland, and the “sanctuaries of the dead” foreshadow Edwin’s impending disappearance. The altered Cloisterham landscape that Jasper and Durdles observe evokes the tension that has been introduced to the cathedral city through colonial incursion, and that tension comes to a head when Edwin disappears.
Prior to his disappearance, Edwin meets with Rosa earlier in the day on Christmas Eve, the two decide to end their engagement, and rooks hover above the two during their conversation, indicating that not only Jasper surveys the couple, but the birds that defend the British Empire do so as well. The narrator says that “The bright frosty day declined as they walked and spoke together. The sun dipped in the river far behind them, and the old city lay red before them, as their walk drew to a close. The moaning water cast its seaweed duskily at their feet, when they turned to leave its margin; and the rooks hovered above them with hoarse cries, darker splashes in the darkening air.”@ The hoarse cries of the rooks that make “darker splashes in the darkening air” provide foreboding imagery that foreshadows Edwin’s impending disappearance. Furthermore, Cloisterham lays red before Edwin and Rosa and the color red evokes the fiery passion of both Jasper and Neville. Although we do not know how or why Edwin disappears, if he is captured or killed, either Jasper or Neville is most likely the culprit. Edwin represents the dominance of the British Empire because he not only intends to work in Egypt as an engineer after he graduates but to “wake up Egypt a little.”@ Both Jasper and Neville, as an Englishman corrupted by the Eastern influence of opium and someone actually from the Eastern world respectively, threaten the dominance and stability of the British Empire through the threat they each pose to Edwin’s well-being. The events that unfold leading up to Edwin’s disappearance on Christmas Eve elucidate the process that enables the Cathedral Rooks to constitute a reassuring symbol. When the rooks hover above Edwin and Rosa earlier in the day on Christmas Eve, Dickens establishes that the Empire is being watched over by its guardians.
Assuaging the Fear of Colonial Incursion
The process that enables the Cathedral Rooks to constitute a hopeful visage involves three crucial steps: the presence of a threat that would undermine the Empire, direct contact with that threat, and perseverance of the Empire after the threat has passed. The first step occurs consistently throughout the novel as numerous colonial objects appear in Cloisterham, but is brought to the forefront as Edwin journeys to meet Jasper and Neville on Christmas Eve. Edwin passes by “the faces of Cloisterham children, now the faces of men and women who come back from the outer world at long intervals to find the city wonderfully shrunken in size, as if it had not washed by any means well in the meanwhile.”@ These faces represent the everyday Cloisterham inhabitants who are most effected by colonial incursion. They find their city “shrunken in size” as Eastern influence continues to consume Cloisterham, and their fears are represented by the statement that Cloisterham has not been “washed by any means well” because the colonial contamination has not yet been purged. The Cathedral Rooks may not be able to purge colonial influence, but they can monitor and manage it, thus rendering it less threatening. The narrator goes on to say that “To these [faces], the striking of the Cathedral clock, and the cawing of the rooks from the Cathedral tower, are like voices of their nursery time. [. . .] so have the rustling sounds and fresh scents of their earliest impression revived when the circle of their lives was very nearly traced, and the beginning and the end were drawing close together .”@ Here Dickens brings the past and the present, the beginning and the end, together to imply that the tension tormenting Cloisterham may very well lead to doom or destruction. The rooks provide a reassuring presence, though, because their caws harken back to an earlier “nursery” time, perhaps one before colonial besiegement, for the fearful Cloisterham inhabitants.
The second step plays out when Edwin, the representative of British dominance, comes into contact with Neville, the colonial other, at Jasper’s Gatehouse later that evening and drama ensues. The tension between Edwin and Neville begins to affect the surrounding landscape as a storm arises. This tempest represents the threat posed by colonial intrusion because during the storm the nest of the Cathedral Rooks is endangered. According to the narrator, “The darkness is augmented and confused by flying dust from the earth, dry twigs from the trees, and great ragged fragments from the rooks’ nests up in the tower.”@ The novel’s symbols most closely connected to Englishness, the rooks and their vitality, Edwin, and Cloisterham itself, are each threatened in this passage. The rooks, as well as their nests and thus their chance to propagate, could be torn asunder. Readers know that the novel is titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that a foreboding aura has persisted throughout Christmas Eve, and that Edwin is meeting with his two most dangerous rivals. When trees are uprooted, the very landscape of Cloisterham itself is endangered, implying that Eastern influence may completely engulf the ancient Cathedral City. What colonial incursion ultimately represents then is the instability of English identity. As more and more goods filter into the English homeland from the East and become part of everyday English life, various English habits and customs are replaced by Eastern ones. The danger to the rooks’ nests, which Dickens hints could be torn apart during the storm, indicates that the threat from the colonial margins reaches its peak during Edwin and Neville’s final confrontation. Neville is arrested after Edwin goes missing the next morning, and Crisparkle attempts to clear Neville’s name, but unfortunately we do not know what ending Dickens intended for his last novel.
Dickens does provide a sense of closure, though, in the final chapter that he did write, and that chapter includes the third and final step when both the rooks and Cloisterham are shown to have survived the Christmas tempest. Titled “The Dawn Again,” Chapter 23 recalls the first chapter, “The Dawn,” and both chapters focus on Jasper’s efforts to reach choral service on time after spending the night in a London opium den. As the choir performs, “Come sundry rooks, from various quarters of the sky, back to the great tower; who may be presumed to enjoy vibration, and know that bell and organ are going to give it them.”@ This passage provides the first mention of the rooks after the threat to their nests on Christmas Eve sixth months earlier. Not only have the rooks survived, but they have returned to the towing Cathedral. As an unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is most often associated with a lack of closure. Readers do not know what happened to Edwin, who may be responsible for what happened to Edwin, or what will finally play out in the lives of the main characters who reside in Cloisterham. However, the fragment of the narrative we do have is bookended by Jasper’s ventures with opium, which provides the sense that some element of the narrative has come full circle, even if the narrative itself is not complete. I argue that Dickens’s intentions for the Cloisterham Rooks come full circle in the fragment of the novel we do have. Colonial contamination has not been purged from Cloisterham since Edwin’s whereabouts are still unknown, Neville’s guilt is still debatable, and Jasper is still addicted to opium. However, the purpose of the Cathedral Rooks, and the Tower Ravens as well, is not to purge colonial influence but to reassure English citizens that colonial influence can be surveyed and managed. Dickens chooses to bookend the narrative arch of the Cathedral Rooks with the two scenes where Jasper is shown actually smoking opium to emphasize the presence of the rooks and the fact that they will appear when needed most. One can infer that Dickens believes the rooks, the Cathedral, Cloisterham, and even England will endure threats such as the corrupting presence of opium.
With the reappearance of the rooks, Dickens also provides a sense of hope, rather than doom, in the final chapter he wrote. At the time he composed it, ravens were beginning to be viewed as harbingers of doom in Great Britain, and Dickens certainly challenges this idea in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The rooks do not lead to the downfall of Cloisterham, but rather stand out because they constitute the only symbol that indicates Cloisterham will survive the forces that threaten to the tear the city apart. The parallels between Dickens’s Cathedral Rooks and the ravens that inhabit the Tower of London are too significant to be overlooked. Both sets of birds belong to the corvidae family, inhabit a tower, and are closely linked to the perseverance of a city or nation or both. Dickens also refers to Cloisterham Cathedral as “the tower” whenever he discusses the relationship between the rooks and the ancient building. While the Tower Raven Myth is only a myth, and the Cloisterham Rooks are a fictional development that Dickens imbues with intensely symbolic significance, the thoughts behind the processes through which both concepts are constructed can be very revealing. The existence of the Tower Raven Myth indicates that concern exists over whether or not Britain will endure. Dickens shared similar concerns and contributed to the development of the Tower Raven Myth, but his choice of corvids is intriguing. Before the existence of animal rights groups and other organizations, Dickens drew on his own fondness for corvids to imbue the birds with dramatic power in his final novel. At the time, ravens were considered harbingers of doom, and although they still are in the US and other places throughout the world today, in England ravens symbolize the survival of Britain itself, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood was instrumental to reshaping the national perception of ravens in Britain
Bachman, Maria K. “Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and the Perils of Imagined Others.” In
Fear, Loathing, and Victorian Xenophobia, 101-23. Edited by Marlene Tromp, Maria K. Bachman, and Heidi Kaufman. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013.
Bentham, Jeremy. The Works of Jeremy Bentham Published under the Superintendence of His
Executor, John Bowring, 4th vol. 1843. Reprint, Boston: Adamant, 2001.
Crane, Thomas. London Town. 1883. Reprint, London, England: British Library Facsimile
Edition, 2011.
DeWind, John S. “The Empire as Metaphor: England and the East in The Mystery of Edwin
Drood.” Victorian Literature and Culture 21 (1993): 147-167.
Dickens, Charles. Barnaby Rudge. Edited by Clive Hurst. 1841. Reprint, New York: Oxford UP,
---. David Copperfield. Edited by Jeremy Tambling. 1849-50. Reprint, New York: Penguin,
---. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Edited by David Paroissien. 1870. Reprint, New York:
Penguin, 2002.
---. Our Mutual Friend. Edited by Adrian Poole. 1864-65. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 1998.
---. “Perfect Felicity. In a Bird’s-Eye View.” Household Words 1, no. 2 (April 6, 1850): 36.
---. “Preface 1849.” In Barnaby Rudge, 5-8. Edited by Clive Hurst. 1841. Reprint, New York:
Oxford UP, 2009.
Dickens, Charles and Wilkie Collins. “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners and Their
Treasure in Women, Children, Silver, and Jewels.” Household Words Extra Christmas Number (December, 7 1857): 573-608.
Dubois, Martin. “Diverse Strains: Music and Religion in Dickens’s Edwin Drood.” Journal of
Victorian Culture 16, no. 3 (December 2011): 347-62.
Du Mans, Pierre Belon. L’historie De La Nature Des Oyseaux: Fac-Similé De L’édition De
1555. 1555. Reprint, Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A., 1997.
Faulkner, David. “The Confidence Man: Empire and the Deconstruction of Muscular
Christianity in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” In Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age, 175-93. Edited by Donald Hall. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Herbert, Christopher. War of No Pity: The Indian Mutiny and Victorian Trauma. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 2009.
Impey, Edward and Geoffrey Parnell. The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History.
London, England: Merell, 2000.
Jones, E.L. “The Bird Pests of British Agriculture in Recent Centuries.” The Agricultural History
Review 20 (1972): 111.
“London Tower Mystery: A Raven Loses its Head.” The New York Times (New York, New York), Jul. 15, 1947.
Mara, Miriam O’Kane. “Sucking the Empire Dry: Colonial Critique in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 32 (2002): 233-46.
“Master of Ravens.” Star (London, Greater London, England), Apr. 6, 1953.
Moore, Grace. “Turkish Robbers, Lumps of Delight, and the Detritus of Empire: The East Revisited in Dickens’s Late Novels.” Critical Survey 21, no. 1 (2009): 74-84.
O’Connor, J. “On the Tower of London.” The Pictorial World (London, Greater London,
England), Jul. 14, 1883.
Paroissien, David. “Appendix 4: Rochester as Cloisterham.” In The Mystery of Edwin Drood,
300-308. Edited by David Paroissien. 1870. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 2002.
Park, Hyungji. “‘Going to Wake up Egypt’: Exhibiting Empire in Edwin Drood.” Victorian
Literature and Culture 30, no. 2 (2002): 529-50.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” In The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, 422-26. Edited by J. Gerald Kennedy. 1845. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Poon, Angelia. Enacting Englishness in the Victorian Period: Colonialism and the Politics of
Performance. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.
Sax, Boria. City of Ravens: The Extraordinary History of London, the Tower, and Its Ravens.
New York: Duckworth, 2011.
Smith, Robert. The Universal Directory for Taking Alive and Destroying Rats, and All Other
Kinds of Four-Footed and Winged Vermin. 1769. Reprint, Farmington Hills: Gale ECCO Print Editions, 2010.
Ticehurst, N.F. “On the Former Abundance of the Kite, Buzzard, and Raven in Kent.” British
Birds: an illustrated magazine devoted to the birds on the British list (1920): 35.
Tromp, Marlene. “The Pollution of the East: Economic Contamination and Xenophobia in Little
Dorrit and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” In Fear, Loathing, and Victorian Xenophobia, 27-55. Edited by Marlene Tromp, Maria K. Bachman, and Heidi Kaufman. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013.