“Et tu, Drood?”: Rivalry, Identity, and the Undercover Personas of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens in Dan Simmons’s Drood (2009)
The Australian National University
Wilkie Collins—revitalised in Dan Simmons’s 2009 neo-Victorian novel Drood—positions narrative dexterity as the key component of power: “Never underestimate, Dear Reader, the resourcefulness of a novelist in an untenable situation…” (Simmons 478). This missive, delivered as a sly aside reinforcing Collins’s ability to (narratively) extricate himself from compromising circumstances, also contains a clue as to the twist in the novel—wherein themes of detection are ultimately unveiled as authorial competition. Neo-Victorianism’s desire to revivify the dead embodies a fascination with (re)constructing identity via text. As such, Drood becomes a narrative battleground, as Simmons weaves elements from the novels—and the lives—of both Collins and Charles Dickens into his own original story. Dickens’s real-life Staplehurst train crash features prominently in Drood, as does the historical Collins’s unconventional family arrangements with his two common-law wives. Additionally, the word “Unintelligible” links the Victorian and neo-Victorian; it is the final word in Drood, and it also appears in Dickens’s 1870 novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, upon which Simmons’s biofiction is based. Simmons’s Drood is a multi-layered authorial collaboration, and this article examines how neo-Victorian texts focused on Collins harness the power of authorial invention to challenge Dickens’s ostensible authority.
The relationship between Collins and Dickens has been well-documented. Not only were they frequent collaborators—both in text and on the stage—but they also became in-laws when Collins’s younger brother, Charles, wed Dickens’s daughter Katey. Their affiliation is often weighted in favour of Dickens: he was older, more famous, and even Dickens’s daughter arguably married beneath her potential when accepting the Collins surname. Great Writers: An Illustrated Companion to the Lives and Works of Britain’s Most Celebrated Writers (1990) dedicates two of its eleven “Key Dates” (in Collins’s life) to Dickens: meeting Dickens, and Dickens’s death (181). Likewise, a biography of Collins written by his own great grandson-in-law, William M. Clarke, devotes two of its sixteen chapters to exploring Dickens’s significance in Collins’s life history. Entitled The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (1988), and pledging to provide “a simple account of Collins, the man, and the women in his life” (xiii), the book nonetheless demonstrates how even an in-direct Collins descendant (by marriage) cannot resist invoking the allure of the Dickensian when probing Collins’s past.
Neo-Victorian studies affords a similar reverence to Dickens’s legacy. Interest peaked around the 2012 bicentenary celebrations of Dickens’s birth, and it continues today, as evinced by the Dickens After Dickens (2020) edited collection, published in the year commemorating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the author’s death in 1870. Charles Dickens—and more specifically still, his final novel—have captivated neo-Victorian novelists. Pete Orford analyses the allure offered by Dickens’s final novel remaining eternally incomplete. In his 2018 book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’ Unfinished Novel & Our Endless Attempts to End It, Orford explains how “For nearly 150 years, the characters of Dickens’ final story have stood suspended in their plot, with no end before them they gather potential energy, ready for the reader to take them where they will” (14). Neo-Victorian novelists have grasped the opportunity afforded by the novel’s missing conclusion. Gaynor Arnold’s novel Girl in a Blue Dress (2008) reimagines Dickens’s marginalised wife, Catherine (renamed Dorothea Gibson in the novel), as poised to complete Edwin Drood (retitled Ambrose Boniface), to fictively revivify herself. However, while Arnold “position[s] the wife as narratorial detective inspecting memories to uncover the truth of her failed marriage… [which ultimately] imbues Dorothea with the self-assurance to pursue narrative authority” (Ford 78-79), in Drood, Dan Simmons’s Collins exhibits a more cavalier attitude toward detection. In fact, he disregards evidence in favour of his own authorial prowess, as he establishes his narrative identity via collaborative competition between himself and Dickens. Unlike Dorothea, Collins’s detective work is ultimately revealed as a cover for the authorial games he is playing with Dickens.
Collins’s own birth bicentenary is only three years hence, and in honour of this approaching celebration, I propose that Simmons’s biofictional rendering of the Collins character in fact resists the prominence typically ascribed to Dickens. Drood advertisements primarily centre around the text’s investment in Dickens’s life, and the novel’s paratextual material also positions the novel as focused on Dickens, who “took one last secret to his grave” (Simmons cover). As I will outline in the next section, scholarly discussions of Simmons’s biofiction tend to follow suit, which is understandable given the novel’s overt connections to Dickens’s legacy. However, what has not been fully explored are the ways in which Collins’s narrative presence invokes the power of the novelist-turned-detective (who is still, in fact, primarily an undercover author) to challenge Dickens’s control in Simmons’s novel. My reading of Drood thus ascribes more authority to the Collins character than he has traditionally been afforded. Collins as narrator transitions from assuming, at the start of the narrative, that his legacy has not survived the centuries, to questioning the acumen of the more revered Dickens, to literally enacting “the death of the author” by murdering the Dickens character in a dream sequence at the novel’s conclusion. Much like the aforementioned Clarke biography, in a striking twist, the author presumably privileged by the text’s title, is in fact challenged by his friend (and erstwhile rival.) The real-life Dickens is given perplexing pre-eminence in the historical Collins’s biography, while the biofictional Collins—the ostensible understudy—in fact challenges his rival’s supremacy in the neo-Victorian novel allegedly honouring Dickens’s legacy. I suggest that an analysis of this complex slippage of identity—as fictively reimagined in Simmons’s Drood—offers compelling possibilities for Collins’s neo-Victorian afterlife to flourish beyond Dickens’s domain. As such, it is a timely tribute in anticipation of Collins’s impending bicentenary.
The neo-Victorian genre is notorious for its revisionist tendencies, including its predilection for favouring the story of the Victorian ‘nobody’. Samantha J. Carroll has identified the specific types of marginalised people who are given a voice in neo-Victorian texts, including “servants, criminals, women, homosexuals, the colonised races; those political minorities who were vilified or eclipsed by the historical record [now] become its subjects” (195). My reading of Simmons’s novel analyses the Collins character alongside these neo-Victorian stories of the “under-represented.” While it might seem strange to include a famous novelist like Collins in this group, his juxtaposition with Charles Dickens nonetheless tends to relegate him to the margins. Even though Collins is a privileged white male—and thus does not fit into the typically marginalised category—in relation to Dickens he has often been overlooked.
Lillian Nayder has written multiple biographies examining Dickens’s tendency to overshadow everyone in his realm. In 2011, she published a biography of Dickens’s wife Catherine, entitled The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth, which argues for Catherine’s significance despite her husband’s dismissal of her later in life. Prior to this venture, Nayder penned Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship (2002). Here she summarises the accepted imbalance in their relationship:
Collins was to learn—by working with, and for, the ‘Great man’ over the next seventeen years—that Dickens’s influence was constraining as well as inspiring and that comparisons between them usually worked to his own disadvantage. Collins clearly benefited from his association with Dickens and his employment as staff writer and collaborator, yet also chafed under Dickens’s control, and believed that Dickens sometimes got the credit that was due to subordinates. (Nayder 3)
Specifically, Nayder argues that Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster has contributed to these perceptions of inequality by minimising Collins’s presence in his 1872 biography of Dickens. According to Nayder, Forster’s “relegat[ing] Collins to the margins of Dickens’s life” (4) was pivotal in the subsequent critical disparity over the authors’ “relative importance to one another” (4). Narrative control clearly impacts legacy, and in Drood, narrative perspective changes everything.
Nonetheless, scholarly discussions of Drood tend to follow Forster’s lead—established nearly 150 years ago—in dismissing Collins’s significance in relation to Dickens. For instance, Mariaconcetta Costantini’s summary of Drood deems the Collins character “unreliable” and “envious” (179). While it is certainly true that Simmons’s portrayal of Collins paints him in an exceedingly selfish and cruel light—even stooping to murdering an innocent servant—such dismissals do not account for Collins’s authorial authority in the text. Likewise, Joachim Frenk describes Collins’s narrator as “Dickens’s opium-and-women-addicted friend and rival novelist. The increasingly paranoid and pathologically envious Collins is an unreliable homodiegetic narrator/focaliser par excellence” (142). Again, although Frenk’s interpretation is reasonable, it does not account for Collins’s narrative power in the text. Moreover, Collins’s version of events exists as a case study for an alternate perspective on his collaborations with Dickens—and their infamous power imbalances. Frenk continues by noting the disparity between the roles of narrator and ostensible subject, since “although the bulk of the novel is about the life and opinions and sinister inner life of Wilkie Collins, the marketing of the text focuses on the presence and ultimate absence of Charles Dickens” (142). Frenk reads this in the context of Dickensian absences, whereas I suggest that Collins’s ultimate unveiling of his perspective on the Droodian mystery assigns him more prominence than the marketing material allows. Again, Frenk’s primary interest is in Dickens’s role in Drood, whereas my research examines Collins’s narrative prowess in the context of the more junior author’s claiming his identity via collaborative competition with Dickens.
Merritt Moseley’s 2010 review of Drood is an unusual example of one which praises Simmons’s rendering of Collins, describing him as “a fascinating man in his own right, and the idea of giving him a voice to complain about the perception of him as Dickens’s junior partner, erotic guide and enabler, and inferior imitator is the best feature of Drood” (449). Nonetheless, being a review (and one which explores books other than Drood at that) there is limited scope for expanding this concept of Collins as a figure of intrigue. My analysis delves further, proposing that biofictional Collins employs the guise of detective to conceal—and nurture—his authorial manoeuvrings. However, he initially plays into the established presumption of Collins’s subservience to Dickens, and Drood commences with the protagonist’s rather dour introduction: “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” (Simmons 3). In analysing this segment, Charlotte Boyce and Elodie Rousselot adopt the aforementioned Dickensian focus that scholarly reviews tend to ascribe to the text: “So persistent and pervasive is Dickens’s cultural cachet, he frequently eclipses other Victorian writers in the modern imaginary” (4). Boyce and Rousselot next employ Drood as an example of this imbalance, wherein “the narrator, Wilkie Collins, begins by introducing himself…the ‘Inimitable’ Charles Dickens, however, requires no such introduction before being inserted into the narrative” (4). While it is accurate that Drood’s introduction—and title—both suggest a Dickensian homage, this interpretation precludes the possibility that Collins’s character is working undercover with his own authorial agendas.
To this end, neo-Victorian Collins continues by describing how his narrative is supposedly about Dickens, but he leaves clues hinting at his own authority:
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…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?” (Simmons 3-4)
Although Collins insists that his story is about the author presumably still famous after his own name has faded (i.e. been relegated to the aforementioned margins), he sows seeds of doubt regarding Dickens’s authority via hints of insanity—and even murder. Collins thereby subtly promotes himself as the sole person able to solve these mysteries surrounding Dickens. The Collins character thus positions himself as an authority figure, despite allegedly downplaying his abilities in the Introduction. Moreover, a mere 50 pages after purportedly deferring to Dickens’s longevity, biofictional Collins resists the public assumption that his success with The Woman in White was due to Dickens:
[T]here was much idle chatter and some small written comments to the effect that I, Wilkie Collins, had learned my craft from Charles Dickens and honed my skills under the tutelage of Charles Dickens and even borrowed my narrative styles from Charles Dickens…It was said that I lacked Dickens’s depths and whispered in certain quarters that I was “incapable of character-painting.” This, of course, was pure nonsense… I am…was…almost certainly always shall be…ten times the architect of plot that Charles Dickens ever was (Simmons 55-56).
Collins here contradicts his assertion at the start of the novel regarding Dickens’s enduring—and his declining—legacy. This tension between deferring to Dickens and resisting his influence is characteristic of the rivalry the characters share throughout the novel.
Doubles, Identity, and the “Dickensian embrace” in Collins’s History
For better or for worse, the living Collins’s historic connections to Dickens continues to propel his iconicity in the collective cultural memory. The Introduction to The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters, for example, commences by linking Dickens and Collins—and promptly subjugating the latter: “[Collins’s] writings offer a crucial witness—second in importance perhaps only to those of his mentor, collaborator, friend and rival Charles Dickens—to the gradual and uneven emergence in Britain of a mass literary culture” (Baker xix). The editors highlight the challenges and evolving relationship between these two Victorian authors. Catherine Peters, author of the twentieth century’s definitive Collins biography, entitled The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins (1991), points out the benefits of this Dickensian association during Collins’s own lifetime. When Collins undertook his reading tour in America, he “was already well known in America as a novelist and playwright, and his friendship with Dickens added to his interest for the American public” (Peters 356). While such a lauded literary connection certainly aided Collins’s career, the relationship with Dickens also promoted a perception of Collins as a Dickensian afterthought. Simmons incorporates this concept in Drood, wherein the Collins character believes that his American reading tour is successful primarily because “I had been a friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens” (764; emphasis original). This realisation haunts Collins like Marley’s ghost (Simmons 764). Biofictional Collins does not probe the ironic implications of using an example from his rival’s most famous novella to illustrate the extent of his (supposed) torment. Nonetheless, since “Dickens was the Marley-face on the knocker who greeted me every time I approached a new door” (Simmons 764), the frustration is tangible.
Biographical iterations of Collins also exemplify this trend of privileging Dickens when charting Collins’s life history. While Peters’s biography does at times give credit to Collins’s independence, noting how he resisted “becoming a satellite revolving round Dickens’ fixed star” (121), the text also devotes three of its chapters to chronicling the relationship between these two authors: Chapter Seven is entitled “The Sorcerer and the Apprentice (1852-1853)”; Chapter Eight is entitled “In the Sorcerer’s Footsteps (1853-1854)”; and Chapter Eighteen is entitled “After Dickens (1870-1872).” These titles also attest to the power imbalance in their relationship, positioning Collins as apprentice to the great master—and subsequently following in his footsteps. As previously noted, despite William M. Clarke’s familial link to Collins, his short (200 page) biography devotes two of its sixteen chapters to Dickens. Of course, it is understandable that biographers would want to chronicle the Dickensian influence in Collins’s history—their lives overlapped personally as well as professionally. However, the critical perception that Collins’s creativity diminished in the (nearly) twenty years following Dickens’s death has lingered, and it has sometimes been linked to “[t]he loss of the steadying hand of Charles Dickens” (Taylor “The Later Novels” 79). As an example, the “Extra material” following the 2007 One World Classics edition of The Moonstone commences its discussion of Collins’s “decline” with Dickens’s death in 1870. The section continues chronicling Collins’s regression by noting the comparative failure of his American tour since “his performances were generally considered to be very disappointing in comparison to those of Dickens” (Moonstone 476). Even though Collins made the “enormous sum” of 2,500 pounds, this profit still paled relative to Dickens’s 20,000-pound yield (Moonstone 476). In other words, Collins’s profits are solid, but his achievement is rendered relative when measured against that of Dickens.
The reverence afforded Dickens in Collins’s life history also attests to the difficulties inherent in Collins “ease[ing] himself away from the Dickensian embrace” (Peters 281). Peters uses this terminology in reference to the professional distance that grew between the men in the late 1860s, but it is also a powerful symbol for their relationship as a whole. Another troubling aspect of the Dickensian deference apparent in many Collins biographies is its alignment with Dickens’s notorious need to control not only his own identity, but also the identities of those around him. To this end, Dickens regularly burned his correspondence, and he (in)famously embarrassed his family by publicly commenting on his private marital breakdown in the 1858 “Personal Statement.”
The novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd has published biographies of both Dickens (unabridged 1990; abridged 2002) and Collins (2012). Interestingly, while Ackroyd refrains from overcrowding his Collins biography with Dickensian allusions, it is less than 200 pages, whereas even Ackroyd’s abridged Dickens biography is nearly 600 pages. Such disparity advances the (mis)conception of Collins as a Dickensian postscript. Andrew Lycett’s robust 2014 biography of Collins, entitled Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, is unique in its thorough exploration of Collins’s life on his own merit. In particular, his examination of Collins’s relationship with Dickens positions them more as peers, leading Judith Flanders to praise Lycett’s “excellent” analysis of their “friendship…which he presents, convincingly, as much more of a relationship of equals than Dickens biographers allow.” (“Wilkie”). Lycett’s homage to Collins may well inspire a biographical retreat from what Jenny Bourne Taylor describes as last century’s tendency to view Collins “as Dickens’s rather lightweight protégé and dubious companion…” (1). Time will tell whether twenty-first century biographers will follow Lycett’s lead in separating Collins’s significance from Dickens’s sphere.
Another element to the Dickensian shadow lurking in Collins’s life is the slippage of identity enveloping the younger author from an early age. Named for his father, William Collins—a famous painter—he eventually went by his middle name “Wilkie,” which “was also distinctive enough to bring him out from under the shadow of his famous father” (Peters 21). Collins’s first foray into the publishing world was the biography he wrote of his father, which appeared in 1848. He thus gained entry into his chosen profession via the identity of a more famous relative, which intensifies Peters’ assertion that “[a]ll his life, Wilkie Collins was haunted by a second self” (2). In youth, he was plagued by the sensation of someone—or something—lurking just out of his eyesight, and later in life, he wrestled with visions of “the second Wilkie Collins” writing novels in his stead (Peters 2). This identity struggle spills into his literary efforts, for the “idea that one’s identity was fragile and easily lost in the cut and thrust of modern society was one to which Wilkie would frequently return in his books” (Lycett 200). Perhaps the most famous example occurs in the literal substitution of characters in The Woman in White—Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie.
In Drood, the Collins character highlights this struggle with identity, which, he narrates, has
permeated most of my stories and all my novels…Even when my characters are permitted to retain their own identities, more often than not in my novels they must conceal these identities, assume the identities of others, or face the loss of that identity through injury to their sight, hearing, speech, or because of loss of limbs (Simmons 398).
In relation to Dickens himself, biofictional Collins notes their intertwining identities: between work and time spent with their co-mingled families, “I was soon living more in Charles Dickens’s life than in Wilkie Collins’s” (Simmons 409). However, Collins comes to interpret this as “replac[ing] the Inimitable” (Simmons 411), who is also his “erstwhile collaborator and eternal competitor!” (Simmons 463). Eventually, Collins decides that he must kill Dickens—a decision stemming both from jealousy, and from a conviction that committing murder is necessary to eradicate a curse inflicted by the evil (albeit beguiling) phantom Drood (Simmons 549). Dickens’s body must also “disappear” (589) so as to avoid the “intolerable” concept of “burial in Westminster Abbey” (Simmons 589). Collins reveals his plans to the Other Wilkie (Simmons 596), the author’s alter ego who thus becomes a strange accomplice in Collins’s plot to murder his perceived nemesis.
Collaborations Producing Dreams about “The Death of the Author”
Chronicling Dickens’s and Collins’s collaborative history is important in establishing the parameters for their authorial battle in Drood, as explored in the following section. Their first collaboration was in the play Not So Bad As We Seem (1851), written by fellow author Edward Bulwer Lytton: “Dickens was to be the star of the drama, and Collins was to play the part of his valet” (Ackroyd 45). Later, they were to both write and act in The Frozen Deep (1857). According to Peters, “Wilkie wrote the first draft, but during the autumn it was extensively rewritten, with so many contributions from Dickens that the play became a true collaboration” (169). The transition from actors, wherein Collins played servant to Dickens’s star, to authorial collaborators, whereby Wilkie instigated the draft, was initiated.
Excerpts from real-life correspondence complement Simmons’s fictionalised portrayal of the complications inherent in any collaboration between famous personages. The historical Collins’s frustration becomes more apparent as his own fame increases. A surviving letter between the two men exemplifies Collins’s willingness to defer to Dickens early in their relationship. In this 2nd November 1851 letter, Collins celebrates solid ticket sales for the play Not So Bad as We Seem (in which they were both appearing) and reassures Dickens of his commitment to the cause: “I am always ready to support the whole weight of the fourth-Act on my own shoulders, as usual and always my excellent manager’s attached and obedient servant” (Collins, Public 50.) But Collins’s willingness to shoulder the burden and defer to Dickens’s expertise eventually gives way to resentment. This theme emerges in Drood, where the Collins character complains about the Dickens character’s penchant for penning “incidental occurrences and unimportant side-plots…It was a miracle that we had been able to collaborate the number of times we had. I prided myself not a small bit on bringing some coherence to the plays, stories, travel accounts, and longer works we had outlined or worked on together” (Simmons 264). Despite the depth he adds to their shared work, biofictional Collins also feels marginalised in their collaborations—especially regarding The Frozen Deep: “Dickens said that he would aid me with the scenario and ‘do the odd editorial chore,’ which I immediately understood to mean that the play would be his and I would just be the mechanism to put words on paper” (Simmons 41). Collins does the work, but Dickens claims the credit.
This fictionalised airing of grievances is reminiscent of Dickens’s real-life practice (in managing his journal Household Words) for claiming the lion’s share of the credit: “Insisting that the writings of his contributors appear anonymously, under a masthead that read ‘Conducted by Charles Dickens,’ Dickens marketed his own name rather than theirs” (Nayder 2). In the late 1850s, Collins—at Dickens’s invitation—worked as a staff member at this journal. Collins stipulated that he agreed to this arrangement “only on condition that [Household Words] serialised his next novel under his own name” (Ackroyd 74). This demonstrates Collins’s burgeoning confidence—as compared to his subservience to Dickens at the start of the decade—as the real-life Collins went on to establish his talent on his own terms. The Woman in White cemented his authorial success, rapidly reaping the current equivalent of over 100,000 pounds; and, importantly, the copyright was Collins’s (Lycett 216). Collins’s achievement in turn benefitted Dickens, since the “novel did much to secure the enormous circulation of [Dickens’s later journal] All the Year Round, three times that of Household Words at its best” (Peters 227). The result was that Collins was, by this point, able to earn his own authorial way “without the support of the Dickens framework” (Peters 235). Similarly, Lycett’s chapter chronicling this period of Collins’s life is fittingly entitled “Basking in Success.” During his own lifetime, then, Collins came to enjoy success in his own right, but as we have seen, scholarship has often reverted to a Dickensian deference in the intervening decades.
Despite tensions in the authors’ relationship, genuine warmth is also evident, as revealed in the letter Dickens wrote to Collins on 7th January 1860, praising The Woman in White:
You know what an interest I have felt in your powers from the beginning of our friendship, and how very high I rate them: I know that this is an admirable book, and that it grips the difficulties of the weekly portion and throws them, in masterly style. No one else could do it, half so well…So go on and prosper… (Letters of Charles Dickens 351-352; emphasis original).
Likewise, Collins dedicated his novel Hide and Seek (1854) to Dickens. Later, however, Katey Dickens’s marriage to Charles Collins adversely affected Dickens’s and Collins’s friendship. Dickens’s biographer Claire Tomalin explains that
Katey’s situation troubled Dickens, because Charles Collins was an invalid and it was not much of a marriage; and Dickens showed his disappointment and disapproval of Charles, which led to strained relations with Wilkie, and the two men seeing less of one another. (373).
The failed collaboration between Dickens and Charles Collins did not help matters; Charles’s poor health rendered him unable to finish the illustrations Dickens had commissioned for his final novel. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is truly a novel of commencements without completions.
Richard Jones identifies jealously as another strain on the Collins/Dickens relationship: “their relationship cooled considerably around 1867, possibly because Dickens was jealous of Collins’s successes with The Moonstone and the play No Thoroughfare” (50). The theme of jealousy likewise courses through Drood, and the neo-Victorian authors’ rivalry culminates with threats—and dreams—of murder. Dickens equates Collins to Dickens’s dog Sultan—whom he kills (Simmons 170), then Collins murders Dickens in a dream sequence (Simmons 707). In Roland Barthes famous treatise on “The Death of the Author” (1968), he theorises that the obsession with the author should give way to the rise of the reader—which must necessarily culminate in the author’s death (1469-1470). For Barthes, removing the author equates to interpretative liberation, since conflating author and text “is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (1469). Neo-Victorianism’s fixation on fleshing out authors’ lives via text necessarily complicates Barthes’s objectives. Revivifying the dead is foundational to the neo-Victorian novel, which is in essence an amalgamation of past and present, and literal and figurative. As such, Andrea Kirchknopf describes Barthes’s treatise as “gradually…fading away” (49) while Cora Kaplan perceives it as potentially reinvigorating the authorial persona, in that
[t]he healthy demand for Victorian literary biography and biofiction suggests either that the death of the author, the disappearance and dispossession of what Barthes called ‘his civil status, his biographical person’ has been greatly exaggerated, or, conversely, that the threat has breathed new life into the idea of the author. (71)
In the context of Drood, Simmons’s biofictional novel is thus established as a site for authorial competition, as Dickens and Collins contend for narrative control.
Their competition embodies the jarring contrast between the Collins character’s desire for the author’s [Dickens’s] literal death, and neo-Victorianism’s investment in figuratively bringing the dead back to life. Biofictional Collins dreams of enacting Dickens’s physical death, in part to compromise the more famous author’s legacy. Neo-Victorianism’s commitment to imaginatively recreating nineteenth-century afterlives attests to our ever-burgeoning interest in rediscovering these Victorian authors via fictional representation. It also demonstrates how neo-Victorian novels become what Kate Mitchell calls “memory texts,” locating “historical recollection as an act in the present” (4). Simmons’s biofictional renderings reintroduce Victorian celebrities’ lives and legacies for modern critique. Author and text, and literal and figurative are further fused, and—contra Barthes—Drood’s reimagined Collins and Dickens also invite the reader’s presence (via the Collins character’s direct addresses to his audience, as outlined at the start of this article.) Ultimately, Collins is denied any opportunity to murder his authorial rival, because Dickens instead dies of a stroke—Drood’s work, Collins is convinced—shortly before Collins can enact his plan (Simmons 733). Perhaps this is a stroke of fortune, in that it spares Collins the ignominy of becoming Brutus to Dickens’s Julius Caesar.
Simmons’s Drood suggests collaboration on a number of levels. Drood integrates elements from Collins’s novels—especially The Moonstone, with its emphasis on detection—and, of course, Dickens’s final novel. Nayder suggests that “The Mystery of Edwin Drood, can be understood in the context of [Dickens’s] decision to abandon collaboration—as an attempt to reclaim and control the subject of race relations and empire, particularly as Collins develops it in The Moonstone” (13). This is ironic given Peters’s assertion that “Dickens borrowed heavily from it for his last novel Edwin Drood” (309). Delving further still, this influence intensifies the intertextuality, particularly given Simmons’s subsequent contribution to this collaborative endeavour. In his rendering, Simmons turns Dickens’s protagonist’s surname (Drood) into a separate character, that of the phantom criminal with a tragic history. By giving his Drood Egyptian origins, Simmons inverts Dickens’s hint (in the original novel) that Edwin Drood—rather than being murdered—might instead have travelled to Egypt. Simmons’s novel employs details drawn from Dickens’s Edwin Drood, such as experimenting with how much of a body would disintegrate in a crypt’s quick lime. Neo-Victorian Collins conducts “[l]iterary research” (Simmons 554) with crypt expert Dradles, which mirrors Dickens’s Victorian character Durdles’s “unaccountable expedition” (Dickens 96) to the crypt with John Jasper in Edwin Drood. Such intertextuality attests to the significance of authorship in Drood, which is itself a multi-layered collaboration.
An Author Moonlighting as a Detective
Themes of detection are strong in Drood, which can be read as an homage to the real-life Collins’s classification as “‘the father of the detective story’” (Clarke ix). In Simmons’s novel, when the characters Dickens and Collins first venture out in search of Drood, they are protected by Detective Hatchery—who becomes Collins’s inspiration for [The Moonstone’s] Sergeant Cuff: “‘A privately employed detective,’ I muttered. The idea had wonderful possibilities” (Simmons 67). Despite the historical Collins’s integral role in developing the detective novel—which came into its own during his lifetime—he did not invent the genre, nor was he the first author to incorporate a detective into his fiction.
Stephen Knight traces the detective figure’s origins to the preceding century’s The Newgate Calendar (3). Furthermore, Knight cites William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), as the novel that “first moves towards detection” (209), and Edward Bulwer’s Pelham (1828) as the “first move towards the gentleman-detective” (209). Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, who appeared in 1841, is for Knight “the first intellectual detective” (209). And Knight notes that Dickens’s Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1853) “plays a large, but not thematically central, role as detective in this great sociopolitical novel” (209). What makes Victorian Collins’s work on literary detection so influential, then, is his sustained use of the detective figure as central to the novel. Clarke clarifies Collins’s claim to the title of “the father of the detective story” in the “Notes to Chapters” section of his biography on Wilkie. Referencing The Moonstone, Clarke relates how “T.S. Eliot described it as ‘the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels’, though some purists give the accolade of the first detective novel to The Notting Hill Mystery, which appeared in the magazine Once a Week in 1862-63, and in book form in 1865” (Clarke 218). Peters succinctly summarises Collins’s impact on the genre: “Even if it is not the first English detective novel, The Moonstone was a most influential one. As in all the best examples of the genre, it is fair with clues, but the clues point in the wrong direction” (309). Drood’s ties to The Moonstone render it particularly compelling as an example of neo-Victorian Collins’s authority in the narrative. The Moonstone proved a source of contention between the authors in the nineteenth-century, and “Dickens, after his first enthusiasm, turned against the story. Though—or because—The Moonstone had made money for him, as well as Collins, bumping up the circulation of All the Year Round probably more than any other novel, and even beating the success of Great Expectations, he finally reversed his earlier opinion” (Peters 310-311). Manipulation—or dismissal—of clues, and fluctuating opinions are also integral to Drood; this very chaos points to the significance of authorial invention, since the author controls the detective.
In Simmons’s novel, Drood’s story becomes the site of an authorial battleground between Dickens’s and Collins’s characters. Biofictional Collins is initially incredulous regarding the phantom Drood’s existence (Simmons 31). However, biofictional Dickens describes Drood as having appeared to him at the Staplehurst train crash. He describes Drood as spectral: he is “cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale” with a nose like “mere black slits” and eerily tiny (yet “sharp”!) teeth, “set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves” (Simmons 13). A strange tension burgeons, as Collins resists Dickens’s narrative, then Dickens insists on its veracity, then Collins believes, then doubts, then fully invests, then Dickens claims he made it up—but Collins refuses to believe this invention, claiming that Drood lives. My purpose in this paper is not to determine the veracity of either (or neither) perspective, but rather to employ Drood’s evolution as evidence of biofictional Collins’s narrative dexterity, as he goes undercover to carve out his identity in this collaboration with Dickens. Drood’s reality is secondary to Collins’s obsession with detection, which emerges as a vehicle for authorial intervention—and invention—as it fuels his collaborative competition with Dickens. This subservience of objective “truth” to subjective “perspective” aligns Drood with The Moonstone (1868), where the competing narrators and contrasting accounts become “[m]ore gripping than the search for a solution to the mystery” and “a quest for a self” (Kemp xxiv; xxvii). One of The Moonstone’s many narrators, Gabriel Betteridge, reminds readers of the role he has played in piecing together the narrative fragments: “I am the person (as you remember, no doubt) who led the way in these pages, and opened the story. I am also the person who is left behind, as it were, to close the story up” (Collins, The Moonstone 462). Narrative authority is preeminent; indeed, the eponymous Moonstone is not found until the novel’s “Epilogue.” The emphasis remains on the narrators, whose varied—and biased—perspectives propel the novel.
Nearly 150 years later, neo-Victorian Collins hunts for the phantom Drood and assumes the persona of an eager detective, vowing to “‘report for duty…” (Simmons 34) in part to prove his superiority. Collins further mingles detection and authorship, connecting clues with narrative interpretation: “My first job was to gather information, and here my years as a journalist served me well (even as that profession had equally served Dickens, although I might remind you, Dear Reader, that I had been a true journalist and Dickens had written primarily as a mere court reporter)” (Simmons 344; emphasis original). The Collins character further fuses the figures of author and detective when he portrays himself as an early incarnation of Sergeant Cuff: “As I approached the important interview with Dickens, I began to see more clearly the to-this-point-amorphous idea of my fictional detective…Sergeant Cuff” (Simmons 323). Collins goes on to describe how his detective will be superior to Dickens’s Inspector Bucket. In the interview, Collins sees himself channelling Cuff’s skills as he interrogates Dickens regarding the whereabouts of fellow Staplehurst survivor Edmond Dickenson: “He’s playing with me, I thought with an electric surge of Sergeant Cuff-ish certainty. But he does not know that I am playing with him” (Simmons 325; emphasis original). Later, Collins gives “a flourish perhaps not unworthy of Sergeant Cuff” (Simmons 327), and he records notes on “a new leatherbound notebook…purchased precisely for this purpose—detective work” (Simmons 328). While searching for the whereabouts of Edmond Dickenson (whom Collins suspects that Dickens has murdered) Collins detects “the flinty yet sensitive Cuff overtones in the syllables as I spoke” (Simmons 328). And he even visits Peckham to determine the probable location for spotting Dickens and determining where he will meet Drood. Collins does not want Dickens to suspect “that I had been stalking him” but fortunately his “previous reconnoitring had shown me a solution to these difficulties” by revealing a location for him to surreptitiously watch the station (Simmons 529). Collins’s undercover work is fuelled by a desire to abrogate his perceived subservience to Dickens.
As such, the ostensible interest in detection is ultimately revealed to be an interest in power games (i.e. narrative manipulation.) Biofictional Collins several times refers to the entire Drood affair as “the endless chess game for power between Inspector Field, the Inimitable, and me” (Simmons 303). During a period of disbelief in Drood, Collins tells Field that “‘Dickens is Drood…There is no Drood’” (Simmons 285), and “‘Dickens has created Drood to suit his own purposes,’” specifically “[a] mischievous sense of power over others. For many years, as I’ve told you, Dickens has played with magnetic influence and mesmerism. Now he invents this Master of Mesmerism as his alter ego, as it were.’” Field responds, “‘That seems highly unlikely, Mr Collins’” and reminds Collins that “He could hardly have invented Drood…seeing as I have been pursuing the blackguard for twenty years come this August’” (Simmons 285). Collins goes on to pick apart the flaws in Dickens’s backstory of Drood, insinuating that the novelist expanded legends to suit his authorial agenda: “‘You may be a detective, Inspector Field,’ I said, ‘but you have never plotted and written a story with detective work in it. I have’” (Simmons 285). The end result is that “‘We are now involved, you and I, in Charles Dickens’s Game of Drood’” (Simmons 287). Here Collins insists that his authorial expertise imbues him with the abilities to detect that Dickens is playing power games with them by weaving an impossible narrative about the monster Drood. Dickens tells Collins that Drood has commissioned him to be Drood’s biographer (Simmons 385), which further complicates the interaction between actualities and invention.
An initial reliance upon evidence gives way to questions of sanity—even monomania—as facts are sacrificed for storytelling. At the start of Simmons’s novel, the Collins character cites documents to corroborate his narrative. When recounting the Staplehurst train accident, for example, he states “[a]ccording to the report…” (Simmons 11). However, unlike Collins’s nineteenth-century novel The Woman in White, which consults documentary evidence for the sake of clarity, Simmons’s neo-Victorian contribution favours postmodern uncertainty over Victorian revelation. Kym Brindle explores this neo-Victorian preference in her 2014 book, Epistolary Encounters in Neo-Victorian Fiction, where she argues that “Unlike the nineteenth-century trend for embedding documents to expose and explain secrets, contemporary writers tend not to emphasise uncovering of ‘truths’, but rather deconstruct how investigatory reading and interpretation take place.” (Brindle 3-4). While Brindle’s exploration favours “diaries and letters” (indeed, this is the subtitle to her text), the concept that neo-Victorian novels employ life-writing to comment upon the instability inherent in the historical record is applicable to Collins’s “memoir” as well. Perhaps Dickens’s perspective cannot be proven correct, but by the same token, Collins’s perspective cannot be proven incorrect. This neo-Victorian approach differs from Victorian novels, which “require resolution for all loose narrative ends” (Brindle 22). I suggest that Collins navigates the slippage between perspectives—and personas—to demonstrate that his detective work in fact attests to his capabilities as a novelist. Facts become subservient to storytelling, and gaps appear in the written record. Dickens cites evidence from the papers to explain Inspector Field’s willingness to help them—allegedly to redeem his name from past career failures—but Collins does not recall reading such stories (Simmons 150-151). Similarly, when Inspector Field reveals Drood’s capacity for evil, questions arise about missing narrative evidence. Field claims that “‘I know for a fact that the creature has been responsible for more than three hundred murders in London alone since I first crossed his trail twenty years ago” (Simmons 132). Collins observes that he does “not remember reading in the newspapers about any such reign of terror’” (Simmons 131). To which Field replies that “‘Oh, there’s lots of horrors that happen in those dark parts of town you and Mr Dickens went voyaging into in July that don’t end up in the newspapers, Mr Collins. You can be assured of that’” (Simmons 131). Such omissions reinforce neo-Victorian modes of disrupting narrative certainty. When Collins reflects upon a journey to discover Drood’s lair, he states that “Dickens had pressed me several times the preceding day on whether I believed him [the story about Drood], but the truth is, I did not. At least not fully…I remembered the boat arriving and Dickens boarding and disappearing…or did I?” (Simmons 176; emphasis original). Where Collins cannot trust his own memory, he utilises his novelistic expertise to fill in the evidentiary gaps.
The authorial battle culminates in the novel’s conclusion, when Dickens claims he used mesmerism to manipulate Collins’s conceptions of Drood. Throughout the novel, Collins has vacillated between belief and disbelief over Drood’s existence. However, he ultimately becomes convinced of Drood’s reality—aided in part by seeing the monster with his own eyes. Attempting to crush Collins’s conviction, and thereby reinstate himself as chief authorial collaborator, Dickens insists that Collins’s profession has worked to the younger author’s disadvantage: “‘how was I to know that your novelist’s deeper consciousness and vast quantities of opium would keep the play going on in your head for years more?’” (Simmons 717). Dickens here attempts to absolve himself of responsibility in what he sees as Collins’s crazed pursuit of Drood. Nonetheless, Collins’s storytelling abilities proved an irresistible subject for Dickensian mesmerism, and Dickens “confess[es]” his desire to discover “‘how such a suggestion of belief would affect a creative artist’” (Simmons 720). Collins dismisses Dickens’s explanation as “Dickensian” (Simmons 722; emphasis original), and he challenges Dickens’s claims of mesmerism, recounting his resistance to “mesmeric influence” on the basis of his “will” being “too strong” (Simmons 27). Instead, Collins turns Dickens’s story into his own story, by referring back to a tale Dickens told him decades earlier, wherein Dickens self-sacrificially fed his hard-earned cherries to a little boy, who—from the boy’s vantage point atop his father’s shoulders—was able to conceal the trick, which thus became a private joke with Dickens.
In Drood’s final pages, Collins revisits this story and proposes a crucial twist: “I think that Dickens told the story backwards. I think he was stealing cherries out of the boy’s brown bag. And the father never knew. Nor did the world. Or perhaps this has been my secret story. Or perhaps Dickens had been stealing the cherries from me as I rode on his shoulders” (Simmons 770; emphasis original). Here, biofictional Collins inverts narrative authority, thus undermining Dickens’s heroic depiction of himself in the Dickensian anecdote. In so doing, Collins reveals a critical clue: authorship surpasses detection, because the author creates and controls the detective. Collins’s scintillating suggestion complicates the authorial battle waging throughout the novel. While it is certainly possible to read this “revelation” as the addled complaining of a jealous opium addict, it is also possible, as I have proposed, to interpret it as the Collins character claiming creative control in his final collaboration with Dickens. His ostensible search for evidence has proved subservient to narrative, and the personas of author and detective converge with a (novel) flourish.
Simmons’s neo-Victorian renderings of Dickens and Collins has highlighted the rivalry inherent in the relationship between these two iconic authors. Their perspectives on the “truth” of the Drood story—and Collins’s (fictive) turn as a detective figure akin to the (real-life) author’s (also fictive) detective Sergeant Cuff, foregrounds the collaborative complexity of reimagining both the life and the art of these nineteenth-century novelists. “Unintelligible” is a word which reverberates throughout both Simmons’s Drood and Dickens’s Edwin Drood. In concluding Drood, “Unintelligible” attests to the messiness of the neo-Victorian genre, which in turn hearkens to the difficulty of interpreting the historical record. Detection and clues eventually prove subservient to narrative invention (and novelistic intervention), and biofictional Collins’s undercover persona attests to his investment in authorship, as he fleshes out his Detective Sergeant Cuff, while simultaneously manipulating Dickens’s story to suit his own authorial agenda. Simmons’s neo-Victorian version of Collins might impose questionable liberties in portraying Collins’s morals; however, Collins’s undercover narrative manoeuvrings position him more prominently than even Simmons has allowed. The author still lives, and embedded in the text, his voice resounds from the margins, reminding readers of a novelist’s narrative “resourcefulness” (Simmons 478). In life, Collins struggled to extricate himself from Dickens’s often suffocating sphere; even his biographers have been influenced by Dickensian charisma, as we have seen. However, in fiction, Collins deploys their Brutus-and-Caesar-esque rivalry to figuratively compromise his competitor’s voice: “Et tu, Drood?”
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 Lucinda Dickens Hawksley’s 2018 biography of her great-great-great aunt Katey describes their pairing as “lacklustre” (104) and points out that the marriage was propelled by Katey’s need “to escape the family home” (99).
 The book also names Collins’s “meeting with Charles Dickens…that was to prove the most important encounter of his life, both as a writer and as a man” (182). However, despite this deference to Dickens, the book does note Collins’s success, whereby “under the patronage of Dickens, Collins prospered to a degree that was to equal and eventually exceed that of the master himself” (183). To support this statement, page 184 lists Collins’s 1863 income at over 10,000 pounds, “probably more than any other writer earned in a single year in the 19th century” (184). This example illustrates the fluctuations in texts documenting the authors’ interactions: Collins may have arguably enjoyed more success than Dickens, but it was due to the “patronage” bestowed by “the master.”
 Catherine Peters even goes so far as to deem Forster’s feelings about Dickens’s and Collins’s relationship “a blemish best forgotten as quickly as possible” (347).
 While outside the scope of this project, which focuses on Collins’s narrative authority and the figure of the detective, it is an ethical concern that Simmons has been so cavalier in re-imagining the man who (in life) was respected as a faithful friend and kind colleague. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn explore the dilemmas of appropriation further in their seminal 2010 study entitled Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009.
 The living Dickens was accused of monomania in the mid-1850s by Frenchman Hippolyte Taine, whose account, appearing in Revue des deux Mondes, was “cast in hyperbolic sentences that competed with Dickens’s own: ‘The difference between a madman and a man of genius is not very great…The imagination of Dickens is like that of monomaniacs’” (Bodenheimer 3). John Forster stresses it was Dickens’s imaginative “exuberance” and “vividness” Taine found particularly confronting (687; 692). Dickens was notably prone to obsessive, one-sided fixations, as I point out on page 10 of this article, in relation to Dickens’s innate need to control his identity. [Reference for this latter point?]
 Later in the novel, biofictional Collins again promotes his own importance, this time in relation to awe over Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: “It was incredible. For the first time in my life, I believe I hated Charles Dickens out of sheer jealousy” (Simmons 205). Noting that the public and the critics failed to recognise the novel’s power, Collins writes that “It took me, in other words, to see that Our Mutual Friend was a masterpiece” (Simmons 208).
“Dickens’s Personal Statement.” https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/dickens-personal-statement.html. Web. Accessed 7th May 2020.
 The editors of the collection of Collins’s letters note the surprising lack of surviving correspondence from Collins to Dickens: “The most significant gap, of course, is that only three letters to Dickens have been preserved. The rest—and altogether there must have been at least somewhere in the region of the 165 from Dickens to Collins that are recorded in the Pilgrim edition—were presumably among the mountains of correspondence destroyed by Dickens at a stroke in September 1860 and piecemeal thereafter” (xx-xxi). In Drood, the Collins character credits himself with inspiring Dickens to burn his correspondence, via Collins stories that discuss—or enact—this theme (Simmons 215-216). We can read this as Collins emerging from the margins to put his stamp on Dickens’s story.
 While he and Wilkie are investigating Undertown, Dickens relates how he met Edgar Allan Poe—another pre-eminent writer of detective fiction (Simmons 100).
 Biofictional Collins commences the novel by claiming the story is true, calling Drood “a very real phantom” (Simmons 4). Later in the novel, Collins again refers to it as a “true tale” (Simmons 30), and when Opium Sal relates Drood’s history—filtered through Collins’s perspective—she refers to this as “‘His true and awful Story” (81; emphasis original).
 Neo-Victorian Collins plays on Inspector Field’s disgust over the (arguable) connection between himself and Dickens’s Inspector Bucket, and Collins uses these feelings to bribe the Inspector himself. Collins tells Inspector Field of his plans for a detective novel, “which has, as its protagonist and central character, a Scotland Yard or private detective not so different from Inspector Bucket, except…of course…more intelligent, more insightful, more educated, more handsome, and more ethical. In other words, Inspector Field, a fictional character not so different from yourself” (Simmons 187). Collins employs this tantalising suggestion to obtain access to the Inspector’s murder files (Simmons 187) and also to unearth information regarding Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan (Simmons 188). Furthermore, Collins clarifies information that Field does not have the context to correctly interpret, such as why Dickens selected “Tringham” as his alias when renting Ellen’s home in Slough. Discarding the seemingly more convenient answer that Tringham was the surname of a tobacco shop owner “well known to both Dickens and me” (Simmons 203), Collins instead cites a poem by Thomas Hood that identifies Tringham as a “prattling, tattling village” (Simmons 204). That is, Collins weighs the evidence and settles on a literary solution in keeping with Dickens’s cheeky character, thus conflating detection and authorship.
 Dickens tells Collins Drood’s history, and Collins is incredulous, concluding that “The story was too absurd either for me to accept it or to believe that Dickens had accepted it. I remembered that Dickens had once told me that 1001 Arabian Nights had been his favourite book when he was a child. I wondered now if the accident at Staplehurst had released some childhood strain in his character” (Simmons 165). Collins employs both his undercover persona as a detective, and his authorial expertise, to counterbalance Dickens’s claims about Drood.
 Biofictional Dickens initially relates this story to Collins on page 726 of Drood.