A Little Introduction
Upon diving into The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I immediately became immersed into a world of opium usage. I must be pretty naïve, because quite frankly, I am not familiar with the drug opium. Besides my overwhelming curiosity about opium, I could not help but wonder why Dickens would begin his novel like this. As I thought more into this issue, more and more questions flooded my mind. How prominent was opium in 19th Century England? What did an opium den really look like? Did opium usage have a role in Dickens’ life? I am unsure of the answer to any of these questions, but I am looking forward to digging into Victorian Era drug use and finding out. I am quite sure that many other probing questions will arise during my research. I believe learning more about this topic is very pertinent to society today. The illicit use of drugs is filling our streets and our jail houses. Was it like this in the Victorian Era and during Dicken’s life? Or, was it overlooked and considered quite common? In this research page, I will dive into the world of opium. I am going to explore the drug itself, the prominence of opium use in Victorian England, and the role of drugs in Dickens’ personal life and novel. I will definitely be incorporating some artwork to give visual ideas.
History of the Drug
Before we plunge into this drug filled journey, I believe it is important to know what opium actually is. Upon investigating this mysterious medication, a common phrase kept popping up. “Highly addictive narcotic” is frequently used to describe this drug, which is derived from a poppy plant. I would dare to say that most of us have consumed opium before, without even knowing it. Ever eaten a poppy seed muffin? While you think you are just enjoying a delightful lemon treat, you are actually ingesting a small amount of opium (Mikkelson). Of course, the amount of opium you are actually consuming is quite meniscal. Back to the drug, Opium has a laundry list of short term side effects, all of which are portrayed in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I will soon make this connection within the research page. Euphoria, drowsiness, sedation, shortness of breath, and confusion are just a few of the desired effects of opium (drugfree.org). A surprising fact about opium is that the more common drug, heroin is derived from it (drugs.com). Not only is heroin created from opium, Codeine, oxycodone, and morphine also originated from this drug (www.deamuseum.org).Who knew? Some of these drugs are perfectly legal with a doctor’s perscription and quite beneficial to the medicine world today. I believe the most important thing to take away from this brief insight into opium is the way in which it is made. Opium is simply grown from the ground up. Why is this so important? Because, deriving from a plant makes opium accessible, readily available, easily concealed, and widely obtainable. I would consider the growing operation of this drug similarly compared to marijuana. Something I found fascinating is the origination of opium. It dates back to the Neolithic period in Egypt. But, it became widely known because of the Greeks. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was painted with a poppy in her hand (Tosches). Many people admire and look up to Aphrodite. Her holding a poppy symbolizes acceptance and promotion of poppy and opium. All of this information has laid the groundwork for my focus on opium usage in the Victorian Era and in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Now that we know what opium is, I want to discover how widely it was used. Below, I have inserted some photos, so that we can get a visual on what this drugs looks like.
Tracing the Drug to Victorian England
The Victorian Era is most widely defined as the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901. But, many things began to take place before Queen Victoria came into power. Much reformation was going on within Britain and things were changing. Religion, art, politics, and socialism were just a few of the pressing issues facing Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign. By the end of the Victorian Era, Britain was faced with much uncertainty regarding their future and where their place was, within the scope of the world. During the revolutionary time for Britain, Dickens was in his prime. I know you are wondering, how this all fits in with my research theme. But, I do have a purpose! Since, Dickens was born and raised during this transformational period, how often was he exposed to opium and drug usage? Was he protected from the shadow of the opium dens? Or, was he engulfed into a world, where sedated crazies surrounded him? As I began to research the topic of opium in the Victorian Era, much information presented itself to me. Apparently, the opium trade was a huge source of conflict between China and Britain. There was so much conflict, that a naval battle ensued. Two commanding naval officers retaliated at one another by closing prosperous opium ports. Britain ultimately defeated the Chinese naval ships and won control of opium rights. It is interesting to note that China’s leaders pushed for opium to be cut off at the source, by eliminating the growing of poppy in India. However, Britians’ leader, Sir Henry Pottinger, refused to agree to this, due to the vast amount of opium addicts. His logic was that if they outlawed the cultivation of this drug, than they were simply handing the market to someone else (Allingham). After reading all of this, I was quite surprised. I have never known of an opium trade and I definitely was not aware of a war that ensued because of it. Today, opium and drug use can be considered taboo. Many people do not discuss their recreational habits for fear of government punishment. Furthermore, our government definitely does not fight to bring more drugs in! I am fascinated by the realistic viewpoint of Britian’s officers. So, I continued to research. Upon investigating further, I realized there was not only one opium war, but two. The details of this second battle are quite similar to the first. Both countries wanted advantages into the opium trade. No one was satisfied with how much opium they were receiving or producing. The conclusion of this combat, was the opening and availability of different ports to each country and the official legality of opium trading. It is important to note that by the end of these wars, China became very prominent in opium production and trading. While they were still importing over 5000 tons annually, they were also producing upwards of 20,000 tons annually, as well (Allingham). With all of this opium debate going on around him, how could Dickens not be immersed into this culture? It is apparent to me, that opium usage might have later been frowned upon, but certainly not outlawed or illegal. As a matter of fact, opium became widely known as a miracle drug. It is quite obvious that no one was aware of the harmful side effects or the addictive nature of this drug. Opium was widely accepted as a medical miracle for pain relief. After success with adult discomforts, opium started being used at “baby farms” during the Victorian Era. These “baby farms” served as a daycare for many children, often with a lopsided caretaker to child ratio. Caretakers began using opium to soothe and pacify the children. The use of this drug on children often ended in fatal outcomes. The drug began reducing the children’s appetites to the point where they would not even eat. Death soon ensued from starvation (Landow). At this point, the widespread usage of Opium is starting to come to a screeching halt. Britain soon passed to Opium Act in 1878, in hopes of reducing to usage and availability of opium. Not long after, opium was officially banned. But, by this point, addiction to the drug was prevalent and a black market trade soon followed. So, what does all of this mean for Dickens? Obviously, opium surrounded his life. He grew up during a time when production and trading of opium was at an all-time high. How could he not incorporate this into one of his novels? It is interesting to note that he does not incorporate it into his earlier novels, rather his last. Why is that? Why not use opium as a reoccurring character in his earlier novels, when it was so popular and accepted? Dickens did not incorporate opium until it was at a low point. By the time he wrote about it, things were going downhill fast. I believe Dickens had a purpose for his timeline and I will further investigate this matter.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup
This was way too interesting to pass up; I just had to include it in this page. I mentioned briefly the use of opium on chidlren. This practice was so common that Mrs. Winslow took advantage of that by creating a brand. This brand was heavily advertised with the two paintings shown below. An excerpt was included in The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on Saturday, January, 9 , 1975. I stumbled upon this quote cited on another webpage (Rance).
chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP.
It will relieve the poor sufferer immediately. It is perfectly
harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep,
by relieving the child from pain, and the little cherub awakes “as
bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the
gums, allays all pain, relieves wind, regulates the bowels,
and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhoea,
whether arising from teething or other causes. Mrs. Winslow’s
Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 1½d.
per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford-
Opium in Dickens’ Writings
The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins with the prominent theme of opium usage. Dickens did not write this novel until late in his life, in 1870. Up until this point, Dickens had written a substantial amount of work. But, never once did he so blatantly incorporate opium. So, why now? Why this novel? I believe the answer to these questions lies within Dickens personal life. It is obvious that Dickens incorporates his political and social views into his writing. Often, he creates a distinction between classes of society members. He shows some distaste for the upper-class business men, by frequently making these characters morally corrupt and crooked. Of course, there are many exceptions to this opinion. Perhaps, Dickens integrates social issues into his writing, because of the problems he experienced as a child. His father was taken off to prison and Dickens was forced to work. Not only was his father taken to prison for extreme debt, their household goods were taken away from them. As a child, Dickens had to witness these actions from his local government (Simkin). Because he was so young and impressionable, I’m sure that Dickens felt punished and rebuked for crimes he did not commit. I believe Dickens vented these frustrations through the characters in his writing, in hopes of bringing about awareness to social issues. A prime example of Dickens incorporating social issues into his writing is A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens drastically contrasts England and France. He showcases to vast amount of dishonesty going on at the time and displays the unfair death of many men. A Tale of Two Cities directly encourages social change, by depicting two destroyed locations (Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”). All of these contributing factors further prove my point that Dickens had a purpose for waiting to introduce opium into his writings. It is important to note how Dickens used opium within The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He did not introduce it as a miracle drug, nor a cure to soothe aching pains. He created a disgusting, gloomy, and repulsive scene. The main character affected by opium is obviously Jasper and Dickens does not create the character of Jasper to be very alluring. Although the novel was never completed, we are under assumption that Jasper ended up murdering his nephew. So, Dickens displays an addicted opium addict as a liar, hypocrite, manipulator, criminal, and ultimately a murderer. This is quite contradictory of the picture most British and Chinese leaders painted about opium. Dickens had a purpose for this. It is my belief, that Dickens wanted people to take notice of the dangers and effects of opium usage. In order to do that, he created a character, who was destroyed by it. At this time in Dickens career, he was a household name. People were going crazy for his writing and devouring his monthly publications like a chocolate cake. So, who better to reach a mass audience about a pressing social issue than Dickens? By the time The Mystery of Edwin Drood became published, the fatalities caused by opium were just coming to light. Dickens blasted this drug for the world to see, during the most critical time. It is interesting to note that less than 10 years later, The Opium Act of 1878 was put into action. I guess someone took his writing to heart!
Dickens an Opium Addict?
I think the million dollar question of this research page is: did Dickens use opium? Honestly, I cannot answer that question with confidence. I have fervently searched this topic and I don’t feel comfortable citing any sources that I found. Most avenues I explored insisted that Dickens did experiment with opium. However, I do not believe any of these sources are credible enough to be trusted with certainty. Nevertheless, The Mystery of Edwin Drood proves that Dickens had a reasonable amount of knowledge regarding the drug. Since The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a fictional writing, Dickens had free reign to do whatever he wanted with the characters and plot. Yet, he wrote about Jasper in the opium den in a very realistic manner. “Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around” (Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” 12608). Remember the laundry list of side effects? Drowsiness and confusion are prominently displayed in this quote and in the opening of this book. “The two first are in a sleep or stupor…” (Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,”12608). Euphoria and sedation ring a bell? Now, just because Dickens incorporated this realist viewpoint into the theme of opium, does not mean he was an opium user. Obviously, he could have easily researched this drug or simply walked outside his door. However, I do find it uncanny the specific details that Dickens used. I guess Dickens recreational drug habit could be compared to his last novel – a mystery.
Speaking of the opening scene in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, what exactly is an opium den? Opium dens originated in the mid 1800’s during the Gold Rush. When Chinese men began migrating they brought their addiction to opium with them. Opium dens began springing up in San Francisco Chinatown and spread thoughout (deamuseum.org).Upon looking into this hideout, it became obvious that opium dens were an answer to prayer. Instead of drugs dealers and users loitering around it the streets, they were out of sight and out of mind. These dens provided a place for opium lovers to escape and disappear from the public (Gieringer). Even though opium use was legal at this point, opium dens kept drug related violence away from the public and kept the citizens happy. Also, these opium dens rarely attracted attention from the police. A few misdemeanors did result from these opium dens, but did not draw enough attention for raids (Gieringer). Should modern day society follow suit with drug laws? If we were more lax on certain drug usage, would there be so much controversy? After all the black market dealers are profiting millions, while our country is receiving no financial benefit from the illegal sale of certain drugs. I’m not saying everything would be peaches, but I don’t think things could get worse. Back to the topic at hand, opium dens were extremely popular in the 1800’s. Their inside contents were far from glamorous. Most opium dens were located in back alleys in less than perfect neighborhoods. The insides were usually unfurnished, with all windows and doors covered. However, there are exceptions to this stereotype. London’s Limehouse District was known for the exotic décor and outlandish furnishings in their opium dens (Reuter). Obviously, the primary function of opium dens was to sell and smoke opium. These lairs provided a judgement-free place for people to indulge in their recreational habits. The pictures below are a good representation of the dark, dingy mood surrounding and encapsulating opium dens.
Wrapping it up
Overall, I found this research paper a lot more fun than I first imagined. All of this information was new to me. I found myself going “click crazy” and I was searching these topics. The amount of information about opium is overwhelming and I wish I could fit it all into this research page. I hope you guys have gained some insight into the drug opium and can more relate to the use of it in Dickens’ writings.
Alligham, Phillip V. “England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-60.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. Lakehead University. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/opiumwars/opiumwars1.html>.
Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 2011. The Novels of Charles Dickens. Golgotha, 2011. 12605-3056. Print.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 2011. The Novels of Charles Dickens. Golgotha, 2011. 18061-8736. Print.
Gieringer, Dale. “125 Years of the War on Drugs.” DrugSense. Nov. 2000. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <http://www.drugsense.org/dpfca/opiumlaw.html>.
Landow, George P., and Phillip V. Allingham. “The Medicinal Use of Opium in England.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/opiumwars/opiumwars3.html>.
Mikkelson, Barbara. “Snopes.com: Poppy Seed Drug Test Results.” Snopes.com: Urban Legends Reference Pages. Web. 01 Feb. 2012. <http://www.snopes.com/medical/drugs/poppyseed.asp>.
“Opium and Heroin Information from Drugs.com.” Drugs.com | Prescription Drug Information, Interactions & Side Effects. Web. 01 Feb. 2012. <http://www.drugs.com/opium.html>.
“Opium Poppy: History.” DEA Museum & Visitors Center. Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitors Center, 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <http://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/opium/history.html>.
“Opium | The Partnership at Drugfree.org.” The Partnership at Drugfree.org | Support and Resources for Parents Dealing with Teen Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Web. 01 Feb. 2012. <http://www.drugfree.org/drug-guide/opium>.
Reuter, J.”The Allure of Opium Abuse in 19th Century Europe.” HubPages. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <http://jreuter.hubpages.com/hub/Opium-Use-in-19th-Century-Europe>.
Simkin, John. “John Simkin : Biography.” Spartacus Educational. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/author.html>.
Tosches, Nick. “Nick Tosches on Opium Dens | Culture.” Vanity Fair. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2000/09/opium-dens-200009>.
Image Sources: (In order or appearance)