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Chapter 13


THERE is naturally a pathetic interest attaching to this, the last, work of Charles Dickens, whose premature death unhappily prevented the completion of what promised to be one of his most dramatic efforts in literature. While preparing the early numbers of "Edwin Drood," the novelist was engaged upon his Farewell Readings, these taking place in London at intervals during January, February, and March, 1870. It is generally conceded that the excitement and fatigue incidental to these Readings indubitably hastened the end; à propos of which Mr. Ruskin wrote four years afterwards, in reply to an invitation to lecture: "The miserable death of poor Dickens, when he might have been writing blessed books till he was eighty, but for the pestiferous demand of the mob, is a very solemn warning to us all, if we would take it." In order to avoid the mental anguish which, when travelling on the railway, the novelist invariably experienced after the Staplehurst accident, he temporarily left Gad's Hill to take up his residence in the town house of his friend Mr. Milner Gibson, at 5, Hyde Park Place. Here, in a bedroom which commanded a splendid view of the Park, much of "Edwin Drood" was written; although the roar of Oxford Street beneath made itself very obvious, he was not affected by it, being singularly unsusceptible to noise.

  Dickens began the writing of his final romance long before the publication of the initial part, being anxious to spare himself by having several instalments ready in advance. A hint of his first fancy for the tale was given to his biographer in July, 1869: "What should you think," he wrote, "of the idea of a story beginning in this way?--Two people, boy and girl, or very young, going apart from one another, pledged to be married after many years--at the end of the book. The interest to arise out of the tracing of their separate ways, and the impossibility of telling what will be done with that impending fate." Although this notion was laid aside, it left a marked trace on the story, as indicated in the rendering of the hero and his betrothed. A short tale Dickens had received for All the Year Round, entitled "An Experience" (published in the 37th number of the New Series), suggested an alteration of plot. "I laid aside the fancy I told you of," he wrote in August, "and have a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The story was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle, and its originality was to consist in the review of the murderer's career by himself at the close, the last chapters to be written in the "condemned" cell to which his wickedness had brought him. Soon after the commission of the deed, the murderer was to realise the utter needlessness of it to secure his object; and all discovery of the murderer was to be baffled until near the close of the tale, when, by means of a gold ring which had resisted the corrosive effects of the lime into which he had thrown the body, not only the victim was to be identified, but also the locality of the crime and the perpetrator of it.(1) It will be remembered that the ring, to be given by Drood to his betrothed only if their engagement continued, was brought away with him at their last interview; Rosa was to marry Tartar, and Crisparkle the sister of Landless, who (says Mr. Forster, in his recollections of the proposed course of the plot) was to have perished in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer. It has been surmised that Dickens studied a portion of a curious American work entitled "Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World," by R. Owen (1860), with a view to supernatural events in the story.

  The plan for the first number of "Edwin Drood" was thus briefly indicated: "Mr. Sapsea. Old Tory jackass. Connect Jasper with him. (He will want a solemn donkey by and by)"; which was effected by bringing together both Durdles and Jasper, for connection with Sapsea, in the matter of the epitaph for Mrs. Sapsea's tomb. The last of the memoranda, and the final words written by Dickens in the note-book containing them, are these: "'Then I'll give up snuff.' Brobity.--An alarming sacrifice. Mr. Brobity's snuff-box. The Pawnbroker's account of it?" As Mr. Forster says, "What was proposed by this must he left to conjecture; but 'Brobity' is the name of one of the people in his unfinished story, and the suggestion may have been meant for some incident in it. If so, it is the only passage in the volume which can be in any way connected with the piece of writing on which he was last engaged."

  It appears that this romance gave its author more trouble than any of his former novels. His thoughts did not flow so freely as of yore; he revised and corrected his work continually, and sometimes entirely remodelled his sentences. Nor was he so successful as usual in estimating the amount of "copy" required for each number, the result, probably, of such excessive correction and interlineation. On December 22nd, 1869, he remarked: "When I had written, and, as I thought, disposed of the first two Numbers of my story, Clowes informed me to my horror that they were, together, twelve printed pages too short!!! Consequently I had to transpose a chapter from number two to number one, and remodel number two altogether." He completed the first Part during the third week of October, 1869, and on the 26th read it at Mr. Forster's house "with great spirit." The author experienced a keen pleasure in the story as the plot developed, and in a letter to his American friend, Mr. J.T. Fields (January 14th, 1870), he wrote: "There is a curious interest steadily working up to No. 5, which requires a great deal of art and self-denial. I think also, apart from character and picturesqueness, that the young people are placed in a very novel situation. So I hope--at Nos. 5 and 6 the story will turn upon an interest suspended until the end." Little did he then anticipate that, for him, alas! the end was rapidly approaching--that the ingenious plot he had mentally evolved would never be divulged.

  Although suffering seriously at times from local hæmorrhage and a recurrence of the trouble in his foot, Dickens enjoyed intervals of comparative freedom from pain; indeed, on the morning of June 8th, 1870--the eve of "that sorrowful day"--he was in excellent spirits, talking to Miss Hogarth about his book, at which he was working in the pretty Swiss chalet, amongst the trees in his garden at Gad's Hill Place, leaving it once about noontime to smoke a cigar in the conservatory. It was during dinner that the fatal seizure came. All human help was unavailing, and on the evening of Thursday June 9th he passed away peacefully in his 59th year, leaving the world to mourn the loss of one who had delighted millions of readers--the great English novelist who had so often cheered them in their sorrow, sympathised with them in their joy, championed them when harassed by notorious social abuses. Shortly before his death, he was walking with a dear friend, when the latter, speaking of "Edwin Drood," remarked: "Well, you, or we, are approaching the mystery----" The novelist, who had been, and was at the moment, all vivacity, extinguished his gaiety, and fell into a long and silent reverie, from which he never broke during the remainder of the walk. Was he pondering another and deeper mystery than any his brain could unravel, facile as its mastery was over the hearts and brains of his brethren?(2)

  During the publication of "Edwin Drood," a letter was received by Dickens from Mr. J.M. Makeham, who therein referred to a passage in the tenth chapter of the story, respecting which he suggested that the novelist had, perhaps, forgotten that the figure of speech alluded to by him, "in a way which was distasteful to some of his admirers, was drawn from a passage of Holy Writ which is greatly reverenced by a large number of his countrymen as a prophetic description of the sufferings of our Saviour." [The passage referred to reads thus: "... would the Reverend Septimus submissively be led, like the highly-popular lamb who has so long and unresistingly been led to the slaughter, and there would he, unlike that lamb, bore nobody but himself."] To this Dickens replied, in one of the very last letters he wrote:--

     "DEAR SIR,--It would be quite inconceivable to
     me--but for your letter--that any reasonable reader
     could possibly attach a scriptural reference to a
     passage in a book of mine, reproducing a much-abused
     social figure of speech, impressed into all sorts of
     service, on all sorts of inappropriate occasions,
     without the faintest connection of it with its original
     source.  I am truly shocked to find that any reader can
     make the mistake.  I have always striven in my writings
     to express veneration for the life and lessons of our
     Saviour; because I feel it; and because I rewrote that
     history for my children--every one of whom knew it from
     having it repeated to them, long before they could
     read, and almost as soon as they could speak.  But I
     have never made proclamation of this from the
                     "Fathfully yours,
                              "CHARLES DICKENS.

  Longfellow, on hearing of the death of the famous English fictionist, immediately wrote to Mr. Forster expressing a hope that his book was finished. "It is certainly one of his most beautiful works," added the poet, "if not the most beautiful of all. It would be too sad to think the pen had fallen from his hand, and left it incomplete!" This generous praise found a warm supporter in Mr. Forster himself, who considered that "some of the characters in the story were touched with subtlety, and in its description his imaginative power was at its best. Not a line was wanting to the reality, in the most minute detail, of places the most widely contrasted; and we saw with equal vividness the lazy cathedral town and the lurid opium-eater's den."

  How little Dickens suspected that his wonderful career was drawing to a close is shown by the fact that in his last letter to the manager of All the Year Round, Mr. Holdsworth, written the day before his death, he asked him to purchase at "one of those Great Queen Street shops" a writing-slope for Gad's Hill, such as he had in use at the office. The slope hitherto used by him was presented as a memento of the deceased novelist to his friend Mr. Edmund Yates. At the latter's death in 1895 it was sold at Messrs. Sotheby's rooms for a hundred guineas, the purchaser being Mr. S.B. Bancroft, the well-known actor, who generously presented it to the South Kensington Museum. This unique relic of the most popular novelist of the age has since been added to the Forster Collection of Dickens MSS.

  In the final instalment of "Edwin Drood" appeared the following Postscript by Messrs. Chapman and Hall:--

     "All that was left in manuscript of EDWIN DROOD is
     contained in the Number now published--the sixth.  Its
     last entire page had not been written two hours when
     the event occurred which one very touching passage in
     it (grave and sad, but also cheerful and assuring)
     might seem almost to have anticipated.  The only notes
     in reference to the story that have since been found
     concern that portion of it exclusively which is treated
     in the earlier Numbers.  Beyond the clues therein
     afforded to its conduct or catastrophe, nothing
     whatever remains; and it is believed that what the
     author himself would have most desired is done, in
     placing before the reader without further note or
     suggestion the fragment of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN 
          "12th August, 1870."

  When making pecuniary arrangements respecting "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," it was agreed that the sum to be paid at once for 25,000 copies was £7,500, publishers and author sharing equally in the profit of all sales beyond that impression; in addition to which the sum of £1,000 was to be paid for advance sheets sent to America. Dickens especially stipulated by deed that Messrs. Chapman and Hall should be reimbursed for any possible loss that might accrue to them should he be prevented by death or sickness from completing the work. It was the first time such a clause had been inserted in one of his agreements, but it proved sadly pertinent in this case. The demand for "Edwin Drood" was eminently satisfactory. "We have been doing wonders with No. 1" he wrote to Mr. Fields on April 18th, 1870. "It has very, very far outstripped every one of ifs predecessors." The number attained during the author's lifetime was 50,000.

  Various reports were circulated at the time that the novel would be finished by other hands, and in 1882 the rumour was revived to the effect that Mr. Wilkie Collins was engaged in completing it; it was further intimated that he had been asked to bring the story to a conclusion, but declined doing so. Such erroneous statements were promptly denied by Messrs. Chapman and Hall, who, in a letter to the Times, announced that the deceased novelist had finished three numbers in addition to the three already published, and declared that, as no other writer could be permitted by them to complete the work, it would remain a fragment. It was hoped that Dickens had left among his papers a clue to the remaining portion of the plot, but it transpired that nothing had been written of the main parts of the design except what is found in the published numbers, nor could there be discovered a hint as to the author's intentions respecting the sequel. It was all a blank, although Mr. Forster, when engaged upon his Life of the novelist, believed he had stumbled upon a solution of the plot in some pages of nearly illegible manuscript, which, however, proved to be a scene in which Sapsea was introduced as the principal figure among a group of new characters. (3) Concerning this Mr. Forster suggests that Dickens, "having become a little nervous about the course of the tale, from a fear that he might have plunged too soon into the incidents leading on to the catastrophe," conceived the idea of opening some fresh veins of character incidental to the interest of the story.

  Serious attempts have been made to solve the mystery of "Edwin Drood." The most noteworthy experiment is that of the late Mr. R.A. Proctor, F.R.A.S., whose little volume entitled "Watched by the Dead: A Loving Study of Charles Dickens's half-told Tale," 1887,(4) indicates that the author had attentively studied the romance; reasoning from certain data, he points out the probable fate of certain characters in the story, and concludes that Jasper was watched by Edwin Drood in the person of Datchery, and thus he was to have been tracked remorselessly "to his death by the man whom he supposed he had slain." Mr. Thomas Foster has also earnestly essayed, in a series of articles, to point out the general direction of the path along which the story was to be conducted, and its final goal; (5) while an anonymous writer in the Cornhill Magazine, March, 1884, offers suggestions for a conclusion. Mr. Luke Fildes, R.A., the illustrator of the story, is convinced that Dickens intended Edwin Drood should be killed by his uncle--an opinion strengthened by the admission of Mr. Charles Dickens the Younger, whom the novelist himself informed that Drood was dead. Other interesting indications as to the plot are made by Mr. Fildes, who, from his artistic association with the story, is naturally enabled to throw light upon the subject, although he can but furnish a solitary missing-link. It seems that, while engaged upon the illustrations, he was so shrewd in his guesses respecting the "mystery" that Dickens became afraid he would be unable to keep the public from anticipating the point he was endeavouring so carefully to conceal. Mr. Charles Collins, the designer of the cover, was unconscious of the meaning of his designs, having produced them under the novelist's directions.

  A prominent feature of "Edwin Drood" is the graphic account of opium-dens and their frequenters, which are still to be found in the East End of London. Dickens's American friend, Mr. J.T. Fields, has recorded that, during his stay in England in the summer of 1869, he accompanied the novelist one night (under police escort) to some lock-up houses, watch-houses, and opium-dens, it being from one of the latter that he gathered the incidents which are related in the opening pages. "In a miserable court," says Mr. Fields, "we found the haggard old woman blowing at a kind of pipe made of an old penny ink-bottle.(6) The identical words which Dickens puts into the mouth of this wretched creature in 'Edwin Drood' we heard her croon as we leaned over the tattered bed on which she was lying. There was something hideous in the way this woman kept repeating 'Ye'll pay up according, deary, won't ye?' and the Chinamen and Lascars made never-to-be-forgotten pictures in the scene." We also have Dickens's statement that what he described he saw--exactly as he had described it--down in Shadwell in the autumn of 1869. "A couple of the Inspectors of Lodging-houses knew the woman, and took me to her as I was making a round with them, to see for myself the working of Lord Shaftesbury's Bill." Relative to his sketch of opium-smoking, Sir John Bowring (who had been British Ambassador to China and Governor of Hong-Kong) pointed out to Dickens what appeared to him an inaccuracy in his delineation of that scene, and sent him an original Chinese sketch of the form of the pipe and the manner of its employment. While thanking him for the information, the novelist replied that he had only chronicled what actually came under his own observation in the neighbourhood of the London docks. Sir John's comment upon this is as follows: "No doubt the Chinaman whom he [Dickens] described had accommodated himself to English usage, and that our great and faithful dramatist here as elsewhere most correctly portrayed a piece of actual life."

  Dickens placed the scene of Jasper's opium-smokings in a court just beyond the churchyard of St. George's-in-the-East, Stepney. The Rev. Harry Jones, rector from 1873 to 1882, mentions that the old crone was known as Lascar Sal, and was living at the time he wrote (1875). The John Chinaman of whom she was so jealous in her trade was George Ah Sing, who died in 1889, he resided at 131, Cornwall Road, St. George's-in-the-East, and at the inquest it transpired that death was due to the rupture of a blood-vessel accelerated by destitution. When the novelist visited him, he kept an opium-den in New Court, Victoria Street, E., which used to be a house of call for Chinese seamen coming to this country and others who indulged in the use of the drug. The particular den described in the story was pulled down some years ago to make room for a Board-school playground, while the bedstead, pipes, etc., were purchased by Americans and others interested in curious relics.

  The picture of the Nuns' House in "Edwin Drood" was inspired by a sixteenth-century structure called Eastgate House, in High Street, Rochester--once actually a boarding-school for young ladies, and now a Workmen's Institute. On the opposite side of the street is a fine old timbered house, No. 146, which is pointed out as the residence of Sapsea the auctioneer, who is stated to have been drawn from two Rochester personages, one a former mayor and auctioneer, while the wooden effigy "representing Mr. Sapsea's father" (as depicted in the tale) formerly stood over the doorway.

  The venerable verger at Rochester Cathedral, Mr. Miles, believes, with some justification, that he is the original of Mr. Tope; the novelist was frequently seen by him to be studying the sacred fane and its precincts most attentively at the time he was engaged upon "Edwin Drood." In another local character, the late veteran Mr. John Brooker, of Higham (whose father planted the famous cedars at Gad's Hill Place), were recognised some of the better qualities and peculiarities of Durdles, although it is suggested that a "drunken old German stone-mason" who, some thirty years ago, was always prowling about the Cathedral, was the actual prototype; it seems probable that the effigy of John de Sheppey (A.D. 1360) in the Cathedral gave rise to the conception of Durdles's constant references to the "old uns." Dickens's description of Jasper, the choir-master, is said to have more closely resembled the personality of the organ-bellows blower than that of any other official connected with the Cathedral; his cognomen, however, is still an honoured one in Rochester, the city itself being thinly disguised as "Cloisterham" in the narrative.

  "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was originally intended to comprise twelve monthly parts, but only six of these were published. They were issued by Messrs. Chapman and Hall in the usual green wrappers, demy octavo, at one shilling each, commencing in April, 1870, and ending in September following. Besides a portrait of Dickens engraved on steel, the work contained twelve woodcut illustrations by Luke Fildes, R.A., the same artist being also responsible for the vignette on the title-page of Rochester Cathedral and Castle. Mr. Charles Collins (brother of Mr. Wilkie Collins) was originally thought of as the new illustrator, but this proved impracticable. He designed the cover for the monthly parts, and it is justly considered that here is prefigured the course of the story as intended by Dickens.

  In 1870, "Edwin Drood" was published in one volume, cloth, at 7s. 6d.--Collation, pp. viii., 190, with a Prefatory Note, dated "12th August, 1870, referring to the unfinished state in which the story was left at the author's death. It has since been occasionally reissued with or without a date, but is not included in the first Cheap Edition.

  The story in parts, as issued, is catalogued at from 6s. to 10s. The original MS., with memoranda and headings for chapters, is at South Kensington; one folio of the opening of the eleventh chapter, viz., the portion describing Staple Inn, is unfortunately missing.

  It may, without exaggeration, be said that no uncompleted work of fiction has excited so much comment, or caused such an amount of conjecture concerning the author's intentions with respect to the plot, as this remarkable fragment of Charles Dickens's last novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."


(1) Such an incident as that here referred to actually happened in Rochester many years ago. An inhabitant of the town was appointed trustee and guardian of his nephew, who went to sea, and eventually returned to his uncle's house. The young seafarer then mysteriously disappeared, and nothing more was heard of him. The uncle died, and when the house in which he resided underwent certain alterations in order to render it suitable for other purposes, a human skeleton was discovered, supposed to have been that of the missing nephew. <== BACK

(2) Vide "A Day with Charles Dickens," by Blanchard Jerrold, 1872. <== BACK

(3) This scene is given in Forster's Life of Dickens, Vol. III., 433-9. <== BACK

(4) An article on the same subject, also by Mr. Proctor, was published in the Manchester Examiner, August 1st, 1888. <== BACK

(5) Belgravia, June, 1878; "Leisure Readings," 1882; and Knowledge, September 12th to November 14th, 1884. <== BACK

(6) Mr. James Platt, jun., of St. Martin's Lane, who was personally acquainted with the old woman and her surroundings, declares that the pipe was a "scratch" one, made out of an old flageolet and a door-knob, the latter serving as a bowl, which Mr. Fields mistook for an ink-bottle. <== BACK