June 9, 1870. Charles Dickens sat writing at his desk. He had been laboring more than was his custom on his latest book. Though the story was progressing well, Mr. Dickens was not feeling well. His left hand clawed at the air. His left foot dragged on the ground. And though he had recently retired from public performances with a final reading from Pickwick, his pen scarcely ceased its scratching. A profound and perplexing mystery was unfolding beneath that pen and Mr. Dickens’ knew it well. If only his readers might know it as well.
It had been five years to the very day since the Staplehurst train wreck and Charles Dickens had never quite recovered from the accident. After rescuing terrified victims from derailed carriages and desperately trying to help people who died in his arms, the great novelist was driven to a nervous state of deterioration that could not keep up with his feverish work habits as England’s favorite author. But he was bringing an exciting story to life. A book he called “very curious and new.”
It was not finished yet, but what were the effects of exhaustion and oncoming cerebral hemorrhage to Charles Dickens? The book was not yet finished. And it would be finished, sir, or he would die writing it. He would. Nevertheless, even he had a mysterious premonition of death and—as he would have done if he had been a character in one of his novels—he added a foreboding clause to his contract which he had never done before, making provision if the said Charles Dickens should die before the said work was completed.
Visibly and admittedly ill on that June evening after writing throughout the day, Mr. Dickens rose from the dinner table. His sister-in-law suggested that he lie down on the sofa. Turning as if to do so, he collapsed. “On the ground,” he said. Charles Dickens, aged fifty-eight years, was placed in the ground at Westminster Abbey without uttering another word, much less writing another word. When news of Dickens’ tragic death reached American shores, his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “I hope his book is finished… It would be too sad to think the pen had fallen from his hand and left it incomplete.” The book was not finished. The manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood remained on his desk as he had left it, incomplete.
Charles Dickens gave the world fourteen novels and one mystery, and that mystery is worth reading—eminently worth reading. It is one of the few stories whose ending cannot be given away. Instead, the ending, or the dying point, leaves every reader with their own catharsis. It is a story about death in a delightfully dark Dickensian town; a story that is more about death than Dickens knew—or did he? Cloisterham, with its great gothic cathedral, sets the strange gothic scene for the sinister, opium-smoking organist John Jasper and the strangling relationship he has with his nephew, the young architect, Edwin Drood.
So the mystery unfolds. Jasper confesses the torments of unrealized aspirations. Drood releases his betrothed, Rosa Budd. Minor Canon Crisparkle accepts custody over the wayward orphans Neville and Helena Landless from the misanthropic philanthropist, Mr. Honeythunder. Mr. Sapsea, the most self-important ass in the entire Dickens canon since Mr. Pecksniff, reveals his lofty epitaph. Durdles, the dusty and bedraggled stone mason, shows his skill sounding for hidden graves in the cathedral crypt to a keen Mr. Jasper. Mr. Grewgious, the jittery lawyer whose manner and speech are punctuated by a paralytic caution, produces a wedding ring for Edwin. The Princess Puffer, or Opium Sal, the dreadful drab who supplies Jasper with his drugs, harbors a violent vendetta. Then, on a stormy Christmas Eve, after an argument with Neville Landless, Edwin Drood disappears. Landless leaves Cloisterham. Drood’s pocket watch is found in the river weir. Suspicions fly. Jasper is desperately beside himself, torn by something in between love and hate, between justice and guilt. Grewgious begins asking veiled questions. Princess Puffer begins making veiled accusations. And Dick Datchery, the bespectacled stranger with wild white hair who never wears his hat, appears in Cloisterham to rend the veil for all.
But the veil remains intact. The pen of Dickens fell on the ground with its master. Why did Edwin Drood disappear? And where? Was it murder? As Andrew Lang said, “If Edwin Drood is dead, there is not much mystery about him.” And thus the theories over the existing portion of the novel and the fate, and even the future, of Edwin Drood abound and are a joy to peruse. They present a literary pleasure that only an unfinished work can offer, though it comes with a degree of pain that is deeply meaningful. Sunt lacrimae rerum.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a partial mystery and therefore a perfect mystery. Those who have read mystery stories from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot will know that the solution is never as wonderful as the problem. As it stands, the story of Edwin Drood is half told, with six parts out of an intended twelve drafted. In some of the final words to fall from Dickens’ pen, Datchery the detective has his epiphany before famously falling to his breakfast with an appetite. The line he scores in chalk in the cupboard door beforehand is a boundary that the world may never cross into a tale that will never be told. This murder will never out. The clues will never be separated from the blinds. The mystery of Drood will remain inviolate and eternal, retaining that perfection of mystery, that sense of immortality. In the words of G. K. Chesterton:
Something more seems hinted at in the cutting short of Edwin Drood by Dickens than the mere cutting short of a good novel by a great man. It seems rather like the last taunt of some elf, leaving the world, that it should be this story which is not ended, this story which is only a story. The only one of Dickens’s novels which he did not finish was the only one that really needed finishing. He never had but one thoroughly good plot to tell; and that he has only told in heaven… What was the mystery of Edwin Drood from Dickens’s point of view we shall never know, except perhaps from Dickens in heaven, and then he will very likely have forgotten… Edwin Drood may or may not have really died; but surely Dickens did not really die. Surely our real detective liveth and shall appear in the latter days of the earth. For a finished tale may give a man immortality in the light and literary sense; but an unfinished tale suggests another immortality, more essential and more strange.
This fragment from the great novelist provides a taste for the power of literature on a whole, and a foretaste for the fulfillment, for the answers, for the truth that all seek. It demands an idealism or optimism that rejoices in Dickens’ earlier novels, where all things end up beautifully with miraculous coincidences, marriages, and resolutions. But the latter half of his career, after his semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, took a darker, more realistic, or even pessimistic turn. The fortune of Oliver Twist is decidedly not the fortune of Sydney Carton. Tiny Tim had a merrier outcome than Little Dorrit. The Old Curiosity Shop is brighter than Bleak House. Though Nicholas Nickleby fell on hard times, they were not like those in Hard Times. Thus these later works and their themes ended fittingly with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
There is a poignancy in unfinished art that cries out with one of the purposes of art: to evoke the longing for completion, for perfection. Those masterpieces whose creation is cut short by the death of a master resound with both human experience and human existence. St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium, Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, Mozart’s Requiem, and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood all evoke that singular sense of needing to be finished that every human being must share until he finds a heavenly end. Such works, such mysteries, preach the Resurrection and the Life to those on the ground.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.