Meg Harrington: How far can we ascertain how Charles Dickens would have completed his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood ?

First published at

Dickens only lived to write six of the intended twelve numbers of his last literary effort, The Mystery of Edwin Drood [Edwin Drood]. What remains of the novel leaves the ‘mystery’ unsolved. Since Dickens’s death in June 1870, critics and writers have attempted to solve ‘The Mystery’, placing varying importance on the central mystery itself. This variation immediately divides the questions into three sections: what happens to Edwin; how would events surrounding the mystery develop; and how would Dickens’s life and interests have affected the novel? To attempt to answer all aspects of this question, we must look at the attempts to solve ‘The Mystery’, both in critical essays and in various adaptions, judging the relevance and plausibility of each. The wider context of the novel will also be examined. This involves looking Dickens’s audience, his previous novels, his changed character and the relation between Edwin Drood and contemporary works, particularly Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. One final aspect which will be discussed is whether we were once closer than we ever could be to knowing these answers - the possibility of the existence of a written manuscript lost among the secret possessions of the late Queen Victoria.

In order to come to a judgement on the question, an understanding of what survives of Edwin Drood’s plot is vital. Though the plot is relatively simple, having far fewer characters or subplots than many of Dickens’s previous novels, the events surrounding the main characters are so dense that they are difficult to summarise. This deviation in technique from previous novels makes it seem from a very early stage that Dickens was writing in a completely new style – whether this is true will be discussed later in the essay.

The novel begins in a dull fictional Cathedral town, Cloisterham, whose choirmaster, John Jasper takes opium to escape ‘the cramped monotony of [his] existence’. His nephew, Edwin Drood is engaged to the young target of Jasper’s affections, Rosa Bud, and visits both in the early chapters.

Soon following this is the arrival of a brother and sister, the ‘dark […] gipsy type’ twins (p.85), Neville and Helena Landless, at the home of the benevolent Reverend Septimus Crisparkle. Neville soon believes himself to be in love with Rosa, and develops a deep and violently evidenced dislike of Edwin, who ‘hold[s] his prize so lightly’ (p.97) when discussing his betrothal. Soon before Drood’s disappearance, the engagement between him and Rosa is broken – this is not known by Jasper, who has recently taken a great interest in the Cathedral’s crypt.

By the 14th chapter, the second of the fourth number, Edwin Drood is missing. Though prejudice and previous animosity leads the people of Cloisterham to direct their accusations at Neville Landless, the reader’s suspicion is drawn towards Jasper, who becomes ‘nothing but a heap of torn and miry clothes’ after discovering that the Drood’s engagement had been broken off (p. 192). This suspicion is enhanced by a new character, Datchery, who turns up at Cloisterham with no spoken motive but ‘getting through life upon his means’, and he displays ‘some interest’ whenever the name of Jasper is mentioned (pp. 218-220). The action is extended to London when Rosa flees the advances of Jasper to her guardian, Mr Grewgious, and meets both the Landlesses and a new suitor: Tartar. Even in as brief a synopsis as this, it is clear that Dickens was not yet ready to reveal ‘The Mystery’.

What happens to Edwin?

It would seem, from Dickens’s notes soon before he began the novel, even he didn’t know; at least not initially. On 20th August 1869, he deliberated over the name of his novel, the key word going from ‘loss’ to ‘flight’ to ‘Mystery’. ‘Dead? Or Alive?’ is written below the finalized title. However, though this shows Dickens’s initial uncertainty concerning the fate of Edwin Drood, it must be remembered that his books were written episodically, each new instalment appearing in weekly or monthly magazines, meaning that he was free to make decisions up to the moment each chapter was printed. It is far from futile, therefore, to discuss the theories on what Dickens did decide, or would come to decide. One of the first to write his views on how he believed Edwin Drood would be completed was John Forster, and his is a valuable opinion to consider. A close friend of Dickens, it was he who edited the first editions of the unfinished novel, and who wrote Dickens’s first biography. In 2011, this - according to Peter Ackroyd - ‘invaluable primary source’ was put back into print by Sterling Publishing. This means that rather than seeing selections of Forster’s opinions solely in the context of another critic’s judgement, it is now possible to view them as a whole, and without being influenced by external comment.

Forster writes of a discussion with Dickens, soon after the 6th August 1869 in which Dickens revealed that the ‘story’ of Edwin Drood ‘was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle [and] the review of the murderer’s career by himself at the close.’ Such a confession often featured in the closing chapters of Dickens’s novels, most memorably in Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, so this theory should not be disregarded. Of course, the date given in this extract immediately puts its reliability into question. If this idea was revealed ‘immediately’ after a letter was received on 6th August, and ‘Dead? Or Alive?’ was written on the 20th, these previous certainties could be justly disregarded. Wilson, in his 1974 introduction to Edwin Drood, adds further doubt to the validity of Forster’s authority to discuss ‘Dickens’s last years’ by claiming that after 1860, the two men’s relationship deteriorated. Wilson in fact goes so far as to mention the theory that Forster ‘copied [the] suggested plot out of [Dickens’s] old Memoranda Book [dated at around 1862] and attributed it to a letter from Dickens.’ However, Wilson does not disregard Forster’s opinion, and values the accounts of friends and family of Dickens far more than subsequent theorists. Indeed, first-hand accounts of Dickens’s last months, whether reliable or not, are worthy of study, particularly as Dickens was so free to change the course of his novel according to his whims, which he often spoke of to those around him.

Wilson draws attention to the fact that both Forster and the children of Dickens concur in the belief that Edwin was killed by his uncle. Charles Dickens Junior, in fact, wrote a stage play also entitled, Edwin Drood, which was drawn to the public’s attention in 1912. In this play, ‘Dickens the younger’ drew on discussions he had had with his father and concluded that Forster’s recollection was indeed correct and that Jasper did kill his nephew. A 1912 edition of The New York Times mentioned the play’s inclusion in study discussing discoveries which, according the paper, ‘may solve Edwin Drood Mystery.’ These discoveries were extracts which were not included in the first editions of the novel Edwin Drood, and they do indeed place Jasper under a renewed suspicion. Many of the extracts concerned Datchery and his interest in Jasper when he appears in Cloisterham. However, the confidence in whether this ending was definite did not last long. The seeming impossibility of knowing the Edwin Drood’s fate was satirised in 1914 by a number of experts and fans of Dickens, who performed a trial of John Jasper, for the ‘Murder of Edwin Drood’, presided by G.K Chesterton, a respected biographer and critic of Dickens. By the end of the ‘trial’, it had descended into farce, and all present were deemed guilty of ‘contempt of court’. It seems the very purpose of this mock-trial was to put forward the argument that being sure of the resolution to Edwin Drood was impossible.

Chesterton and Wilson differ greatly in their opinions of the solution to the ‘Mystery’. This is because Chesterton placed far more emphasis on the ‘detective story’ element of the novel, saying that it is ‘first and foremost’. In continuing this, Chesterton writes that the predicted revelation that Edwin was murdered by his uncle would result in an anti-climax. He summarises his belief on the subject with ‘there is no doubt that Jasper either murdered Edwin Drood, or supposed that he had.’

This is a bold statement, claiming uncertainty but reducing the possible solutions to only two. Both possibilities can be supported by the scene in which Jasper becomes a ‘heap of torn and miry clothes’ (p. 192) on hearing the futility of his alleged crime. Since Chesterton, the number of possible alternate ending has grown and grown, but rather than reducing the case for the simple answer – that Jasper murdered Edwin Drood – it has strengthened it, by standing almost alone in textual support and credibility.

The BBC’s recent production of Edwin Drood seems to further this idea that we can only guess what happened to Edwin Drood. Gwyneth Hughes’s pitch for the two-part drama, ‘Episode one – by Charles Dickens; episode two – by moi!’, aptly represents the ‘cottage industry’ of possible endings which treat the text Edwin Drood more as a spring board for a writer’s ideas than a puzzle to solve. Hughes admits that many of her decisions were made ‘on no textual evidence’ but with a 21st century audience in mind and uses the decision that the Landless twins would have a ‘British father and a Tamil mother’ as an example. This confession highlights an issue many critics have drawn attention to: if Dickens was writing a detective story, it was not in the manner that we are used to today. The seemingly obvious answer to the mystery, therefore, may be the answer after all. However, Edwin Drood began publication soon after Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, arguably ‘the first and greatest of the English detective novels,’ and in a book about the crime novel, Heather Worthington discusses Edwin Drood as part of that genre. However, whether it was indeed to be a crime novel or not, the evidence given in its first chapters is not enough to make a confident decision on how it was to end.

It is worth looking at how the central mystery is solved in Hughes’s production, and how plausible the solutions are deemed. Whether consciously or not, Hughes uses the theories of two Dickensian critics - that of Chesterton (‘Jasper either murdered Edwin Drood or supposed that he had’) and that of Mathew Pearl, who suggests the idea of an Edwin Drood Senior, the true victim of Jasper’s violence. In the last minutes of Hughes’s production, we find that Jasper was in fact Edwin’s illegitimate brother who hated his father for never acknowledging him, and killed him when he appeared at Cloisterham Cathedral a year before the book’s plot begins. Such an unexpected family connection should not be disregarded, as unknown relations being suddenly revealed is almost a staple in a Dickens novel. An example similar to this would be Nicholas Nickleby discovering that his friend, Smike, is his paternal cousin soon before he dies. However, this particular relation has been put under doubt, as it causes the reader to feel sympathy for ‘one of Dickens’s nastiest creations’. Also considered implausible, in relation to the novel and Dickens himself, is the revelation that the Landless twins are also the illegitimate children of Edwin Drood Senior. This is simply because as a man of the Victorian era, Edwin Drood Senior would probably share the national prejudice against people who were not white. Though opinion on whether Dickens concurred with the prejudice of his time, he knew that few did not. However, this revelation contributes little to the overall plot of Edwin Drood, as it wouldn’t even serve as an alibi – if Neville is cleared of Edwin’s murder, the suspicion moves onto Jasper, whose fraternity with young Edwin is more plausible.

In the 2008 series of Doctor Who, we are given a decidedly science-fiction solution to the mystery: ‘Drood died at the hands of alien beings.’ However, even this is heralded by Dickensian critics as a plausible ending to the novel. When discussing this episode of Doctor Who, Simon Callow, who played the character of Charles Dickens, wrote that Mark Gatiss’s solution ‘does such justice to [Dickens]’ and follows the spirit of his writings. Though this could be dismissed as publicity for the programme, it aptly shows how any solution to the mystery can be argued. To use this as an example, it would not be the first time Dickens wrote of the supernatural, the prime example being the four ghosts in A Christmas Carol. However, with regards to the question of how Dickens would have finished Edwin Drood, the closest we can get is the theory of those who knew Dickens well: that Edwin Drood was murdered by his uncle. This is generally accepted by critics who do not specialise in Edwin Drood, as it is often other aspects of the novel which are of interest.

From my own reading of the novel, I have come to my own conclusion that Jasper was indeed the murderer, and this is primarily because of the last chapter Dickens wrote, ‘The Dawn Again.’ Near its beginning, we witness Jasper speaking to his opium dealer, Princess Puffer. While inhaling, he speaks of ‘a journey’ which he had gone through ‘over and over again.’ (p. 269), but which felt disappointing when it was really carried out. When he goes on to say that a ‘he’ unknowingly went on the journey with him, I feel that this ‘he’ is Edwin Drood, particularly as Princess Puffer had previously known that ‘Ned’, a name which only Jasper gives to his nephew, was a dangerous name to have (p. 179). After this ‘vision’, Princess Puffer follows Jasper to Cloisterham and tells Datchery all she knows, and after this he draws ‘one thick line’ of chalk on his cupboard door (p. 280). This practice has been carried out with each discovery Datchery makes, the thickness of the line representing relative importance. This interest in Jasper, therefore, has grown into certainty, and Datchery’s new challenge, whether official or not, is to prove it.

Was Edwin Drood to be a Dickensian novel?

Before moving onto the second part of the question - how events surrounding the mystery were to develop - the debate on how far Dickens the man and Dickens the writer had changed since his earlier writings must be discussed. This is because it serves to contribute to all aspects: the solution; the development; and Dickens’s interest.

A key reason for someone to believe that Dickens was attempting to write in an entirely new style is his desire to out-do his young friend, Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone was published in one of Dickens’s magazines in 1868, a year before publication of Edwin Drood began. Dickens had previously used the characters in Collins’s Woman in White as a basis for one of his most famous creations, Miss Havisham, the bride who never married in Great Expectations. It is possible to argue, therefore, that when he became weaker, Dickens drew more heavily on the work of his friends. It is highly possible that Datchery is an attempt to better Collins’s Inspector Cuff – though he had arguably already done this with Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Chesterton in fact questions whether Edwin Drood was to be ‘Dickensian’ at all, and writes that it was moving more towards realism, rather than drawing on the heightened reality present in previous novels. It is also true that Dickens greatly narrowed the social scale and variety of characters in his last novel. However, Ackroyd draws attention to the public readings Dickens gave just before and during the first weeks of writing Edwin Drood, which was heralded as a return to his old manner’ of writing. In his last readings, Dickens focused on his earlier novels, insisting on performing the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist every night. Philip Hobsbaum draws a comparison with the ‘phantasmagoria’ of the early novels with the ‘macabre’ of Edwin Drood. This comparison highlights the great difference in Dickens’s writing: the attitude of the man himself. By 1869, Dickens had become a cynical man; he had left his wife with whom he’d had 10 children; he no longer had faith in his work as political documents, and so Edwin Drood was recognisably the work Dickens, but it is evil, rather than good which takes centre stage.

So, if Edwin Drood can be deemed a Dickensian novel, then it is reasonable to look back to the conventions of Dickens’s previous works to decide how important the central ‘Mystery’ is to the plot, and the answer to the second part of the question:

How would events surrounding ‘The Mystery’ develop?

Wilson most effectively explains why it is likely that the ‘Mystery’ was not to be the novel’s central focus. It is because ‘Dickens titles do not as a rule run deep into the heart of the significance of his novels’, but serve merely as a sort of literary coat hanger for the characters and themes of the novel to hang from. Hobsbaum furthers this when talking about the number of alternate endings sharing the same solution. He claims to be ‘personally acquainted [with] forty’ in which Jasper has murdered Edwin. This simple number shows that the solution to the mystery is not the only aspect of the plot of Edwin Drood. Of course, it is far harder to know how Dickens would have developed surrounding events than the central mystery. The key reasons for this are: there are no notes in Dickens’s hand on what would be in the chapters following the twenty-second; and that almost anything could happen from the point Dickens left it. Hughes claims while trying to decide on an ending to Edwin Drood, she came to the temporary conclusion that ‘Dickens died on purpose’ after leaving the novel at a point of agonisingly high dramatic tension, with limitless possibilities as to what could happen next. However, there have been a number of viable attempts to come closer to knowing how Dickens would have moved the story forward.

Much interest has been attached to a number of pages of manuscript in Dickens’s hand which has come to be known as the ‘Sapsea Fragment,’ a full copy of which was printed in the 1974 penguin edition of Edwin Drood. In these few pages, we are introduced to an entirely new group of characters, excluding Mr Sapsea. There are two contending opinion on the significance of this, and both agree with the conclusion that Dickens’s narrative was destined to go in a new direction. However, whereas Arthur J. Cox believes that Dickens was merely ‘trying out’ new sub-plots, Forster surmises that the ‘Sapsea Fragment’ was written in panic, in realising that the plot had developed too soon. To agree with Forster’s argument, one would have to assume that it was written ‘about the time of the fifth and sixth numbers’, or Dickens would not yet have realised the structural ‘catastrophe’. Cox challenges this assumption when he draws attention to the fact that Mr Sapsea is not addressed as Mayor, and by the fifth number he has been given this title. Regardless of the reason that Dickens wrote this fragment, both Cox and Forster agree that it foretells the introduction of new characters and new sub-plots, reminiscent of books such as Bleak House, which had scores of characters which added little to the plot, but were invaluable to the essence of the novel.

Another contribution to the mystery of Edwin Drood’s plot is the cover designs for the monthly parts, the most discussed of which is printed in most recent editions.

Wilson discerns little from this image, other than the marriage of Rosa depicted at the end of the ‘rosy path’. He goes on to say that little attention should be given to the image, as many covers of his previous novels proved contradictory to the following plot. However, the picture which seems to portray Jasper’s proposal - published two months after this cover was printed - adds a relevancy to the remaining pictures, though their messages are ambiguous. As is made evident by an analysis, the cover which has been the inspiration for a number of possible endings invites more questions than it answers.

John Glavin has created a theory surrounding the idea that Tartar is the last new character to be introduced, and compares Edwin Drood to a production of The Winter’s Tale by Charles Kean. The key parallels he draws between the two are ‘an intimately male pair’ the elder of which ‘conspires the death of the other, driven by lurid and grotesque sexual jealousy’; and the main girl fleeing to then ‘become infatuated’ with an exotic newcomer. The further parallels Glavin assumes would develop are the ‘renewing power of nature’ present in the second half, and the discovery of a body. Tartar, the exotic newcomer, is linked to Apollo, with reference to the last completed chapter, ‘The Dawn Again’. Apollo being the sun god, this would be a fitting comparison, but the link between these two compositions seems too tenuous, and Glavin conjectures that Dickens may not even have been aware of Kean’s production. However, such a comparison between these creations shines light on the fact that Dickens was writing a dark story, one of jealousy, ‘wreck and ruin’.

Already evident is the fact that the different sections of the question depend on each other’s answer. At this point, I have come to agree with Wilson – the mystery was to have a simple solution, and the real interest of the novel would be found in the plot surrounding it. Another likelihood, which is inferred by Ackroyd, Pearl and Hughes, is that Dickens knew that he was about to die, and so was eager to complete as much of the plot as he could. In this circumstance, we can assume that Jasper would be discovered as the murderer. Any further developments would have depended on how many chapters Dickens lived on to write. Unfortunately, this was only half of what was planned. To come to the nearest estimation of how Edwin Drood would have been completed, we must consider the final part of the question:

How would Dickens’s life and interests have affected the novel?

Dickens was undoubtedly influenced by his younger contemporaries, whether unconsciously or in an effort to outshine them. Wilson draws attention to comparisons with Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles as well as Collins’s works, and this brings up an important point: Dickens was now writing for a new generation of readers, and so was likely to draw on popular new writers for inspiration. The readers were of tantamount importance, and, having completed his last tour of live readings, he knew what they reacted to. This, however, creates a problem. It is possible to study the popular trends in the late Victorian period, but impossible to know, nearly 150 years later, exactly what would satisfy Dickens’s audience. The best option we have, therefore, is to focus on the attitudes, opinions and interests of Dickens himself, which had drastically changed since his writing career began.

Something that never changed was Dickens’s attachment to his characters. When writing the Curiosity Shop, he wrote to his illustrator of how ‘I’m breaking my heart over this [the death of Little Nell], and cannot bear to finish it. Artwork depicting Dickens often gave testimony to this attachment, including a statue of Dickens in which Little Nell is at his feet, looking up to her creator. The character most likely to have Dickens’s affections in Edwin Drood is Rosa Bud, believed to be based on Ellen Ternan, his alleged mistress. If this is the case, it is likely Dickens identified with Jasper, the underserving admirer of a woman younger than himself – Ternan was 17 years younger than Dickens. By his death, Dickens had also begun to take laudanum to help his sleep, meaning he was able to accurately describe the ‘journeys’ of an opium addict.

Immediately, these connections with the characters shed a light on how the plot was to be continued. The happy ending was to be Rosa’s, and whoever she marries is depicted in the cover illustrations. In the case of Jasper, I believe that his addiction to opium is the source of evil in the book. Princess Puffer’s opium den is introduced in the first pages in the same manner as the Court of Chancery Bleak House. Though this is merely opinion, what can be almost certain is that Dickens was exploring the effects of opium on the mind, and ‘the subtleties and inflections of human behaviour as a whole’.3 Dickens’s view of the world was newly cynical, and he needed to write about it.

There is also evidence that Dickens intended to voice his anger at what he believed to be the banes of society. His targets are already established: Mr Sapsea, the ‘Tory Jackass’ and false philanthropists whom he deemed ‘enem[ies] of the human race’ (p. 203). The Sapsea Fragment, according to Wilson, supports the opinion that there would be further deviations from the main plot in order to further criticize his targets.

Did Queen Victoria have the answer?

Before coming to a final conclusion, there is the interest surrounding a ‘private interview’ with Queen Victoria to consider.6 After meeting the Queen in March 1870, Dickens wrote to a friend, ‘If Her Majesty should ever be sufficiently interested […] to know a little more’ of the story before anyone else, then he would be honoured to tell her. Wilson concludes with ‘alas, she was not’, but since then, in fact 25 years later, there has been discussion of ‘a detailed summary’ sent to the Queen which has since been lost, allegedly on board the Titanic. However, Few besides John Galazin, a far less recognized critic than Wilson, have championed this theory. Whether it is true or not, the possibility that the answer to our question could be revealed by the Royal Archives creates a fitting parallel with ‘The Mystery’ of the Princes in the Tower, the nephews of Richard III. We can only come so close to knowing the truth through theory, but with access to the right information, the mystery would be instantly solved.


It is impossible to know exactly how Dickens would have completed Edwin Drood, but we are closer to being sure of some aspects than others. ‘The Mystery’ of Edwin’s disappearance has the most possibilities but none are as supported as the simple solution the Jasper killed him. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that Dickens would let the mystery itself take over from what was really important: the characters. Hobsbaum agrees in saying that Edwin Drood was not a ‘whodunnit’ but more of a whyhedunnit, a study of a criminal’s mind and history.

There is one key difficulty in trying to fully answer the question, ‘how far can we ascertain how Charles Dickens would have completed his last novel’: the sheer scale of literature, adaptations, theories and critical analyses makes it impossible to take everything into consideration, particularly as some of it is only at the disposal of universities. Dickens’s death is the reason for there being a question at all. We will simply never know whether the second half of The Mystery of Edwin Drood would enjoy the scale of esteem that the first had, or whether Dickens was again about to change his mind before dying on 9th June 1870. A final thing to consider is Roland Barthes’s theory in ‘The Death of the Author’, which would essentially make any discussion of Dickens’s intentions redundant. Indeed, it is now possible for anyone to come up with their own solution to ‘The Mystery’. Dickens’s characters are now public property. However, in relation to this question of this essay, it is indeed because of the death of the author that we can never be completely certain how The Mystery of Edwin Drood was to be completed.

There is an ‘element of tragedy in the thing itself’. Dickens struggled with his last novel, and though we can never be completely certain who killed Edwin Drood, or whether, indeed, he was killed, it seems that, ultimately, it was the strains of writing Edwin Drood that killed Charles Dickens.