by ZJ Czupor

A Mystery Within a Mystery

In the canon of mystery novels lies an unfinished but published mystery—the last written by an iconic author—and the mystery is still waiting to be solved. American librarian and author Edmund Pearson (1880-1937) called it “the foremost problem in fiction.”

The unfinished novel in question is The Mystery of Edwin Drood written by that great Victorian author, Charles Dickens. Yes, that Dickens. The intriguing mystery was cut short by the author’s untimely death. How could this have happened? Let’s examine the evidence.

Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) is regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works were popular during his lifetime and by the 20th century critics and scholars considered him a literary genius with a vocabulary second only to Shakespeare. His works, which ranged from bright comedies to dark social commentaries, have never gone out of print.

Even though he lacked a formal education, Dickens started as a newspaper reporter covering parliament and wrote theater reviews. He edited a weekly journal for twenty years, wrote fifteen novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories, and non-fiction articles. He also campaigned for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms, like the plight of prostitutes.

He had ten children with his wife, Catherine. However, after twenty-two years of marriage, they separated in 1858, because Dickens started a liaison with eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. He was forty-five.

But let’s back up. In 1836, Dickens published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, a comedy about the injustice of the justice system. Published in twenty monthly installments it brought him great notoriety.

In those days, a bound novel cost about 31 shillings.* But an average worker only earned 6-20 shillings per week. So, Dickens wisely published his works in monthly installments, in a magazine format, for only a shilling. His stories typically appeared in thirty-two pages of text with two illustrations, and mostly advertisements. Dickens cleverly ended each installment with a hook to keep readers wanting more.

Most of his books were published in weekly or monthly installments in magazines, or one of three magazines he owned during his career. Dickens wrote quickly with great energy and passion and submitted pen-and-ink scribbles to typesetters** who had to decipher his sometimes-illegible handwriting.

After his serialized stories completed their run, the publisher issued them as bound novels in one to three volumes with original illustrations. His works also were published simultaneously in America, which added to Dickens’s popularity.

But some British and American publishers illegally copied his works. As a result, Dickens received little or no compensation due to the lack of international copyright laws, which didn’t go into effect until 1891 (twenty-one years after his death). This outraged him and he spoke openly about it on his speaking tours.

Dickens added to his income by reading excerpts of his novels to live audiences. Due to his training as an amateur actor he knew how to spellbind a crowd with animated performances.

But when Dickens returned home from his first trip to America in 1842, he found himself in dire financial straits.

He had borrowed heavily from his publishers, Chapman & Hall, to finance the trip and sales were slow from Martin Chuzzlewit, his most recent novel. By then, he had five children, five servants, had taken in his 15-year-old sister-in-law, and carried a large mortgage on his home. Further adding to his woes, he discovered that his father had used his name to borrow money behind his back. As a result, he was suddenly short on cash.

By now he had written and published Oliver Twist (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), and Barnaby Rudge (1841). But his popularity waned.

In 1843, at the age of thirty-one, he feared financial ruin. So, he pushed himself to write a new piece.The impetus came from watching children working in appalling conditions. It angered and moved him to “strike a sledgehammer blow against the miserly rich,” as he put it. The idea unfolded in his head from his own meager upbringing, the current treatment of the poor, and at a time when the British were re-evaluating Christmas traditions.

In October of that year, Dickens began writing under the title: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, or commonly known as A Christmas Carol.

He completed it in six weeks and self-published the book to great success on December 19. He relied on his publisher Chapman & Hall to print, but he paid all the expenses. The novella came out at sixty-six pages in length and cost only 5 shillings (about 25 pounds in 2020).

The first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. However, since Dickens demanded the book have a high-quality cover and illustrations—gilt on the cover, gilded paper edges and four hand-colored illustrations—he did not gain the profit he had hoped for. He expected to make a thousand pounds from sales, but only realized a quarter of that. As a result, he moved his family to Italy for a while, where living was cheaper.

A year later, thirteen editions of A Christmas Carol had been released. But many of those editions were copied illegally. He sued his publishers who went bankrupt. He complained he spent more money fighting the piracy than he made from the sales of his own book.

Fortunately, the popularity of A Christmas Carol rekindled his reputation. While he started out to write a political pamphlet about the plight of the poor, the story took a different turn and resonated with readers as one of individual charity and transformation for the good. The New York Times (1863) said Dickens brought the “old Christmas…of bygone centuries and remote manor houses, into the living rooms of the poor of today.”

The book has never been out of print, has been translated into several languages, and sold more than two million copies in the first hundred years of its publication.

At this stage in his career, all of his major works were in the public domain: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol, one of five Christmas books he wrote in a five-year period (1843-1848).

In April 1870, he started writing a new work, a departure, in that it would be a mystery. The Mystery of Edwin Drood takes place in the fictious town of Cloisterham, England, where Edwin Drood goes missing. The plot line involves double lives, opium, lust, unresolved love, and possibly murder.

Two months later, on June 8, Dickens was writing the sixth chapter of a planned twelve-chapter novel for his new mystery. After writing in the garden of his country home, near Rochester, in Kent, Dickens went inside to have dinner with his sister-in-law and collapsed after suffering a stroke.

Other historians suggest Dickens wrote at his home in the morning, then traveled to his mistress’s house where he suffered the stroke. He was immediately returned home to die a respectable death. Either way, Dickens died the next day at home surrounded by his estranged wife and many of his adult children.

Dickens left no plans for the solution of the mystery. The murderer, if there is one, is unknown. Also, it’s not clear if Edwin Drood is dead or alive. If dead, who killed him and why? There are several logical suspects and motives left open to the imagination.

Over the years, several authors tried to complete the mystery with their own takes on how it should have ended. Some believed Edwin Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, is the murderer. Others surmised Edwin Drood had survived Jasper’s murder attempt.

At one time, amateur sleuths tried to decipher clues from the illustration on the novel’s original cover, while another author claimed to have channeled Dickens’s spirit and wrote his own conclusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an avowed spiritualist, praised this version.

Dickens’s son, Charles, said his father told him Jasper was the murderer. However, before he died, Dickens wrote two letters to his biographer, John Forster. The letters relate only to the story’s plot, but not the murder. In short, we still do not know who to believe, or what the author had in mind.

The unfinished mystery has spawned four films (adapted from 1909 to 1993); three television and two radio adaptations (CBS Suspense Radio, 1953 and BBC Radio, 1990); several theatre adaptations; plus, a public mock trial.

At the trial, English writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) served as judge, while Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was jury foreman, and other authors made up the jury. The proceedings were light-hearted and ended when Chesterton ruled that the mystery of Edwin Drood was insoluble and fined everyone, except himself, for contempt of court.

Chesterton is famous for creating the fictional priest-detective Father Brown mystery series. Shaw won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Dickens’s final novel. His lifelong friend, English writer Wilkie Collins*** is thought to have inspired Dickens to write the story. Incidentally, Collins is noted for writing The Moonstone (1868), which is considered to be the first modern English detective novel.

After Dickens died, Collins was asked to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he declined, saying “it was the last laboured work of a melancholy brain.”

When Dickens died at the age of 58, he had great fame, wealth, and an adoring public. He lived in a time when printing presses were advancing, literacy was on the rise, and literature was both affordable and sought after. His literary contemporaries were Louisa May Olcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Hardy, William Wadsworth Longfellow, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe.

His will specified he be buried in a little church near his home and in a strictly private manner. He wrote that anyone attending should “wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.”

Family and friends, however, felt he should be buried in Rochester Cathedral, but the London media agitated for a proper burial in Westminster Abbey along with Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, and other literary greats.

Finally, all agreed he should be buried at Westminster Abbey. Fourteen mourners attended the private funeral at Poets Corner in the Abbey. His mistress, Ellen Ternan, appeared discreetly but his estranged wife did not. The grave was left open for three days so the public could pay their last respects. Soon after, his wife, Catherine received a note from Queen Victoria expressing her “deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death.”

This past June 8, fans, historians, and readers of Charles Dickens celebrated the 150th anniversary of his death.

We now know how the author died, but how his last fictional character fared is still a mystery.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

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Author’s Note: As did Shakespeare, Charles Dickens also coined new words. Here’s a few:

  • Abuzz (A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)
  • Devil-may-care (The Pickwick Papers, 1836)
  • Flummox (The Pickwick Papers, 1836)
  • On the rampage (Great Expectations, 1860)
  • Sawbones (The Pickwick Papers, 1836)
  • Whiz-bang (The Pickwick Papers, 1836)

*A shilling is a historical monetary unit and is not active as currency today. Compared to 1836 values, 31 shillings today would be equivalent to about 925 pounds sterling. Adjusted for inflation and converted to U.S. dollars, 31 shillings in 1836 would today be worth about $1,221.

**The first typewriter appeared in 1874, four years after Dickens’s death.

***Collins published his short stories in two of Dickens’s magazines: Household Words and All the Year Round, (circulation 300,000). They also collaborated on writing plays, were travelling partners, and performed in amateur theater together. One play in which they performed (Not So Bad As We Seem), was written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is famous for that opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Paul Clifford, 1830).