The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

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This is the wrapper for sixth installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the last novel of Charles Dickens, who died before completing the remaining six installments and revealing the solution to the mystery. Photo courtesy of WPI's Robert D. Fellman Dickens Collection, housed in the George C. Gordon Library.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
By Joel J. Brattin

In 1869-70, England’s most powerful, funny, and creative novelist, Charles Dickens, created what may be the most challenging and captivating mystery novel ever written: The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Like every one of the 14 novels Dickens published before it, Drood was published in serial installments—in this case, monthly “parts,” including 32 pages of text (usually three or four chapters), plus two pages of illustrations, at the modest price of just a shilling. Most of Dickens’s other major novels were designed to be complete in 20 such installments, but Drood was shaped according to a new, more compact plan: Dickens agreed to complete this new novel in just 12 monthly parts.

After completing his previous novel, Our Mutual Friend (serialized from 1864-65), Dickens had devoted most of his creative energies to his dramatic and popular public readings—one-man theatrical performances, adapted by Dickens from his own writings. In 1868, Dickens traveled to America for the second time, and performed A Christmas Carol and Bardell and Pickwick (adapted from his first novel, The Pickwick Papers) to wildly enthusiastic audiences in Boston, and elsewhere.

But after his return to England, and after four and a half years away from novel-writing—the longest such break in his career—Dickens was eager to return to the serial publication of fiction, and in the summer of 1869 he developed some very intriguing ideas for the story which was to become his 15th and final novel.

The first installment of that novel was published on the first day of April 1870, with the second and third following in May and June. But the plan for 12 installments was forever altered by Dickens’s sudden death from a stroke on June 9. Despite a few hints of one sort or another to Dickens’s biographer John Forster and to his illustrators for the cover and for the novel itself, Dickens’s final intentions for the novel died with him. His publishers had enough manuscript in hand to publish three more installments after Dickens’s death. (The sixth installment of the novel, containing a portrait of Dickens and some extra front matter, cost eighteenpence.) But after the sixth and final part was published in September of 1870, no one seemed to know exactly who killed Edwin, or indeed if Edwin was really dead.

Scholars and amateur sleuths have enjoyed puzzling over the novel ever since. Obviously, opium plays a crucial role in Dickens’s novel, as it did in his close friend Wilkie Collins’s 1868 mystery, The Moonstone. Some theorists believe the solution to the mystery involves the murderous Indian cult of Thugee; others, that hypnotism, mesmerism, or “animal magnetism” is the key. Still others feel that there must be some kind of role-playing involved, perhaps crossing gender lines. Almost all agree that the music-master John Jasper is evil; some speculate that he may have committed the murder without (somehow) being conscious of it.

Most of Dickens’s novels take place primarily in London, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood has a few crucial scenes set there. But in this novel the main locale is Cloisterham, a thinly-veiled version of Dickens’s beloved Rochester, in Kent. Cloisterham is a cathedral town, and the novel prominently features clergymen—as well as opium sellers and addicts, bullying philanthropists, an unusually candid landlady, a benevolent lawyer, a pompous auctioneer, the proprietor of a girl’s school, a drunken stonemason, an almost incredibly hideous boy, the mysterious Dick Datchery (whose striking shock of hair cannot possibly be real), a retired naval officer of proven gymnastic ability, and a frustrated playwright—along with several attractive young men and women of marriageable age, if not inclination.

Because the novel has long been thought (for obvious reasons) to be incomplete, it has not always enjoyed the high critical reputation of such Dickensian masterpieces as David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, or Our Mutual Friend. Some readers find it frustrating to read a novel that is incapable of providing fully satisfactory explanations of who did what to whom, and why. But in recent years, the novel has found an audience that extends far beyond the curious fan of mysteries and literary puzzles. Some recent critics have claimed that in fact the novel is, finally, complete, in its essentials. After all, whatever John Jasper may or may not have done, he reveals his dark and passionate nature to us, if not to himself. Ultimately, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is, among other things, a remarkable portrait of obsession and infatuation. The novel reveals deep truths about the ways men and women treat each other--and the ways they understand each other, themselves, and the world.

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