Edwin Drood: A Mystery to the Very End

October 5, 2020

Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member and published author, Carl Wilson, describes Dickens's final novel's instant success, along with the effect of its sudden conclusion.



Hello. My name is Carl Wilson. I have been reading Dickens for more than fifty years. I have read all of his novels several times, but the last book I tackled was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I did not read until I was almost thirty. I wish I hadn’t waited too long—it has some of Dickens’s most beautiful and strange writing.

In February, 1870, Charles Dickens announced that a new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, would start appearing in his favored format, stand-alone monthly installments, beginning at the end of March. Readers had waited almost five years since the end of his previous novel, Our Mutual Friend, for a new book-length story from the most famous writer in the English-speaking world. Sales of Our Mutual Friend had disappointed; fewer than 20,000 copies of the closing installment sold. But readers were hopeful, and when the first pages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood appeared on March 31, 1870, Dickens was thrilled to see that 50,000 copies sold, more in line with his great successes—Bleak House, David Copperfield, and the novel that had started it all twenty-four years earlier—The Pickwick Papers. The Inimitable Boz was back.

But what were readers to make of these cryptic opening lines, a phantasmagoric look into the mind of an opium user, beset by images sacred and profane, a blend of East and West, of glory and squalor? Here is the opening paragraph:

"An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility."

Less than three months later, on June 9, 1870, one hundred fifty years ago, at age 58, Charles Dickens died with the novel less than half finished. The world mourned. A Cockney girl was alleged to have asked, “Dickens Dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?” An elaborate funeral and internment followed, with Dickens accorded the highest honors in English letters—full burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster abbey, near the remains of Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson, and followed in death by the nearby cremated remains of Thomas Hardy (minus his heart) and Rudyard Kipling.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a strange novel, filled with storms, crypts, sinister characters, dominated by the images of Rochester (named Cloisterham in the novel), its cathedral and environs, only a few miles away from where Dickens spent his early childhood, where Pip met the convict at the opening of Great Expectations, and where Dickens died at his nearby home, Gad’s Hill Place.

The day before he died, Dickens wrote his last words, a letter to one of his many admirers about Christian imagery in one of his works, thanking the writer for calling it to his attention. Earlier in the day, as he had done for several months, Dickens spent several hours at a small replica of a Swiss chalet near his home, where he did most of his writing. On June 8 he wrote his final words of fiction, a wonderful bookend to the opening of the novel. Dickens returns to Rochester Cathedral (real this time, and not the figment of John Jasper’s opium haze) with a different set of images and figures—lyrical, almost angelic. Let us leave words from the final pages of this great writer to speak for themselves about his love of life, of place, and of language:

"A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air. Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods, and fields—or, rather, from the one great garden of the whole cultivated island in its yielding time—penetrate into the Cathedral, subdue its earthy odour, and preach the Resurrection and the Life. The cold stone tombs of centuries ago grow warm; and flecks of brightness dart into the sternest marble corners of the building, fluttering there like wings."

Readers would never learn the fate of Edwin Drood—was he dead? Had he been murdered? And who was the mysterious Datchery, with his fake hair and busybody ways? Would Rosa Bud marry? If so, whom? And who was the opium lady, Princess Puffer, and why was she so interested in John Jasper, her client? Dickens left no notes, virtually no clues, and readers have spent the last 150 years since Dickens’s death trying to solve the last, greatest mystery that Dickens took with him to the grave. Read The Mystery of Edwin Drood—discover its mysteries for yourself.

Thank you.



Dickens enthusiast and published writer Carl Wilson started attending Dickens Universe in 2010, joining the Friends in 2014. A native Oregonian who resides in Portland with husband Evan and Devon Rex, Miss Lucretia Tox, Carl is a retired insurance executive and facilitator of Literary Arts, a readers and writers non-profit in Portland, Oregon. Carl’s love of Dickens begun when he read Our Mutual Friend as a child, a novel that has remained his favorite throughout the years. He has facilitated Literary Arts book groups on A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield, as well as non-Dickens sessions on Thomas Hardy, the detective novel, and recently, E.M. Forster’s Maurice. At the 2013 Dickens Universe featuring The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, he presented a lecture entitled “Passion and Pastiche.” Under the pen name Christopher Lord, Carl published his own novel, The Edwin Drood Mysteries. 



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