Jolene Zigarovich: Edwin Drood: The Preeminent Missing Body


HIS STUDY of missing bodies in Victorian fiction commenced with the enigmatic fate of M. Paul Emanuel in Charlotte Bronte's Villette. Perpetually shipwrecked, M. Paul is purposefully suspended in the narrative. Originally planning to have her hero killed off, Bronte appeased her father's desire for the heroine's potentially happy ending by producing a plot "puzzle" that all readers must attempt to solve for themselves: is M. Paul dead or does he return to Lucy Snowe? Writing Death and Absence demonstrates that the desire for return, for resurrection, is embedded in Victorian fiction. The fact that death is not always final in literature, and that readers can participate in resurrecting a character from mortal oblivion, is innately satisfying. We can thereby understand Rev. Bronte's displeasure with Villette's original ending. As this study has shown, missing bodies, fictional autobiographies, and the textually dead or missing all demand some form of obituary or embodiment. It is appropriate, then, that Writing Death and Absence concludes with a discussion of another novel that dramatizes an eternally "missing" character.

While the seminal missing body in Western religion is unequivocally that of Jesus, literature has its own secular narrative that awaits embodiment. Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), what Earle Davis called "the world's greatest mystery story" and Sylvere Monod termed "the most perfect mystery in literature, in that it will be mysterious for ever," is perhaps the most famous unfinished novel in the English language. As an enigmatic fragment, the novel begs for conclusion. But despite the repeated attempts by critics over the last century to conclude the novel, it must remain incomplete. Strikingly similar to Villette, the closure of the fragment is perpetually thwarted by the openness of loss. Edwin Drood's disappearance remains unsolvable, and perpetually embodied: the "resurrectionist" school that believes in Edwin Drood's survival has spent over a century filling the textual gap that Dickens left, while the "undertaker" school repeatedly argues for Edwin Drood's murder and attempts to assign him to the grave. It is as if the legacy of the fragment is the phantasmagoric capacity of others to keep Edwin Drood (and Edwin Drood) alive as a lost object. The novel resists conclusion yet it is this state of incompleteness that inspires this fetish for its completeness. Steven Connor, in "Dead? Or Alive?: Edwin Drood and the Work of Mourning," recognizes this perpetual desire for completion:

Each attempt to complete Edwin Drood is an attempt to escape the intolerable condition of indefiniteness to which the novel gives rise, in which, not only Edwin Drood, the character, but also Edwin Drood, the novel, and its creator Charles Dickens, remain disturbingly alive-in-death.

In its refusal to "end," the novel performs a horrid, zombie-like drama. This haunting persistence of "life without end" disturbs the process of catharsis, the process of life's affirmation in the death of the other, and finally, the process of embodying narrative.

As we have seen in chapters 2 and 4 of this project, traditionally Charles Dickens's novels close with "The End." All, that is, except for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens's unfinished novel. While Villette's Lucy Snowe purposefully failed to pronounce M. Paul's fate, The Mystery of Edwin Drood's eternal fragmentation leaves "The End" awaiting inscription. As a result, we are left in an interminable relationship with the text. It is as if the novel itself embodies the notion of writing as having an unreachable future while inserting its own repeatable textuality into the succession of history. Like the other persistent images of preserved decomposition in the unfinished novel (effigies, mummies, crumbling graveyards), the sudden disturbance that forestalls figuration—the double deaths of Edwin and Dickens— creates an indefinitely deferred ending: the exact ending Dickens was searching so desperately for in Our Mutual Friend. Literally, for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Mr. Boffin's phrase doubly applies: "there's no end to it."

An unfinished text can be seen as the interrupted testimony of a doomed man. The mysterious absence of Edwin Drood is of course mirrored by (and caused by) the literal absence of Dickens: he tragically died having finished about half of the novel. Collapsing from a heart attack as he was working on the novel, Dickens seems to have left us with an inscription that not only contains an eternally unsolvable murder mystery, but symbolizes Dickens's own perpetual "living on" (And as we will see, Dickens's passing in fact, is referenced throughout the serialization of Edwin Drood). Appropriately, Dickens's dark humor resonates throughout the mausolea of Edwin Drood's decomposing cathedral town Cloisterham (a resurrected Rochester where Dickens spent the happiest days of his boyhood and the last days of his life at nearby Gad's Hill Place): from Durdles's stony façade and Deputy's tombstone abuse, to the fatuous character Mr. Sapsea, the town's infamous epitaph writer. In Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens G.K. Chesterton aptly puts it:

And I think there is no thought so much calculated to make one doubt death itself, to feel that sublime doubt which has created all religion—the doubt that found death incredible. 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.

In fact, Edwin Drood is "more essential and more strange"; as all the novels in this study, there is something integrally problematic and disturbing when a character is "missing" or "dead alive." Brontë and Collins, as well as sensational writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood, all capitalized on the motif that tapped into deep-seeded emotions and desires. In this case, though, Dickens is withholding Edwin's resurrection or burial from us (just as Brontë withheld M. Paul's). Chesterton was right when he said Edwin Drood embodies a doubly disturbing immortality: Edwin and Dickens are perpetually "missing," immortalized by fragmentation and death. Davis aptly asked, "If any Dickens novel had to be stopped half-finished, is it not fortunate that this was the one?"

As we saw with Villette, Brontë purposefully produced an enigmatic ending, yet she embedded in the novel particular biblical clues to help us better understand M. Paul's puzzling fate. Of course, Dickens couldn't exactly foresee his untimely death (though he was very ill the last five years of his life, and acknowledged to others that his mortality was palpable), thereby Edwin Drood's fore-closure isn't purposefully enigmatic. Yet as he did with other novels, certain plot elements remained mysteries until later in their serial development. Notoriously, the serial wrapper, the novel itself, Dickens's cryptic notes, and the stories told by John Forster, Dickens's eldest son Charles Jr., his daughter, and Dickens's son-in-law Charles Collins (Wilkie's brother) and John Fildes, both illustrators for the novel, all provide possible clues to the mystery of Edwin's disappearance. In fact, the fragment forces readers to be detectives, using their intelligence and inductive reasoning to determine whether or not Edwin is really dead, and if so, if his uncle, John Jasper, is his murderer. Without retracing well-worn paths of speculation, I would like to mention a few additional "missing body" similarities Edwin Drood has with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend which show Dickens's refashioning of earlier plots (in particular, he continues and discontinues that of Our Mutual Friend). When Rosa learns that Edwin is planning to go to Egypt, with its "tiresome old burying grounds," to work as an engineer, she asks him: "You are not going to be buried in the Pyramids, I hope?" This foreshadowing of Edwin's absence (if not his death) proves apt. We conjure mummies, embalming, and the riddle of the sphinx. We also can make connections to Nemo and the image of the empty tomb in Bleak House. As we recall, Nemo was called a "phairy," had a riddle for a nickname and identity, and symbolized the Everyman that eventually finds death and inhabits a tomb. In addition, Nemo's tomb is unmarked; as he was in life, he is anonymous in death, a floating corpse in the London necropolis. Edwin reflects this same trajectory: he is associated with pharaohs and Egypt (the Drood family has a business there), has mysterious origins, perhaps dies and awaits proper burial, and is embalmed by the text. In addition, it is possible to infer from Jasper's moonlight expedition with Durdles into the recesses of the cathedral that the fate of Edwin is to be entombed. Quite differently from Bleak House's Nemo, though, Edwin endlessly awaits textual resurrection or a literal burial. And as with Bronte's M. Paul, Edwin has possibly drowned and is suspended in mortal oblivion. Both missing bodies sink and resurface throughout the pages of Villette and Edwin Drood.

As we have seen, missing bodies in fiction necessarily produce epitaphic representations and semiotics. It is appropriate that the plot of Dickens's incomplete novel involves an infamous epitaph and an absent body. Like John Chivery in Little Dorrit, Mr. Sapsea, the pompous town auctioneer, authors his own comic version ofthe classical epitaph, yet to do this he must diminish and overwrite the memory of his wife. Though it is the first line of the inscription, the name "Ethelinda" is overshadowed by her husband's. Visually, the epitaph emphasizes "Mr. Thomas Sapsea, /auctioneer, valuer, estate agent, &c." and thus diminishes his wife's importance. These are not the plain, simple expressions of the survivor's profession or trade that advocates of plain language argued for in the mid-century. The font size is larger, in all-caps, and Sapsea's own name is prominent. Any observer of the tombstone would assume that "Mr. Thomas Sapsea" is the deceased, and not his wife. In this sense, Mr. Sapsea is humorously reenacting Chivery's verbal suicide and Mr. Dombey's textual murder of Florence. To emphasize this, Dickens ensured the typographical representation of the epitaph in the original monthly issue.

Similar to Drood's missing body, the Sapsea epitaph resurfaces throughout the novel's remaining pages. Mr. Sapsea is quite proud of his authorship, and often purposefully strolls by Mrs. Sapsea's epitaph with visitors ignorant of its origins (In this way, he textually "haunts" Cloisterham). In Dickensian fashion, even an epitaph is consumable. John Jasper, the opium-eating choirmaster and Edwin's uncle, spends an evening with Mr. Sapsea, and is described as partaking in "port, epitaph, backgammon, beef, and salad". In another instance, Mr. Sapsea leads Mr. Datchery to the churchyard and directly to the epitaph, likening himself to Apollo, and claiming that "Strangers have been seen taking a copy of it now and then. I am not a judge of it myself, for it is little work of my own. But it was troublesome to turn, sir; I may say, difficult to turn with elegance". In homage to Sterne, Dickens has the narrator sardonically claim that if not for the approach of Durdles, "he would have transcribed it into his pocket-book on the spot." The consumable, "vulgar extravagancy" of the Sapsea epitaph visually engraves Dickens's own conception of the complicity between language and death, and the special role epitaphs play in character revelation.

Noticeably, Dickens emphasizes the extravagance and flourish of Sapsea's verse through its typographical prominence. In fact, the manuscript, serial, and Chapman and Hall one-volume edition all visually reproduce the epitaph. In contrast to Wilkie Collins's, these images are rare in Dickens's fiction, and had not been done since John Chivery's self-authored imaginary epitaph 15 years earlier in Little Dorrit (1855-1857). As did Collins for The Woman in White, Dickens sets the epitaph apart from the rest of the text in the manuscript, visually directing its indentation as well as which lines are to be small and large-capped. He also directs which words are to be large-capped by underlining them three times. This attention to detail is poignant, especially in light of Dickens's brush with death in the infamous train wreck at Staplehurst and his subsequent poor and declining health. The common epitaphic address "Stranger Pause" in the Sapsea epitaph is ironic for the novel itself is a perpetual pause. And isn't that the motive of the epitaph itself? To mimic voice? To resist the sealing of the tomb? As we saw in the Introduction to Writing Death and Absence, this "dead" communication to the living prefigures our mortality as well as our actual entry into the "frozen world of the dead." In this sense, Mr. Sapsea's epitaph for his wife might be taken not only as Drood's, but as Charles Dickens's own. Yes, Edwin Drood bids farewell, and it obsessively performs loss not only through the fetish of the Sapsea epitaph, but through the anticipated or imagined Drood epitaph. And of course, underlying Drood's ceaselessly blank tombstone is the palimpsest of Dickens's own engraved stone.

As we saw in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, Dickens doesn't seem to be concerned with "righting" the dead: numerous characters, Edwin possibly included, are relegated to unmarked or lying graves. The "lying" Sapsea epitaph—which signifies the pomposity of the quite alive Mr. Sapsea, yet ironically pronounces him dead— humorously toys with the dead-alive theme, shown in this study to be so persistent in Victorian fiction. In fact, in no fewer than eight of Dickens's books some character believed to be dead turns out to be alive. And Dickens rarely disposes of young, healthy men. Dombey and Son's shipwrecked Walter Gay is a perfect example of a "resuscitated" youth, evidence which can support the theory that Dickens planned for Edwin's resurrection.

With the title for Edwin Drood's Chapter 14 (borrowed with slight adaptation from the first line of Macbeth) "When shall these Three meet again?" Dickens possibly points to the idea that Neville, Helena and Edwin will indeed be rejoined, the chapter title being one of many resurrectionist clues. In order to make his readers believe that Edwin is indeed alive, thus the reason his body is missing, Dickens would need to resort to the same sensational "resurrection" plotting that he utilized for Our Mutual Friend's John Harmon, and many critics, including Andrew Sanders, believed that there was still room for Dickens to explore the "presumed dead" theme (And Dickens had published three articles in Household Words about a true dis-appearance similar to Edwin's). In fact, there are several parallels between the two "missing" characters. Both are pledged to young women by dead parents, perhaps both are "drowned," and "signs" of their identities resurface in water, in Edwin's case, his gold watch. Mr. Crisparkle finds sparkling in the Cloisterham Weir, two miles up- river, "a gold watch, bearing engraved upon its back, E.D," the initials of Edwin and his father, as well as "a shirt-pin sticking in some mud and ooze" (This plot element is also quite similar to that used by Collins's in The Woman in White for Sir Percival Glyde, who must be identified by his engraved watch after dying from severe burns). Following this discovery of the watch, "nothing more was found. No discovery being made, which proved the lost man to be dead, it at length became necessary to release the person suspected of having made away with him. Neville was set at large". Unlike John Harmon, Edwin isn't in the position, as far as the narrative states (unless one believes theories of disguise, Edwin perhaps returning as Datchery), to lie in wait for an appropriate time to reinsert himself in the plot. And thereby Edwin's body floats among the remainder of the unfinished pages of the novel, seemingly turned "to powder" instantly as Durdles' identifies occurs to corpses when he opens their coffins. Perhaps that is the curse upon the novel, that when Edwin's tomb is opened (maybe his body is hidden in the Sapsea tomb? or turned to dust by quicklime?), when we are all enlightened, the body must turn to dust. In relation to Dickens, we find that ironically, perhaps appropriately, the answers to the novel's mysteries are buried with him in his own tomb. And certainly, the silence at the center is deafening.

Dying Words

In Parentage and Inheritance in the Novels of Dickens, Anny Sadrin remarks that "a writer's last book inevitably reads as a literary testament." In the sense that a work of literature is a monument—it announces "Death has come," therefore "I shall not change"—Walter Ong can posit the notion that "Every written work is the author's own epitaph." The Mystery of Edwin Drood can then be considered as a novel in effigy, Dickens's elegiac last work. Like Edwin, Dickens remains suspended in the novel-as-epitaph. This textual preservation (and liminal existence) is reflected in the last of 17 titles Dickens considered for the novel: Dead? Or Alive? Like the final chosen title, all of the alternatives (including "The Flight of Edwin Drood," "Edwin Drood in Hiding") leave open the possibility of Edwin's survival, a disappearance other than death.

The announcement of Dickens's death in the serial is equally ironic. The contract Dickens signed with Chapman and Hall in August 1869 specified a novel in 12 monthly parts. Each number was to include 32 pages and two illustrations and cost a shilling. Of the 12 installments only six appeared, three posthumously (July-September). Though the public of course would have known about Dickens's death in June, this wasn't directly addressed in the serial. In fact, no mention is made in the July and August posthumous installments. The final words of the novel occur in the sixth number of the novel's serialization, dated September 1870. At the end of chapter 22, titled "The Dawn Again," Mr. Datchery takes score with a piece of chalk "and then falls to with an appetite." The next line is a series of asterisks. Instead of the first page of chapter 23, when we turn the page we find the publisher's statement:

All that was left in manuscript of Edwin Drood is contained in the Number now published—the sixth. Its last entire page had not been written two hours when the event occurred which one very touching passage in it (grave and sad but also cheerful and reassuring) might seem almost to have anticipated. The only notes in reference to the story that have since been found concern that portion of it exclusively, which is treated in the earlier Numbers. Beyond the clues therein afforded to its conduct or catastrophe, nothing whatever remains; and it is believed that what the author would himself have most desired is done, in placing before the reader without further note or suggestion the fragment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. August 12, 1870

Oddly, the publisher avoids the word "death." Even the date of his death, June 9, 1870, is avoided. It is as if his death is not accepted by the text; that somehow Dickens exists in the liminal spaces between character and author. These blank spaces are also reflected in Dickens's notes for the novel. While the previous numbers include rough plot sketches, Dickens made no notes for the sixth monthly part nor for any of the three chapters he planned for it (titles excepted).

While the serial publication avoids a direct announcement of Dickens's death, the publisher certainly sought to profit from it. It is now well-known that, as in the contract for Our Mutual Friend, there was a clause relating to the author's possible death, which included the contingency that John Forster was to determine the amount of compensation to be paid to Frederic Chapman. The sum to be paid was £7,500 for 25,000 copies. Beyond that, profits were to be shared equally between author and publisher, and according to Forster, the number reached while Dickens was still alive was 50,000 copies. In fact, at the time of Dickens's death, Edwin Drood was outselling Little Dorrit as well as Our Mutual Friend by 10,000 copies. Dickens was overjoyed: "It has very, very far outstripped every one of its predecessors," he told his American publisher James Fields on April 18.

Advertisers profited from Dickens's death as well, paying for space in the serial's "Edwin Drood Advertiser." More than any other volume, the sixth and final issue of the novel includes four different advertisements for Jay's London General Mourning Warehouse and one for "The New Mourning Stationery," The Oxford Mourning Note Paper and Envelopes, Registered produced by Terry, Stoneman, and Co. Though the vague publisher's statement that implies Dickens's death—"when the event occurred"—is an inept announcement, the advertisements certainly pronounce it. The first Dickens memorial advertisement occurs on page 11 of the "Edwin Drood Advertiser". Stereoscopic Co. advertises "The last portrait ever taken of this great author. With Fac-simile Autograph," though no image is shown. The next advertisement on page 16 is for a photograph costing 2s of Gad's Hill Place, "The property and residence of the late CHARLES DICKENS" sold by J. Luntley. The third and last advertisement is for "An elaborately engraved Portrait" of "The Late Charles Dickens." An anonymous company in the Strand claims that the portrait is "Approved by Mr. Dickens, was presented gratis with the GRAPHIC for June 18, in addition to the ordinary Engravings. Price Sixpence". No image is provided. So while the publisher avoided formally announcing Dickens's death, advertisers did, using his demise to commodify, reproduce and profit from his image.

For the first-volume edition Chapman and Hall refrained from advertising complete editions of Dickens works. The volume does include a portrait of Dickens, engraved by J. H. Baker "from a photograph taken in 1868 by Mason&Co." In fact, the title page "advertises" this special commemoration: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood. By Charles Dickens. With twelve illustrations by S.L. Fildes, and a portrait." The publisher's statement quoted above from the close of the serial is now found awkwardly as a preface to the novel. No appropriate alteration to properly identify or mark Dickens's death was made to the statement. By 1873 The Mystery of Edwin Drood was advertised to be published as volume XXX in the illustrated Library edition (to be sold for 8s). In February, England and America produced serial and volume editions, non-authoritative and some unrevised and filled with errors. Dickens's fragment was disseminated in various forms, proving profitable.

In his biography Charles Dickens, G. K. Chesterton makes a remarkable comment regarding Dickens and his last novel:

He was alive to the end. And in this last dark and secretive story of Edwin Drood he makes one splendid and staggering appearance, like a magician saying farewell to mankind. In the centre of this otherwise reasonable and rather melancholy book, this grey story of a good clergyman and the quiet Cloisterham Towers, Dickens has calmly inserted one entirely delightful and entirely insane passage. I mean the frantic and inconceivable epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea... Not the wildest tale in Pickwick contains such an impossibility as that; Dickens dare scarcely have introduced it, even as one of Jingle's lies. In no human churchyard will you find that invaluable tombstone; indeed, you could scarcely find it in any world where there are churchyards... The praise of such beatific buffoonery should be the final praise, the ultimate word in his honour. The wild epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea should be the serious epitaph of Dickens.

Chesterton has this right on several levels. Dickens wished for his art to speak for itself. Critical of extravagant mourning rituals and memorials, Dickens would want the humorous Sapsea epitaph to stand in place of his own (as it does for Edwin as well). And while Chivery's and Sapsea's epitaph-authoring has humor at its roots, the sepulchral surroundings of Edwin Drood, along with the clues that surface in the fragment, point to a darker epitaphic effect. The fragment is embedded with different forms of rhetorical fragmentation, from Edwin's monogrammed watch, to the pawnbroker's offering of "odd volumes of dismal books". Interruptions, incompletions, and the failure of endings are all representative of its terminal condition.

Angus P. Collins remarks: "Dickens's preoccupation with the terms of his art is rooted in his personal and creative situation, and testifies in particular to his longing for some form of human permanence." It is evident that Our Mutual Friend foreshadowed Dickens's anxieties concerning endings. And through his death, this problem is perpetuated in the fragment. Infinitely suspended, the bodies of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (and Dickens) await interment. And yes, Dickens's death reminds us of our own impending demise, and a culture's anxieties regarding death, endings, and the desire for unending, as Steven Connor argues. But I believe the fragment speaks to more than the desire to "end" the novel. Here we are called upon to identify with disappearance, to acknowledge that our own capacity to be a reader is entirely dispensable. Missing bodies speak to a desire to return, to resurrect, to affirm existence and faith. Through the writing of a text, with its infinite polysemy, the author can rewrite, replay, or mask all of our endings. Thus we find texts that suspend deaths and other forms of endings fundamentally disturbing, yet at the same time so fundamentally engaging.