Philip V. Allingham: Unravelling The Collins-Fildes Monthly Wrapper for The Mystery of Edwin Drood: The Solution to Dickens's Conundrum?

Original: The Victorian Web


HARLES All­ston Collins, the ini­tial il­lus­tra­tor en­gaged to work on Chap­man and Hall's month­ly se­ri­al­i­sa­tion of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, com­plet­ed but one de­sign. Collins — Wilkie Collins's broth­er, as­so­ci­ate of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Dick­ens's son-in-law — bowed out of the il­lus­tra­tion pro­ject sup­pos­ed­ly be­cause of ill health. The sin­gle con­tri­bu­tion of this as­so­ci­ate of Hunt and Mil­lais, how­ev­er, has elicit­ed more crit­i­cal and am­a­teur com­ment than any other il­lus­tra­tion pro­duced for one of Dick­ens's works dur­ing his life­time. The gen­er­al feel­ing among Drood afi­ciona­dos has been that, if one could only de­ci­pher the clues that Dick­ens has pro­vid­ed on the wrap­per, one could ac­cu­rate­ly graph the di­rec­tion that the au­thor had in­tend­ed the nar­ra­tive to take. Since Collins's major paint­ings, such as Beren­garia's Alarm, make use of com­plex sym­bol­ism, one might ex­pect he used it in his il­lus­tra­tions, too.

Whether the se­cret to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood lurks with­in the wrap­per has to be de­ter­mined by each care­ful read­er. As Jane Rabb Cohen points out, the fact "that most of the wrap­per vi­gnettes in this in­stance could, at best, sug­gest only scenes not yet writ­ten, ac­tions not yet worked out, and char­ac­ters not yet to­tal­ly con­ceived, has only spurred on the would-be de­tec­tives" (Cohen 212). Since no let­ters from Dick­ens to Collins about The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood dis­cussing the pro­ject sur­vive from the pe­ri­od dur­ing which Dick­ens con­ceived and wrote the story, it is dif­fi­cult to as­sess pre­cise­ly how much of the novel's plot the au­thor re­vealed to Collins, the de­sign­er of the wrap­per. Most of Dick­ens's cor­re­spon­dence that al­ludes to the artist dwells on his de­clin­ing health; iron­i­cal­ly, he out­lived his vig­or­ous fa­ther-in-law by three years, dieing at the age of 45. Cer­tain­ly, after Collins moved into Gad's Hill with his wife, the nov­el­ist must have pro­vid­ed in­struc­tions and sug­ges­tions oral­ly, but (ac­cord­ing to what he told Fildes after Dick­ens's death) the il­lus­tra­tor un­der­took the wrap­per de­sign with­out un­der­stand­ing in the least the mean­ing or sig­nif­i­cance of the ten vi­gnettes it con­tains. In a let­ter to Fred­er­ic Chap­man dated 24 Septem­ber 1869, Dick­ens re­quest­ed his pub­lish­er to send the il­lus­tra­tor "any of our old green cov­ers that you may have by you" (Let­ters 12, 413). No sur­viv­ing cor­re­spon­dence in­di­cates which cov­ers Chap­man ar­ranged to have sent, al­though we may cer­tain­ly spec­u­late that those of fair­ly re­cent nov­els (in­clud­ing Mar­cus Stone's wrap­per for Our Mu­tu­al Friend and, per­haps, Phiz's wrap­per for A Tale of Two Cities) were still in stock. When ill­ness forced Collins to bow out, Dick­ens re­placed him with Luke Fildes; how­ev­er, since once again the nov­el­ist de­liv­ered many of his in­struc­tions in per­son, in meet­ings with the artist at Hyde Park, no cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the col­lab­o­ra­tors about the re-draft­ed de­sign of the wrap­per sur­vives.

What Collins knew or did not know we shall never learn. Dick­ens, hav­ing de­cid­ed on a mys­ti­fi­ca­tion, would not be like­ly to tell the artist all about it and ask him to give the se­cret away on the wrap­per. He would aim at as much con­ceal­ment as pos­si­ble, and, where rev­e­la­tion was un­avoid­able, would make the re­veal­ing ob­scure and delu­sive. [Wal­ters 226]

In Chap­ter 17 of Charles Dick­ens and His Orig­i­nal Il­lus­tra­tors (1980), Jane Rabb Cohen has re­pro­duced the orig­i­nal draft (now in the Dick­ens House Mu­se­um, Lon­don) that Collins pre­pared for Dick­ens. There are only a few dis­crep­an­cies be­tween this pro­vi­sion­al de­sign and Fildes' final ver­sion: in the draft, the al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ure of Mur­der (upper right) is ei­ther an­drog­y­nous or mas­cu­line; the fig­ures climb­ing the wind­ing stair­case (right) are uni­formed po­lice; the fig­ure whom Jasper en­coun­ters (bot­tom cen­tre) has a mous­tache; the cler­gy­man in the ex­treme upper left is be­hind Rosa rather than Edwin; and the opi­um-smok­er in the lower right with fem­i­nine hair and clad in a night­gown but of mas­cu­line pro­por­tions is not specif­i­cal­ly Chi­nese; and Dur­dles' key, din­ner bun­dle, and shov­el and the words "with il­lus­tra­tions" are not pre­sent in the draft. It is log­i­cal to as­sume that these dif­fer­ences re­flect au­tho­ri­al in­ten­tion — that is, Dick­ens was re­spon­si­ble for each of these changes to the de­sign. Oth­er­wise, the el­e­ments of the wrap­per — in­clud­ing the "Wheel of Life" or­ga­ni­za­tion of the eight scenes — are much the same ex­cept for small par­tic­u­lars (such as Jasper's hair being dark­ened and Edwin's los­ing his mous­tache) in draft and fin­ished pro­duc­tion:

The sparse­ness of de­tail in Collins's much dis­cussed sketch for the wrap­per de­sign, to­geth­er with the an­gu­lar­i­ty of its lines, sug­gests his hes­i­ta­tion as well as his ill health. He lacked the fur­ther knowl­edge of the plot, as well as self-con­fi­dence, to sup­ply ad­di­tion­al de­tails. The artist drew two fig­ures hold­ing back the cur­tains at the upper cor­ners of his de­sign quite ten­ta­tive­ly, al­though their al­le­gor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance seems clear enough. The fe­male fig­ure over­look­ing the ro­man­tic scenes, in­volv­ing women on the left-hand side of the wrap­per, rep­re­sents Love. Her male coun­ter­part, clasp­ing a dag­ger [or stilet­to] as he sober­ly over­looks scenes of sus­pi­cion or re­tri­bu­tion in­volv­ing only male char­ac­ters, rep­re­sents Hate or Re­venge. Sur­round­ing the crude­ly let­tered title, the artist has placed bare branch­es. One ex­tend­ed branch, how­ev­er, bears ros­es — some in bud, oth­ers in bloom — in­ter­spersed with thorns and wilt­ed petals, sug­gest­ing the gen­er­al love and death themes of the nar­ra­tive as well as play­ing on two specifics: the name of the hero­ine, Rosa Bud, and the name of Baz­zard's play, The Thorn of Anx­i­ety. [Cohen 213]

In his ap­pendix re­gard­ing the il­lus­tra­tions, David Paroissien, ed­i­tor of the Pen­guin edi­tion of the novel, ex­pli­cates the real and al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ures in much the same man­ner as Cohen. Each month as the nar­ra­tive un­fold­ed in let­ter-press and il­lus­tra­tion, the se­ri­al read­er would have been able to make more and more sense of the pic­to­ri­al el­e­ments of the wrap­per, cre­at­ing and/or re­vis­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tions and con­nec­tions as he or she pon­dered the mean­ing of those pieces yet to be in­tro­duced. In pe­rus­ing and re-pe­rus­ing the wrap­per, then, the read­er would have been en­gaged in nar­ra­tive re­ca­pit­u­la­tion, an­tic­i­pa­tion, and con­sol­i­da­tion, ground­ing pro­jec­tion in what he or she had pre­vi­ous­ly en­coun­tered.

Let us begin with the el­e­ments on the wrap­per that the novel in its half-fin­ished state per­mits us to iden­ti­fy with some con­fi­dence. The cen­tral fea­ture of the de­sign, en­clos­ing the title, would have been fa­mil­iar to Dick­ens's read­ers by way of the ti­tle-page de­signs for The Christ­mas Books as well as through Phiz's wrap­per de­signs as far back as Mar­tin Chuz­zle­wit (1843-4), the right-hand side con­trast­ing and com­ple­ment­ing the left. The left-hand cor­ner's al­le­gor­i­cal fe­male has var­i­ous­ly been iden­ti­fied as Love, ro­man­tic sen­ti­ment, and (to the Vic­to­ri­an mind) the fem­i­nine na­ture. The right-hand cor­ner's al­le­gor­i­cal fe­male, rem­i­nis­cent of Lady Mac­beth, has been termed an Ama­zon, Death, and Mur­der, and by her stern look and vig­or­ous grip on the cur­tain (em­blem­at­ic of the nar­ra­tive) and her weapon ex­em­pli­fies de­ter­mi­na­tion, vin­dic­tive­ness, and re­tal­i­a­tion. Thorn­less roses in var­i­ous states of bloom and decay on the left con­nect the three ro­man­tic or sen­ti­men­tal scenes with the church porch at the top (pre­sum­ably, Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral) and the scene in dark­ness at the bot­tom (in the cathe­dral crypt).

In the first vi­gnette (mov­ing coun­ter­clock­wise from the cen­tral goth­ic arch of Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral's porch at the top), we en­counter a young, fash­ion­able, fair-haired cou­ple — most prob­a­bly Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud prior to the break­ing of their en­gage­ment. Rosa looks away from her fiancé, per­haps dis­sat­is­fied with his treat­ment of her, per­haps mere­ly non­plussed by the ar­range­ment im­posed upon her by her dead par­ents. Nei­ther she nor Edwin seems to be aware of Jasper's star­ing at them from the right-hand side of the scene. Cohen in­ter­prets Jasper's hav­ing turned aside from the cler­i­cal pro­ces­sion to gaze in­tent­ly upon his beloved nephew and the woman the choir­mas­ter loves as in­dica­tive of his re­jec­tion of the har­mo­ny that the choir rep­re­sents. Jasper's pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the cou­ple re­it­er­ates the al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ureÕs pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with vengeance. The cler­i­cal fig­ure to the left of the arch­way and car­ry­ing a staff can­not be iden­ti­fied pre­cise­ly be­cause such a scene does not occur in the novel.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the sec­ond vi­gnette, fea­tur­ing a young woman with long hair look­ing at a want­ed poster of the type Jasper caus­es to be pro­duced and cir­cu­lat­ed after his nephew's dis­ap­pear­ance, is not based on a scene from the let­ter-press. The only fe­male fig­ure who bears any re­sem­blance to this young woman is the al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ure of Love, upper left. That she, like Rosa, looks de­ject­ed­ly to the left may sug­gest that she is, as it were, the spir­it of Rosa, or, as Collins as­sert­ed, "the doubt en­ter­tained by Rosa" (cited in Cohen, 213).

The third vi­gnette, the cou­ple on a rus­ti­cat­ed bench, de­picts Rosa with the gar­den-hat that she clutch­es in the scene with John Jasper be­hind the Nuns' House (see the first plate for the Au­gust 1870 in­stal­ment, "Jasper's Sac­ri­fices"). Al­though the suit­or is fair-haired, like Edwin (and there­fore can­not be John Jasper, whose protes­ta­tions of af­fec­tion hor­ri­fy her), Edwin has no mous­tache, and no such scene ex­ists in the novel as we have it. "The in­ter­nal logic of the de­vel­op­ing nar­ra­tive sug­gest­ed to both Charles and Kate Collins that the young man is Tar­tar in a forth­com­ing scene" (Cohen 213). Rosa's ob­vi­ous in­ter­est in him as the nar­ra­tive breaks off is cer­tain­ly an in­di­ca­tion that she will even­tu­al­ly en­ter­tain him as a suit­or; that Dick­ens should stage the pro­pos­al in the same gar­den as that in which Jasper at­tempt­ed to ex­tort Rosa's promise of mar­riage is a neat piece of nar­ra­tive sym­me­try.

The opium woman of the fourth vi­gnette, though not par­tic­u­lar­ly hag­gard, is al­most cer­tain­ly Princess Puffer, even though the de­tails of her den (no­tably the bed­stead of the open­ing and clos­ing plates fur­nished by Fildes) are ab­sent. What is in­ter­est­ing is that her nar­cot­ic fumes rise and blend into the up­ward move­ment of the rose vine, in con­tra­dic­tion to the coun­ter­clock­wise move­ment of the vi­gnettes. Is Collins here im­ply­ing that ro­mance is it­self a de­lud­ing nar­cot­ic which promis­es but fails to de­liv­er scenes of hap­pi­ness? The three ro­man­tic vi­gnettes above the opium woman all ap­par­ent­ly in­volve Rosa, John Jasper's sec­ond ob­ses­sion (the drug being his first, and his nephew's mur­der his third). Thus, the crouch­ing fig­ure of Princess Puffer, like the Weird Sis­ters over their caul­dron in Mac­beth, in­au­gu­rates a dark­er se­quence of an­tic­i­pat­ed scenes, a the­atri­cal cur­tain rather than a door­way sep­a­rat­ing her from the cen­tral scene at the bot­tom to which our eyes are drawn by the coun­ter­clock­wise mo­tion of the vi­gnettes; the clock­wise mo­tion of the opium smoke of John Chi­na­man (right), Princess Puffer's busi­ness rival; and the down­ward move­ment of the ti­tle-page let­ter­ing.

The prob­lem­at­ic fig­ures are those that, hav­ing read the first half of the novel, we can­not con­fi­dent­ly ex­plain or iden­ti­fy, most es­pe­cial­ly the fig­ure with the white hat in the fifth vi­gnette. Writ­ing in 1905, J. Cum­ing Wal­ters pro­posed that the dark-haired, be­whiskered man hold­ing the lantern is John Jasper, re­turned to the scene of the crime to con­firm that Edwin is in­deed dead, and that the young man in the Ty­rolean white hat is He­le­na Land­less (oth­er­wise known as "Datch­ery"):

How com­plete would the sur­prise be when the watch­er, seem­ing­ly a man, proved to be a woman; dou­bly startling when the seem­ing­ly old man proved to be a young woman; how ut­ter­ly con­found­ing to a man like Jasper, when he found, after so suc­cess­ful­ly de­ceiv­ing and thwart­ing men all his life, that a woman brought about his down­fall. [Wal­ters 244]

While it is not un­rea­son­able to con­jec­ture that the mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure in the white hat is Datch­ery (or, for that mat­ter, Edwin Drood re­turned to life from abroad, or a fig­ment of Jasper's guilty imag­i­na­tion), the pale skin and round­ed fea­tures do not square with He­le­na's phys­iog­no­my. Nor is it rea­son­able to sup­pose that Jasper and oth­ers about town would have failed to pen­e­trate the dis­guise, He­le­na being so well known to them. R. A. Proc­tor (1887), has sug­gest­ed that the "fig­ure in a tight­ly-but­toned coat and with a large hat" (Wal­ters 245) is Drood, whom John Jasper, act­ing under the in­flu­ence of opium, had mere­ly thought he stran­gled. Yet again, Dick­ens schol­ar An­drew Lang in "The Puz­zle of Dick­ens's Last Plot" (also in 1905) ad­vanced the no­tion that, while the "dark and whiskered man" (Wal­ters 246) was in­deed Jasper, the fea­tures of the other per­son in­di­cate that the youth is "Edwin Drood, of the Gre­cian nose, hy­acinthine locks, and clas­si­cal fea­tures, as in Sir Luke Fildes' third il­lus­tra­tion" (cited in Wal­ters, 246), "At the Piano." Wal­ters' the­o­ry about a dis­guised He­le­na Land­less does, how­ev­er, have its sup­port­ers: in par­tic­u­lar, Henry Smetham in a se­ries of ar­ti­cles in the Rochester and Chatham Jour­nal (1905) spec­u­lat­ed that He­le­na had as­sumed the fig­ure of the mur­dered Drood in order to ter­ri­fy Jasper into con­fess­ing his guilt. Some crit­ics re­solve the mys­tery with­out wor­ry­ing about the iden­ti­ty of Datch­ery; for ex­am­ple, "S. Y. E." "Dick­ens and his last book; A new the­o­ry." [Ar­ti­cle in Not­ting­ham Guardian (Jan. 9 [1912]), sug­gest­ing that Drood "sailed for the East" and was not mur­dered; that Neville Land­less was false­ly ac­cused of killing him; that Jasper, thwart­ed in his crim­i­nal de­signs, threw him­self over the Cath­dral para­pet, and, in dying, con­fessed his ill deeds.] [cited in Wal­ters, 263]

Al­though the issue of the iden­ti­ties of the pur­suers climb­ing the cir­cu­lar stair at the right-hand side of the wrap­per would seem rel­a­tive­ly triv­ial com­pared top the iden­ti­ty of the smooth-faced stranger in white at the bot­tom cen­tre of the page, there are two dis­tinct and quite con­trary in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the lead­er. That the uni­formed po­lice of the draft have been trans­formed into a party of what Pen­guin ed­i­tor David Paroissien terms "plain­clothes men" (295) is not so great a mat­ter. If the pe­ri­od in which Dick­ens set the novel is some thir­ty years prior to the date of com­po­si­tion, the change may sim­ply re­flect an at­tempt to cor­rect an anachro­nism, the Lon­don Metropoli­tan Po­lice (i. e., the "Bob­bies" in crime and de­tec­tion fic­tion such as Conan Doyle's Sher­lock Holmes mys­ter­ies) would not have ex­ist­ed when the au­thor­i­ties were in hot pur­suit of Drood's killer. As J. R. Cohen sug­gests, the change may also be a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to in­ject am­bi­gu­i­ties into the wrap­per de­sign; fur­ther­more, the pur­suers may well be a dep­u­tized "posse" such as the party of towns­men who ap­pre­hend Neville Land­less on the high­road the day after Drood's dis­ap­pear­ance. On the other hand, the lo­ca­tion of the stair­case may be lim­it­ed to one of two places en­coun­tered in the let­ter-press: the postern of John Jasper's gate­house, or the tower of Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral.

But who is the lead­er of the pur­suers, if the two men wear­ing hats lower on the stair are, as J. R. Cohen pro­pos­es, Tar­tar and Crisparkle (whom she se­lects sim­ply on the grounds that Dick­ens had planned to marry them to Rosa and He­le­na re­spec­tive­ly, and be­cause he had men­tioned to Collins that he had thought of hav­ing Neville die in the pur­suit of the real mur­der­er)? The top fig­ure, point­ing up­ward in the gen­er­al di­rec­tion of choir­mas­ter John Jasper in the top reg­is­ter, is uniden­ti­fi­able in the draft, but with tail­coat and fair hair could well be Tar­tar — or the fair haired, fair skinned man of mys­tery at the bot­tom cen­tre. The other pos­si­bil­i­ty is fas­ci­nat­ing in psy­cho­log­i­cal terms be­cause (if we can con­ceive of the fig­ure as dark-haired) it could be John Jasper, point­ing at him­self, in which case the scene may rep­re­sent the dot­ing uncle's fruit­less at­tempts to find his miss­ing nephew, or (if his dis­ap­pear­ance is the re­sult of foul play) his killer. Re­lat­ed Ma­te­ri­als Some Early Dra­mat­ic So­lu­tions to Dick­ens's Un­fin­ished Mys­tery.


Cohen, Jane Rabb. "Charles Collins." Charles Dick­ens and His Orig­i­nal Il­lus­tra­tors. Colum­bus: Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1980. Pp. 210-220.

Dick­ens, Charles. The Let­ters of Charles Dick­ens, ed. Gra­ham Storey. Ox­ford: Claren­don, 2002. Vol. 12 (1868-70).

— . The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood and Other Sto­ries. With Il­lus­tra­tions by Sir Luke Fildes, R. A. Lon­don: Chap­man and Hall Lim­it­ed, 193, Pic­cadil­ly. 1880.

Paroissien, David (ed.). "Ap­pendix 3: The Il­lus­tra­tions." Charles Dick­ens's The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. Lon­don: Pen­guin, 2003. Pp. 294-299.

Wal­ters, J. Cum­ing. The Com­plete Mys­tery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dick­ens: The His­to­ry, Con­tin­u­a­tions, and So­lu­tions (1870-1912). Il. Luke Fildes and Fred­er­ic G. Kit­ton. Lon­don: Chap­man and Hall, 1912.