Pete Orford: The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens' Unfinished Novel and Our Endless Attempts to End It


Introducing the Mystery

This is a book about fanfiction, and the extraordinary response of readers to Charles Dickens’ final - and unfinished - book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Since its publication in 1870, there have been hundreds of theories about the existing fragment of the book, trying to argue for how they think the story might end. Depending on your level of cynicism, the volume of responses is either a damning indictment of reader infatuation and conspiracy theories, or a standing testament to the continued admiration and relevance of Dickens and his works. In truth, it is a little of both, and one of the more remarkable aspects of researching the many theories of Drood’s end is the recurring pattern in their structure - be it an article or monograph, the first ten percent of the argument is always a well-argued, objective overview of the theories that have come before, coupled with a sound recognition of how those earlier authors all lost objectivity and succumbed to their own ideas at the expense of any real evidence. The final ninety percent is then a slow descent into subjectivity as the author ultimately becomes everything they have just criticised, pushing their own ideas with the same manic level of certainty in their veracity. Indeed, for many years now Drood studies have been seen in relation to Dickens scholarship much as alchemy is seen to science - an important forebear to the field, of which many prominent figures have previously indulged, but one that most modem-day counterparts try to distance themselves from. Like Frankenstein, or any other scientist of the Hammer Horror genre, he who decides to investigate Drood is looked upon with an element of pity by those who know the ultimate end of all who try to unlock its mysteries, as methodical research in quiet libraries slowly but surely leads to standing in the laboratory of a lightning-struck castle screaming ‘He’s alive! EDWIN’S ALIIIIIIIIIVVVVVEEE!’

It is my intention not to follow this same path, for understandable reasons. This book is therefore not my theory of how Drood ends. It is rather an account of all that has gone before, partly to bring the casual reader of Dickens up to speed with the full story of his final novel, but also to see exactly what these many theories tell us about Dickens, his reputation, and his readers over the last century-and-a-half. In charting the history of Drood solutions, it will by necessity offer a glimpse at the wider frame of Dickens criticism since his death. Sometimes the two work in harmony, but often the mania for ending Drood acts in direct opposition to attempts to move scholarly discussion of his works forward. As will be shown, there is a tension that emerges in this narrative between enthusiasts and academics. I should like to note here that it has been my great pleasure to find that this tension is entirely historic, and that in the pursuit of this research I have personally found great support and enthusiasm from both camps. Dickens is that rare thing, a writer who can be enjoyed and celebrated by the general public while probed and critiqued by the academy, without detriment to either side.

This union of enthusiast and academic is a key element of my own approach to Dickens and one of the driving forces behind this book. Though I do not intend to discuss my own ideas of Drood’s end, in the interest of objectivity I should proclaim my own stance towards the novel and the many suggested conclusions. My approach varies between celebration and bemusement. Some of the ideas that will be discussed are utterly bizarre, but it needs to be recognised that most, if not all, have been created out of an earnest desire to honour Dickens or share the author’s enthusiasm with a wider community, and this is no bad thing. In the time since Dickens’ death we have seen countless conflicts and historical atrocities, and against this backdrop the heated exchanges of literary fans debating the fate of a fictional character are comfortingly harmless. You might ask how people can get so worked up about a book. I would say that arguing about literature is a far more positive experience than physical conflicts over geography and politics. I come here, therefore, not to sneer at the Droodists from the sidelines, but to champion the movement, with any gentle mocking coming from one among them. Ultimately, it is my contention that every response is valid simply for being a response. It shows us how Dickens is received by his readers, and every reader has the right to his or her personal response. As much as we can recognise the benefits of objective analysis in literary studies, there is no arbitrator who can dictate how a reader should personally react and relate to a novel.

The book in your hands is therefore not so much a book about Dickens, but of those who have read him. The existing half of Drood spans just over 200 pages, but the non-existent half has been expanded to thousands of pages presented in letters to the national press, journal articles, monographs, novels, erotic fiction, not to mention movies, plays and musicals. Dickens’ book is open-ended, albeit unintentionally, and that has meant a colossal library of works exploring the wide unknown of Drood’s conclusion. The history of Drood is of one book by Dickens surrounded by, sometimes lost in, the works of hundreds of followers who have, for the past 150 years, generated this remarkable response. But nor is Dickens to be completely absent from the discussion. The incredible response to his last work is also a testament to the Droodists’ passion for Dickens and the hold he maintains over his readers. For nearly 150 years, the characters of Dickens’ final story have stood suspended in their plot, with no end before them they gather potential energy, ready for the reader to take them where they will. And for the Droodists, this potential for multiple ending has been utilised greatly.

So while this book focuses on life after Dickens, at its heart is a tale of deep admiration for Dickens’ work that has fuelled and prompted fierce debate. Quite often the Droodists have gone too far and lost sight of both the original text and any semblance of objectivity. A lot of the ideas you are going to read about in this book get very silly, very fast. Fun as that may be (and it is), it comes at a cost, and has for a long time had a detrimental effect on Drood. Too many people have come to see the book purely in terms of the half that has not been written, either as a call to arms to join the fray and put forward their own ideas, or as a solemn warning to steer clear from the whole thing. Even among fans of Dickens, many will simply not bother reading what is ultimately going to be a book that they know they will never finish. But for those who do, the frequent reaction I have found in discussion is surprise at how good the book actually is. Dickens’ last work has some fantastic characters, and moments of writing that is as strong as anything else in his career. To some extent it is a great shame that of all his books, this had to be the one he didn’t finish. Therefore, in taking the Droodists head-on and recounting their theories, there is a secondary motive in this book of attempting to exorcise the ghost of the second half in order to allow both fans and critics to enjoy the first half. In chapter four I discuss how this sort of approach is now becoming more common, and it is my hope to see further work written on Drood that explores the themes and characters within the fragment that we have, rather than trying to extrapolate a plot that we do not have. Dickens was a wonderful writer, but predominately it is not his narrative we applaud, but his narration. Even without an end, Drood offers a great read.