John Galazin: The Tragedy of Edwin Drood

First published: The Dickens Fellowship of New York, January 1999

The Pen­guin Books edi­tion of The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood in­cludes a lengthy in­tro­duc­tion by noted nov­el­ist and Dick­ens schol­ar Angus Wil­son which con­cludes with:

In fact, all un­will­ing­ly, one is al­ways brought back to the sim­ple dis­tress that the book was not fin­ished. We could have known more had Queen Vic­to­ria only been more in­quis­i­tive. In March 1870, two months and a half be­fore his death, he (Dick­ens) had been re­ceived by the queen in an hour and a half pri­vate in­ter­view. He wrote af­ter­wards to his friend, Sir Arthur Helps, the Clerk of the Privy Coun­cil, ‘If Her Majesty should ever be suf­fi­cient­ly in­ter­est­ed in my tale to de­sire to know a lit­tle more of it in ad­vance of her sub­jects, you know how proud I shall be to an­tic­i­pate pub­li­ca­tion.’ Alas, she was not.

As it turns out Dick­ens wrote a lengthy and sin­cere thank you note to the queen, as was the cus­tom, and ex­pressed his grat­i­tude for the time she spent with him. He then en­closed a de­tailed sum­ma­ry of the re­main­der of Drood and with char­ac­ter­is­tic hu­mil­i­ty hoped that Her Majesty would enjoy know­ing the out­come of the story prior to pub­li­ca­tion.

Vic­to­ria read the end­ing of Drood and be­cause she had a great deal of re­spect for Dick­ens and also be­cause the pre­ma­ture dis­clo­sure of the story’s out­come would, of course, have an ad­verse fi­nan­cial im­pact on Dick­ens and his pub­lish­er, she was very care­ful to keep the mys­tery a mys­tery, as it were. And so Queen Vic­to­ria bun­dled Dick­ens’ let­ter around the Drood doc­u­ment and in her own hand noted on the let­ter “Not to be opened until the sig­na­ture of Charles Dick­ens is ver­i­fied.” and af­fixed her own sig­na­ture. She then placed the pack­age with her per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, a most se­cure lo­ca­tion. The queen had no way of know­ing that this was the only record of the out­come of Drood.

It must be re­called that the queen was liv­ing a very pri­vate life in this pe­ri­od. She had lived in vir­tu­al seclu­sion for sev­er­al years after her hus­band Prince Al­bert’s death in 1861. Her el­dest son Ed­ward par­tic­i­pat­ed in many cer­e­mo­ni­al func­tions on the queen’s be­half and scrupu­lous­ly guard­ed his moth­er’s per­son­al life es­pe­cial­ly when ru­mors abound­ed in 1864 that she was linked ro­man­ti­cal­ly with Scot­tish high­lander John Brown. Early tabloid jour­nal­ists were to keep this re­la­tion­ship in the fore­front for 20 years.

Ed­ward suc­ceed­ed to the throne upon Queen Vic­to­ria’s death in 1901 and also be­came the cus­to­di­an of his moth­er’s per­son­al ef­fects in­clud­ing the copies of her per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence. How­ev­er, these were of no in­ter­est to Ed­ward who lived an ex­trav­a­gant lifestyle and trav­eled fre­quent­ly in hopes of pro­mot­ing in­ter­na­tion­al un­der­stand­ing. And so the Drood mys­tery re­mained un­re­solved, the so­lu­tion tucked away in a vault in Buck­ing­ham Palace with so many of the late queen’s per­son­al pos­ses­sions.

Ed­ward died in 1910 and was suc­ceed­ed by his son George. In the pro­cess of tak­ing an in­ven­to­ry, ini­ti­at­ed by King George, of royal fam­i­ly doc­u­ments in early 1912 the court cham­ber­lain William Why came upon Queen Vic­to­ria’s Dick­ens let­ter and the sealed Drood end­ing. By this time there had been a fren­zy of in­ter­est in the un­fin­ished Drood. With­in the past year (1911-1912) Henry Jack­son had writ­ten About Edwin Drood which was fol­lowed by W. Robert­son Nicoll’s The Prob­lem of Edwin Drood and J. Cum­ing Wal­ters’ The Com­plete Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. Why and King George agreed that the an­swer to the Drood mys­tery was like­ly to be found in the pack­age dis­cov­ered in Queen Vic­to­ria’s per­son­al ef­fects and de­vised a plan to re­veal the con­tents on the an­niver­sary of Dick­ens’ death on June 9, 1912.

But first there was the prob­lem of ad­her­ing to Vic­to­ria’s in­struc­tion to ver­i­fy the Dick­ens sig­na­ture be­fore the doc­u­ment could be opened. King George and Why, of course, did not know Vic­to­ria’s rea­son for this in­struc­tion but for pro­pri­ety’s sake the royal fam­i­ly must be seen to have pro­ceed­ed with all prop­er deco­rum in ful­fill­ing the posthu­mous royal com­mand. But who could they turn to in order to ver­i­fy Dick­ens’ sig­na­ture? His con­tem­po­raries and con­fi­dants had long since died – John Forster in 1876 and Wilkie Collins in 1889 as well as the in­di­vid­u­als Dick­ens per­son­al­ly worked with among his pub­lish­ers. And so Why turned to the Dick­ens fam­i­ly for as­sis­tance. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, Dick­ens’ only sur­viv­ing chil­dren, daugh­ter Kate and son Henry Field­ing Dick­ens were tour­ing in Amer­i­ca where Henry in the style of his fa­ther was per­form­ing read­ings of Charles Dick­ens’ works to raise money for char­i­ty. After a se­ries of hasti­ly de­liv­ered mes­sages were ex­changed a plan was set­tled upon: A royal couri­er would bring the pack­age con­tain­ing the let­ter and Drood doc­u­ment to New York where he would be met by Henry Field­ing Dick­ens, who would val­i­date his fa­ther’s sig­na­ture. The couri­er would im­me­di­ate­ly re­turn to Eng­land so that the de­noue­ment of Drood could be an­nounced and pub­lished on June 9th.

And so the couri­er sailed from Eng­land in the early spring of 1912 and while at sea he de­cid­ed to en­trust the care of the pre­cious pack­age he was car­ry­ing to the cap­tain. Of­fi­cer Ed­ward Chap­man was sum­moned to the couri­er’s state­room and took cus­tody of the doc­u­ments which he placed in the in­side pock­et of his over­coat. It was early evening and Chap­man was just be­gin­ning his duty watch. He de­cid­ed to bring the pack­age to the cap­tain later on since he, the cap­tain, was at that time prob­a­bly just sit­ting down to enjoy the evening’s culi­nary fare of quail eggs with caviar and lob­ster ther­mi­dor.

Some time later dur­ing the clear, cold, quiet night Chap­man re­mem­bered the en­ve­lope and took it out of his coat pock­et. But as he did so it slipped from his cold fin­gers and fell to the deck. Per­haps due to the jostling in and out of his pock­et or the ef­fect of the salt air on the glue the en­tire pack­age had opened and lay at his feet. Chap­man scooped up the pa­pers and as he was about to re­assem­ble the pack­age could not but help to see what was the na­ture of the con­tents. Al­most in­stant­ly he re­al­ized the im­por­tance of what he held in his hands. Chap­man, you see, was the grand­son of Fred­er­ic Chap­man, a part­ner of Chap­man and Hall, Dick­ens’ pub­lish­ers. Of­fi­cer Chap­man be­came thor­ough­ly ab­sorbed in read­ing the con­clu­sion of Edwin Drood as set forth in Dick­ens’ own hand. And as he fin­ished read­ing he smiled in­ward­ly know­ing that he alone knew the se­cret which had led to so much spec­u­la­tion for so long a time.

As he looked up and peered over the edge of the crow’s nest (for that was the lo­ca­tion of Chap­man’s post) his eyes fo­cused on some­thing which in­stant­ly brought him back to the re­al­i­ty of his duty. At the same time he lift­ed the phone and rang the bridge.

“What did you see?” asked a calm voice at the other end.

To which Chap­man replied, “Ice­berg right ahead.”


Notes to The Tragedy of Edwin Drood

Angus Wil­son’s in­tro­duc­tion is pub­lished in The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, Pen­guin Books, 1974
Vic­to­ria, Queen of Great Britain and Ire­land, 1837 – 1901
Prince Al­bert died in 1861
John Brown, Al­bert’s fa­vorite ser­vant, was Vic­to­ria’s com­pan­ion 1864 – 1884
Ed­ward VII, son of Vic­to­ria, was King of Great Britain and Ire­land, 1901 – 1910
George V, son of Ed­ward VII, was King of Great Britain and Ire­land, 1910 – 1936
The name of William Why, al­though fic­ti­tious, is taken from Charles Dick­ens’ Book of Mem­o­ran­da, edit­ed by Fred Ka­plan, The New York Pub­lic Li­brary, 1981
About Edwin Drood by Henry Jack­son pub­lished 1911
The Prob­lem of Edwin Drood by W. Robert­son Nicoll pub­lished in 1912
The Com­plete Mys­tery of Edwin Drood by J. Cum­ing Wal­ters pub­lished in 1912
John Forster died in 1876
Wilkie Collins died in 1889
Dick­ens’ daugh­ter Kate McReady Dick­ens died in 1929
Dick­ens’ son Henry Field­ing Dick­ens read his fa­ther’s works for char­i­ty. He died in 1933
The menu for April 14, 1912 on the Ti­tan­ic in­clud­ed quail eggs with caviar and lob­ster ther­mi­dor. Last Din­ner on the Ti­tan­ic, Hy­pe­r­i­on, 1997
Fred­er­ic Chap­man was a part­ner, Chap­man and Hall, pub­lish­ers of sev­er­al Dick­ens works
Con­clud­ing di­a­logue is from A Night to Re­mem­ber, Wal­ter Lord; Holt, Rine­hart and Win­ston, 1955