Edmund Lester Pearson: Edwin Drood Again


 FATALITY has pursued the amateur novelists who have written continuations of Dickens's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Four writers have tried it, and their failures have been complete and rather ignominious. A humorist once confessed, in a newspaper rhyme, that he owned a pen which once had belonged to Thackeray. When he tried to write with it, however, not only did no inspiration come, but the pen sputtered and scratched, and actually refused to form words! It had recognized, he thought, a donkey, trying to imitate its master.

No expert novelist has ever tried to finish "Edwin Drood," in spite of the widespread notion that Wilkie Collins engaged in such an attempt. Scores of solutions have been offered, in the form of essays and articles, and two or three plays (one of them by Comyns Carr) enjoyed brief runs. The volumes bringing the story to an end are four, according to Mr. J. Cuming Walters, author of the interesting book, "The Complete Mystery of Edwin Drood." Mr. Walters was the prosecuting attorney in the mock trial held in London last January, when he failed to convict Jasper of murder in the first degree for killing Drood. The first continuation appeared the very year of Dickens's death—1870. It was by "Orpheus C. Kerr" (Richard H. Newell), and is said to be mainly burlesque and parody. The second and the third are also American productions. I have read, or have tried to read, both of them. Henry Morford's "John Jasper's Secret" was published in Frank Leslie's Newspaper and in. The Chimney Corner, 1871-1872. Morford went to England with his wife, lived in Rochester and London to study the scenes of the novel, and made a conscientious effort to prepare himself for the work. To my mind it is the most readable, or the least unreadable, of the three I have seen. "An offensive fraud," writes Mr. Walters, "was, however, associated with it. No name was originally placed on the title-page, but the insidious announcement was made that the real authors were Charles Dickens's eldest son and Wilkie Collins. The lying rumor has been hard to overtake, and is still occasionally revived in spite of Collins's prompt repudiation, and Messrs. Chapman & Hall's explicit declaration in a letter to the Times. . . ."

The book was republished, within about a dozen years, bearing the imprint of a New York publisher, and unblushingly professing on its title-page to be by Charles Dickens "the Younger" and Wilkie Collins. How very respectable the operations of a burglar or a highwayman look in comparison with this kind of cheat! Many persons are convinced that "Edwin Drood" was really completed by Wilkie Collins and by Dickens's son; the book is sometimes so entered in catalogues. The third continuation was the famous "Spirit Pen" volume. In this country, at any rate, the existence of such a book Is known to hundreds who have read neither it nor the genuine novel by Dickens. "The Mystery of Edwin Drood Complete. Part the Second, By the Spirit Pen of Charles Dickens, through a Medium," came from Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1875. It is one of the many painful disclosures that spirit pens are usually not only less gifted than physical ones, but are frequently not even able to write anything approaching common-sense. It must require great physical endurance to wade through the mass of bosh in, the "Spirit Pen" continuation of "Edwin Drood."

The fourth, and apparently the last, continuation was by an English woman, Mrs. Richard Newton. She wrote (in 1878) under the pen-name of "Gillan Vase," and called her book "A Great Mystery Solved; being a Sequel to 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.' " This is now republished, with no important change of title, by McBride, Nast & Co. ($1.50 net). It is edited by Shirley Byron Jerons, who contributes a summary of the original novel. Only the author's pseudonym appears in the book.

Of "Gillan Vase's" original work Mr. Walters writes that it has many merits and also conspicuous defects. In the first place, he says, it is far too long. "What Dickens intended to conclude In six more numbers ought not to have been concluded by another author in three volumes of over three hundred pages each, and containing in all forty chapters."

The editor and publishers of the new edition have been of the same mind, for one volume of about three hundred pages, and twenty-three chapters, suffices for them. A second objection of Mr. Walters is that several new characters are introduced and allotted important parts, "as if Dickens had not a sufficiency of persons already for his purpose." Here again, the new edition agrees with Mr. Walters's comments: Gillan Vase's . . . luxuriant imagination led her not only to follow up the destinies of the characters which we owe in their Inception to Dickens, but also to create several others. As rather detracting from the value of a sequel in which it seemed desirable that only known Dickensian characters should appear, these new ones have been eliminated. So declares the editor's note.

In regard to Mr. Walters's third objection—that recorded against the irritating attempt to mimic Dickens's style—nothing can be done, and the new edition presumably appears in much the manner of the first. It may be patriotism which Impels Mr. Walters to find the "Gillan Vase" continuation "the best of a poor series." It may be the same noble motive which makes me prefer Henry Morford's. Or it may simply be that, having read "Gillan Vase's" book last, the Irritation of it is fresher in my mind. Her version of the story is that Jasper had failed in his attempt to murder Drood. The latter escapes from the tomb, and hurries to London, where he finally appears, in the deep disguise of blue spectacles, seeking employment from Mr. Grewgious, the one man who knew him best. Grewgious, by the way, has little to do, but wanders in and out of the story with the inconsequential manner of the Lawyer in Jerome K. Jerome's "Stage Land." John Jasper is still hounding Miss Rosa Bud, and at last springs overboard with her in his arms. She is saved, of course, by Edwin Drood—still in blue spectacles.

Jasper commits suicide in prison, and the book ends in a series of marriages —possible and impossible. The mysterious Datchery leads throughout the story a career dark and furtive. In the end he has discovered nothing of importance, for all his spying, and he turns out to be nobody in particular. All his disguise was superfluous. Canon Crisparkle marries Helena Landless— perhaps as a reward for being invariably called "Revd. Septimus" or "Revd. Sir." The book is relieved, here and there, by so complete an absence of any feeling for the ridiculous, that the reader can get more or less Innocent amusement out of these passages. An example of this element occurs in Edwin's narrative of his escape from the tomb—how he was led on and on, supported by the Hand of Providence, to London; how his faltering footsteps, still guided by the same all-powerful influence, finally led him to a street and to a house, and how when at last he raised his dim eyes to the window he saw therein the blessed inscription: "Lodgings for a Single Gentleman."