The New York Times Book Review: Clues to the “Mystery”

A New Book Con­tain­ing Clues to the “Mys­tery” of Dick­ens’s Un­fin­ished Story.

Pub­lished: The New York Times, July 15, 1905


CUM­ING WAL­TERS is the au­thor of Clues to Dick­ens’s “Mys­tery of Edwin Drood” just pub­lished in Lon­don. Six num­bers of this novel ap­peared be­tween April and Septem­ber 1870.

Dick­ens died in June of that year. The sales of this novel, as far as the month­ly num­bers went, far out­stripped those of any of its pre­de­ces­sors. Nat­u­ral­ly the cu­rios­i­ty of read­ers of Dick­ens about the story has been fre­quent­ly man­i­fest­ed. So- called “se­quels” to Dick­ens’s work have been ea­ger­ly bought. Yet many good judges have as­sumed, from the qual­i­ty ot those chap­ters the mas­ter nov­el­ist had fin­ished be­fore his death, that “The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood” would never have equaled in merit the best of his ear­li­er works. George Giss­ing, a close and sym­pa­thet­ic stu­dent of Dick­ens, be­lieved that the mys­tery would have turned out to be “pal­try.” A re­cent writ­er in The Lon­don Chron­i­cle takes the op­po­site view. He says:

The story, of course, is not in Dick­ens’s most char­ac­ter­is­tic vein. Dur­ing the last years of his life his as­so­ci­a­tion and oc­ca­sion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion with Wilkie Collins, in the ser­vice of “All the Year Round” drew Dick­ens aside from his fa­mil­iar method of leisure­ly nar­ra­tive, and con­cen­trat­ed him upon the novel of mys­tery and in­ci­dent. No doubt his pub­lic read­ings tend­ed in the same di­rec­tion; his whole cast of mind and habit be­came more dra­mat­ic, more vivid­ly the­atri­cal in grasp.

The in­flu­ence may be seen at work in “Great Ex­pec­ta­tions”; it per­me­at­ed the river­side scenes of “Our Mu­tu­al Friend”; it is the very essence of “Edwin Drood.” Cer­tain con­ser­va­tive Dick­en­sians, es­pe­cial­ly those who are blind ad­mir­ers of “Pick­wick,” are dis­posed to dep­re­cate this change in their fa­vorite’s meth­ods, but they are al­most cer­tain­ly wrong. The mis­for­tune was that Dick­ens died be­fore he had had time to com­plete the union of the two styles. In “Great Ex­pec­ta­tions” there are sev­er­al loose threads which he had not been at the pains to take up; “Our Mu­tu­al. Friend” holds the two meth­ods in so­lu­tion; it al­most looks as though “Edwin Drood” would have been the first story in which Dick­ens’s pe­cu­liar gift for ec­cen­tric life and char­ac­ter was to unite with a fine con­struc­tive power of which he had hith­er­to given lit­tle di­rect ev­i­dence.

The frag­ment is full of typ­i­cal Dick­ens fig­ures; it is also rad­i­cal­ly un­like the rest of his work in the in­tense in­ter­est of the plot, taken mere­ly for its own sake. Had that plot been worked out on a scale com­men­su­rate with its un­fold­ing, we in­cline to be­lieve that “Edwin Drood” would have been one of the most pop­u­lar of all its au­thor’s works. Ev­ery­thing of course de­pends upon the de­vel­op­ment to which it would have been sub­ject­ed.

The same writ­er says of the new book of “Clues,” men­tioned above:

There have been var­i­ous at­tempts to cork out the story, some in­ge­nious, some im­per­ti­nent. We are fa­mil­iar with most of them, and have no hes­i­ta­tion in say­ing that Mr. Cum­ing Wal­ters’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion, con­tained in the mod­est vol­ume be­fore us, is by far the most close­ly rea­soned, the most rea­son­able, and the most sat­is­fy­ing that has yet been given to the pub­lic. Its pub­li­ca­tion must in­deed be re­gard­ed as a land­mark in the his­to­ry of Dick­ens lit­er­a­ture. Most of the in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the mys­tery have car­ried with them their own crit­i­cism of the story which they seek to com­plete; they have been so ob­vi­ous that they leave “Edwin Drood” with the prospect of hav­ing grown into a very or­di­nary melo­dra­ma.

Now Dick­ens was no mean crit­ic of his own nov­els; and he be­lieved thor­ough­ly in “Edwin Drood.” “I have a very cu­ri­ous and new idea,” he said; “not a com­mu­ni­ca­ble one; though dif­fi­cult to work.” He very sel­dom ex­pressed him­self with so much con­fi­dence in his own work with­out that con­fi­dence being jus­ti­fied in the per­for­mance. Mr. Cun­ning Wal­ters’s so­lu­tion of the “Mys­tery” is the first we have ever seen to sug­gest the jus­tice of Dick­ens’s own en­thu­si­asm. It pre­sents the scheme of an en­gross­ing story, and pre­sents it as the re­sult of most in­ti­mate and search­ing anal­y­sis.

We shalt not di­vulge Mr. Wal­ters’s the­o­ry, part­ly be­cause to do so re­quires more space than we have at our dis­pos­al, but more par­tic­u­lar­ly be­cause a brief ac­count of it would do in­jus­tice to the in­ge­nu­ity and in­tri­ca­cy with which it is pro­pound­ed. It is suf­fi­cient to say that the three ques­tions — (1) Was Drood dead? (2) Who was Datch­ery? (3) Who was the Opium woman? are search­ing­ly in­ves­ti­gat­ed, with the re­sult in the case of Datch­ery, of a most sur­pris­ing and novel the­o­ry, which, after teast­ing it from every point of view, we are in­clined to pro­nounce im­preg­nable.

A good deal of Mr. Wal­ters’s per­sua­sive­ness may be due to the keen and crit­i­cal ar­range­ment of his ar­gu­ments; but at pre­sent we are cer­tain­ly con­vinced that he has at last suc­ceed­ed in clear­ing up one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing enig­mas in mod­ern lit­er­a­ture. Upon the skill and tact with which he has ful­filled his task we de­sire hearti­ly to con­grat­u­late him. His the­o­ries will very pos­si­bly pro­voke con­tro­ver­sy, and there are de­tails in which they may, per­haps, yield to crit­i­cism. But it is safe to say that hence­forth, when­ev­er “The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood” is dis­cussed, the first so­lu­tion to be con­sid­ered, and (we be­lieve) the last to be re­lin­quished, will be that which Mr. Cum­ing Wal­ters has so elab­o­rate­ly set forth in this un­pre­ten­tious but high­ly sug­ges­tive lit­tle vol­ume.