The Puzzle of Dickens's Last Plot, by Andrew Lang


Forster tells us that Dickens, in his later novels, from Bleak House onwards (1853), “assiduously cultivated” construction, “this essential of his art.” Some critics may think, that since so many of the best novels in the world “have no outline, or, if they have an outline, it is a demned outline,” elaborate construction is not absolutely “essential.” Really essential are character, “atmosphere,” humour.

But as, in the natural changes of life, and under the strain of restless and unsatisfied activity, his old buoyancy and unequalled high spirits deserted Dickens, he certainly wrote no longer in what Scott, speaking of himself, calls the manner of “hab nab at a venture.” He constructed elaborate plots, rich in secrets and surprises. He emulated the manner of Wilkie Collins, or even of Gaboriau, while he combined with some of the elements of the detective novel, or roman policier, careful study of character. Except Great Expectations, none of his later tales rivals in merit his early picaresque stories of the road, such as Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby. “Youth will be served;” no sedulous care could compensate for the exuberance of “the first sprightly runnings.” In the early books the melodrama of the plot, the secrets of Ralph Nickleby, of Monk, of Jonas Chuzzlewit, were the least of the innumerable attractions. But Dickens was more and more drawn towards the secret that excites curiosity, and to the game of hide and seek with the reader who tried to anticipate the solution of the secret.

In April, 1869, Dickens, outworn by the strain of his American readings; of that labour achieved under painful conditions of ominously bad health — found himself, as Sir Thomas Watson reported, “on the brink of an attack of paralysis of his left side, and possibly of apoplexy.” He therefore abandoned a new series of Readings. We think of Scott’s earlier seizures of a similar kind, after which Peveril, he said, “smacked of the apoplexy.” But Dickens’s new story of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, first contemplated in July, 1869, and altered in character by the emergence of “a very curious and new idea,” early in August, does not “smack of the apoplexy.” We may think that the mannerisms of Mr. Honeythunder, the philanthropist, and of Miss Twinkleton, the schoolmistress, are not in the author’s best vein of humour. “The Billickin,” on the other hand, the lodging-house keeper, is “in very gracious fooling:” her unlooked-for sallies in skirmishes with Miss Twinkleton are rich in mirthful surprises. Mr. Grewgious may be caricatured too much, but not out of reason; and Dickens, always good at boys, presents a gamin, in Deputy, who is in not unpleasant contrast with the pathetic Jo of Bleak House. Opinions may differ as to Edwin and Rosa, but the more closely one studies Edwin, the better one thinks of that character. As far as we are allowed to see Helena Landless, the restraint which she puts on her “tigerish blood” is admirable: she is very fresh and original. The villain is all that melodrama can desire, but what we do miss, I think, is the “atmosphere” of a small cathedral town. Here there is a lack of softness and delicacy of treatment: on the other hand, the opium den is studied from the life.

On the whole, Dickens himself was perhaps most interested in his plot, his secret, his surprises, his game of hide and seek with the reader. He threw himself into the sport with zest: he spoke to his sister-in-law, Miss Hogarth, about his fear that he had not sufficiently concealed his tracks in the latest numbers. Yet, when he died in June, 1870, leaving three completed numbers still unpublished, he left his secret as a puzzle to the curious. Many efforts have been made to decipher his purpose, especially his intentions as to the hero. Was Edwin Drood killed, or did he escape?

By a coincidence, in September, 1869, Dickens was working over the late Lord Lytton’s tale for All The Year Round, “The Disappearance of John Ackland,” for the purpose of mystifying the reader as to whether Ackland was alive or dead. But he was conspicuously defunct! (All the Year Round, September–October, 1869.)

The most careful of the attempts at a reply about Edwin, a study based on deep knowledge of Dickens, is “Watched by the Dead,” by the late ingenious Mr. R. A. Proctor (1887). This book, to which I owe much aid, is now out of print. In 1905, Mr. Cuming Walters revived “the auld mysterie,” in his “Clues to Dickens’s Edwin Drood” (Chapman & Hall and Heywood, Manchester). From the solution of Mr. Walters I am obliged to dissent. Of Mr. Proctor’s theory I offer some necessary corrections, and I hope that I have unravelled some skeins which Mr. Proctor left in a state of tangle. As one read and reread the fragment, points very dark seemed, at least, to become suddenly clear: especially one appeared to understand the meaning half-revealed and half-concealed by Jasper’s babblings under the influence of opium. He saw in his vision, “THAT, I never saw THAT before.” We may be sure that he was to see “THAT” in real life. We must remember that, according to Forster, “such was Dickens’s interest in things supernatural that, but for the strong restraining power of his common sense, he might have fallen into the follies of spiritualism.” His interest in such matters certainly peeps out in this novel — there are two specimens of the supernormal — and he may have gone to the limited extent which my hypothesis requires. If I am right, Dickens went further, and fared worse, in the too material premonitions of “The Signalman” in Mugby Junction.

With this brief preface, I proceed to the analysis of Dickens’s last plot. Mr. William Archer has kindly read the proof sheets and made valuable suggestions, but is responsible for none of my theories.


ST. ANDREWS, September 4, 1905.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03