Dickens was dead, and Drood was unfinished, with audiences clambering to know the ending while the publishers Chapman and Hall were denying the reader’s quest for closure. Their frank (and ultimately incorrect) statement at the end of the sixth number that ‘Beyond the clues therein afforded to its conduct or catastrophe, nothing whatever remains’ left the door wide open to enterprising authors to cash in on the demand for an ending. Orpheus C. Kerr had unwittingly found himself in the position of solutionist and had swiftly got himself to the end in typically comic fashion; it was Henry Morford who next took up the gauntlet, as soon as 1871, and provided the first intentional attempt at finishing Dickens’s tale. What is truly remarkable about John Jasper’s Secret is not its plot so much as its style, and even more so, its marketing. The work was published anonymously, and in the absence of a given author, rumour soon arose as to who might have stepped forward to finish the master’s last story; and the search did not extend far beyond Dickens; the work was soon generally held to be a collaborative work between none other than Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens Jnr. The rumour was squashed by Collins but to no avail; later editions of the text would print Collins and Dickens’s name on the cover, and even now that beacon of truth, Wikipedia, tells us on the page for Charles Dickens Jnr’s biography that among his published works is one John Jasper’s Secret (as it happens, Charley did in fact write a sequel to Drood, a play, which was never performed but the manuscript of which survives in the Dickens House Museum – more on that in coming months…).
There’s some food for thought in the persistence of these rumours, of our desire to believe in Collins and Dickens’s son working together for an authoritive solution – authority by proxy of course, and two of them being closer to Dickens than any actual solutionist. But there’s also a point of interest in the origin of the rumour, evidence for which has yet to come to light. Certainly the rumour did the book’s sales no harm, which does point towards Morford and his publishers as likely suspects if only for the motive. Morford, an American, does not carry the weight of respect and authenticity that Dickens’s friend and son would. If it was a marketing ploy, it was a genius one. Looking at the text itself, we can see how the style imitates both Dickens Snr and Collins, fleshing out Charles’s characters with Wilkie’s dash of sensationalism. Morford even added to the roster, with the Dickensianly named Dr Chippercoyne, and the tragic Crawshe family, who represent a who’s who of Dickens’s characters past – the noble but poor father is Dan Peggoty, his shamed daughter being Little Emily, and then there is their ever cheerful crippled son, because Tiny Tim is not just for Christmas, but for life. By populating his story with Dickensian archetypes, Morford clumsily aims to create an illusion of authenticity, rooting this second half in a Dickensian-themed realm; yet in plot these characters undergo a series of sensational events – dog attacks, cross-dressing, truth serums and, of course, Princess Puffer’s opium den all abound. But it’s not only the text, but the illustrations too which continue this blend of Dickens and Collins:
As these picture show, the illustrations for Morford’s tale tried to emulate the original drawings by Luke Fildes (and the book itself was published in monthly numbers to further emulate the first half), but in the second picture we can see a dash of the macabre and shock added to Fildes’s realistic drawings, a look back to the caricatures of Phiz that would remain synonymous with Dickens’s characters, as well as a nod towards the more sensational aspects of Morford’s plot. The resulting tale (and you’ll note how I’m not giving the end away) is a curious mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, striking the right notes but not always in the right places, or with true conviction to convince us that this is indeed the ultimate ending. Morford makes no attempt to reconstruct Dickens’s intention, preferring instead to pursue his own choice of plot, so that the end-result is not a solution so much as an exploration, an indulgence, a nostalgic walk back through the works of Dickens that looks ahead in turn to the works of his protégé.