Something old or something new?

I laid aside the fancy I told you of and have a very curious and new idea for my new story.

So wrote Dickens to Forster, of what would of course prove to be The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the promise of Dickens’s proposition has been a curse upon interpretations of the story’s end. Those who knew Dickens – Forster, Charles Dickens Jnr. and the illustrators of Drood – Luke Fildes and Charles Alston Collins – all came forward with what Dickens had told them of his plans for the ending, and every report gives a rather humdrum, predictable solution – Edwin to die and Jasper is the murderer. Faced with this rain upon their parade, Droodists have used Dickens’s own promises of something new as a rallying cry to slander his friends and family and refute their claims to such a predictable ending.

But it wasn’t the first time Dickens had announced something new – shortly before 28 November 1868 he had announced “I shall commence an entirely New Series of All the Year Round”. This was not new so much as a reorganisation of the journal’s central structure, suggesting perhaps that Dickens’s use of the phrase need not be taken quite so literally as it has been by the Droodists, instead rather the description is better thought of as a bit of promotional hyperbole. To say Drood is entirely new is simply to say that it is a new work, rather than a groundbreaking, pioneering piece of writing. So is Drood something new? Certainly Collins didn’t think so, referring to it as “Dickens’s last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn-out brain”, and there is in this the question of intentions versus achievement. Whether or not Dickens intended something new is contrasted to whether he actually achieved it. Dickens maintains that he intended readers to anticipate that John Rokesmith was alive and well in Our Mutual Friend, though I still remain dubious as to whether this is true or just the inimitable hiding his irritation at his grand reveal being guessed, just as he expressed irritation at those plays that anticipated the end of his stories before he had finished writing them, not just for getting it wrong, but even worse, for getting it right.

What is most interesting about Drood is its initial reception. A review in the Atheneum that appeared shortly after the first monthly number had appeared is remarkable for its nostalgic view of the text. The reviewer discusses how a “congratulatory tendency seems to have taken possession of the public. They are glad to find a favourite author in a shape and fashion in which he has not been seen for many a weary day. It is a positive pleasure to see once more the green cover in which the world first beheld Mr. Pickwick.” Dickens can hardly blame the reviewer for such a portrayal when he himself had ended his last public reading on 15 March 1870 with a similarly sentimental flourish of his return to the book and back into the living rooms of his audience:

In but two short week from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings, at which my assistance will be indispensable.

After a long absence from writing novels while he pursued his reading tours, Dickens at last was coming home. Thus whatever Dickens’s announcement of something new, reviews such as that in the Atheneum continually look back, delighting to find Dickens’s “skill in portraiture as great as of old” and focusing – surpisingly for us, but unsurprisingly in this context – on the comic sections of the first number more so than the hints of the mystery. That is what Dickens was celebrated for after all, wonderful moments of comedy and characters, and it is that which his readers first looked for in this new, and ultimately last, work. Thus it is only at the end, or lack of end, that Dickens’s promise of novelty has come to the fore; only posthumously have we pored over the significance of that phrase in opening up infinite possibilities for how the story might end, rather than from where it has come.

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About Pete Orford

I'm an English lecturer at the University of Buckingham, with a research background in both Dickens and Shakespeare; I am also a father of three, with a research background in dinosaurs and moshi monsters. I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com).
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