The Holy Grail in Drood studies is authority – anyone can provide a solution but in theory there is only one correct solution, the one that Dickens took to the grave. With the absence of the author, authority can be (and has been) sought in other ways, either by referring to the notes left by Dickens or, as is more often done, by declaring the great reputation of the latest solutionist and their keen insight into all things Dickensian. But there are more imaginative means in which new authors try to present their solutions as definitive – as discussed in an earlier post, Henry Morford’s 1871 solution did very well thanks to persistent rumours that it was actually the work of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens Jnr; and both Morford’s solution and Walter Crisp’s 1914 solution tried to reproduce the look of Dickens’s original monthly numbers to impress the sense of their disparate stories being a continuation of Dickens’s. But the golden award for bare-faced attempt at feigning authority will always be reserved for Thomas Power James.
In James’s 1874 solution, called simply The Mystery of Edwin Drood Complete, he credited himself not as author but merely a humble publisher, who also happened to be a spirit medium in touch with the ghost of Dickens himself. It is a remarkable gambit and one that divided its audience – the popularity of spiritualism at the time meant that the many critics who dismissed the work as humbug were matched by those who believed it to be the work of the inimitable from beyond the grave. As James discusses in his introduction, having previously circulated extracts from the book as pre-publicity:
“Some could identify those characteristics which stamped it as the production of Mr Dickens’ pen, while others could not perceive anything about it that bore the least resemblance to the great author’s writings.”
It is not my intention to discuss the finer points of spiritualism and its possibilities. Suffice it to say for now that I do not believe this to be the work of Dickens, dead or alive. What is more interesting is what it tells us about Dickens. For one thing, James was careful to ensure that Dickens’s reputation remained intact, explaining that any mistakes were his own as transcriber – clearly it was fine to pass the work off as Dickens, but sacrilege to suggest that Dickens might possibly make any typos. Then there is the audience reaction: the San Francisco Bulletin was keen to applaud the new characters introduced in the second half (like all solutions of the 1870s, James did not feel restricted to only those characters presented in Dickens’s first half). However, in singling out those new characters for praise as being “strongly drawn, standing out clear before the mind’s eye, like living persons”, the Bulletin tells us that “‘Mrs Billickin’ and ‘Miss Keep’ are as quaint as any ever drawn by Dickens”. High praise for Miss Keep, but something of a hidden insult for Mrs Billickin, not a new character at all but one from the tail-end of Dickens’s instalment who apparently failed to make an impression on the reviewer. Or else it shows how already the growing number of solutions begins to obscure the reader’s perception of the original fragment and what is and is not authentic Dickens.
The story itself, while not, as I say, by Dickens, is nonetheless rather intriguing, not least for the manner in which Dickens’ plot is entirely consumed by a brand new plot of poor Bessie Tranders. Bessie is the lovechild of John Jasper and the Princess Puffer’s daughter, apparently, and long after the mystery of Edwin Drood is solved to everyone’s satisfaction, Jasper is haunted by his treatment of his former lover (NOT Rosa) and the death of their child, begging for forgiveness from the angel of Bess. It’s a remarkable liberty to take with the story unparalleled in any other solution, and indeed more outlandish than the claims of it being written by Dickens’s spirit-pen; which begs the question of how the story itself, and the rumours of its origin, are linked. Could James have hoped to deliver such a deviation from Dickens’s plot without the support of Dickens’s apparent blessing? Or, I wonder, is the opposite true, and is the remarkably different ending not a reason for, but rather a product of the Dickens’s ghost claim; was James pressured into giving an ending unlike anything we could have guessed simply because to provide a straight-forward ending to such a remarkable venture would be an anti-climax? Did James out-Dickens himself? That’s a lot of questions in a row, and sadly the only way to a definitive answer lies in contacting James’s spirit (and so the cycle goes on…).
Two final thoughts to ponder on this curious, ghostly tale. First is the impact that the supposed presence of Dickens’s ghost has on the story itself. Such a brazen endorsement for the paranormal means that, for one thing, the telepathic link between Neville and Helena gains more credibility in the context of a book written beyond the grave. But moreover, the explicit suggestion that death is not the end transforms everything we think of mortality in the plot. Bessie Tranders dies, and while her spirit doesn’t return, Jasper goes to her grave to beg forgiveness, “for [she is] an angel now”. It is not just that James provides a continuation to the end of the story, but a continuation to the end of every story, every life – Mrs Sapsea, Rosa and Edwin’s parents, all, by implication, are still in the picture.
But the closing thought has to go to Bockley Wickleheap. Before the reader has had chance to sample the delights of Edwin Drood Complete, James delivers his bombshell:
“I am happy to announce that the first chapter of the next work, – ‘The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheap’ – is finished; and, opening with all the peculiar characteristics of its author, bids fair to equal anything from his pen while on earth.”
Bockley Wickleheap. Bockley. Wickleheap. Frankly I wonder at this point how James managed to keep a straight face. It is a point of no return, where timidity has no place and he has to throw all in with bare-faced audacity. Sadly, the book never emerged, and English Literature has never truly recovered from the loss. Did James realise he had gone too far? Was the pressure of writing another book too much? Or is the sheer ludicrousness of the title in all its hyper-Dickensian glory an indication that the claims of the book’s authorship are not to be taken too seriously, a moment in which James lets us in on the joke? For the truth is, if we can only get past the shock of the book’s supposed authorship, there lies within rather a fun, sensational tale awaiting us if only we are prepared to drop our pretensions, knock Dickens and Edwin off their pedestal and enjoy some time with Bessie and Bockley.