The Death of the Author


On 9 June 1870 Charles Dickens died. We haven’t talked much about contemporary events so far in our readalong, but this is one that cannot be ignored, because at this moment The Mystery of Edwin Drood would change forever. What had been Dickens’s latest book now becomes his last book; a complete story in twelve parts transformed into an incomplete story in six; no longer a story where we can expect resolution, but one rooted in futility and irresolution. After a six-year hiatus from writing, Drood was supposed to be Dickens’s triumphant return, but instead it becomes a farewell.

If you recall those early reviews of part one (available here:, The Atheneum was full of joy and nostalgia when Drood first appeared, dwelling on its comic turns more so than dark forebodings. But the death of Dickens would create an indelible impression of morbidity in the text, in many ways reinforcing the gloomier aspects of the story and bringing us more in line with Collin’s condemnation of it as melancholy and laboured. The death of Dickens has become seen as an inevitable part of Drood, with subsequent critics seeking out and dwelling upon the author’s own sense of mortality within its pages. Suddenly the  insubstantial scream heard by Durdles last Christmas, or the unfinished portrait of Rosa, takes on a prophetic significance of the immaterial end to an incomplete text.

But surely the greatest impact is on the reader’s experience. First, what does it mean to a reader of today? There are many unfinished novels out there, and the reading of them has a certain sense of experimentation; often we are drawn to them as fans of the author after we have exhausted their other works, and rather than settling in to lose ourselves in the story we pore over the fragment, eagerly sipping at the last remaining dregs of writing before they fade out altogether. But for a reader in 1870, their decision to read Drood had no such anxiety; they bought the monthly numbers with the reasonable assumption that they would be reading all twelve parts. So what does the denial of a promised and expected end make a reader feel? Shock? Frustration? Disappointment? Surely speculation must have arisen over whether another author – Wilkie Collins perhaps – might step up to the plate to resolve the story.

In the end it was Dickens’s faithful friend/lapdog John Forster who would, of sorts, continue the tale. Taking Dickens’s manuscript, Forster found enough material for another three months, but this was achieved by including text that Dickens had crossed out – instead of treating the text in a cavalier way where there’s plenty more available, the sudden limit that had now been placed on Dickens’s writing meant every last word was precious. This, as I will discuss in later months at the relevant times, results in a restructuring of the monthly numbers with one chapter split into two and carried over to the next month to ensure each part meets the necessary wordcount.

It is therefore appropriate, perhaps even necessary, as we continue the story from hereon to consider to what extent Forster should be credited as co-author of these next three instalments, and certainly worth wondering how Dickens might have altered them himself in the usual process of editing. It is also worth considering the impact of illustration – Dickens was a terror for exacting detailed requests on his illustrators, so how will Fildes’s pictures change without the authorial voice of Dickens directing him? There is also another question, of how Drood’s fate would have fared had it been completed. Would the ending have secured its fame, much as the devastating conclusion to A Tale of Two Cities etches itself on our memory, or with the mystery solved and resolved, would the story fade among minor works like Barnaby Rudge and Hard Times? Because whatever Dickens had planned for this story, the legacy he unintentionally left has become much larger than the original tale.

So – as we bid a farewell to Dickens, Drood continues nonetheless, but the intrigue deepens, the tone darkens, our expectations alter irrevocably, and out of the ashes of a story rises the phoenix of an everlasting mystery.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry ( My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

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    1. Weeelll, six-years since he started Our Mutual Friend, five years since it finished. The interim between novels was spent on reading tours across the UK and USA. There was very much then a sense of Dickens coming home to his roots in writing a novel again.

  1. 9 June 1870, for date of death of Dickens, surely? (obsessed with timings at present…)

    1. What a horrendous typo! Yes, June, not July. I shall ammend at once.

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