Of Serials, Killers, and Sensation

I feel I should begin with an apology to Pete for being late with my blog post. Not as late as Dickens was with the seventh installment of Edwin Drood of course, but then he did have a really good excuse. Part of the reason for my tardiness is that I’ve recently returned from the 6th annual conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association, where there were special author panels this year on Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Ouida. Consequently, I’m coming at this post with my mind running on sensation fiction, so it seems appropriate to offer some thoughts about the relationship of Dickens’s final novel to that immensely popular sub-genre.

Many scholars have speculated about the extent to which Dickens was influenced by Collins in his later novels and, indeed, there has been radical disagreement over the issue. Many eminent twentieth-century Dickensian scholars, such as K. J. Fielding and Philip Collins, were extremely resistant to the idea that Dickens could owe anything in his development as a novelist to Collins, and that the influence was all the other way. A more balanced assessment of the question of influence is offered by Lilian Nayder in her meticulous study Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship and, certainly, it is difficult to dismiss the idea that Collins’s successful fiction of the 1860s had some influence on the more complex plotting of the Inimitable’s later novels, or indeed to ignore the compelling parallels between The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And, as Edmund Wilson points out in “Dickens: The Two Scrooges”, there was a definite element of rivalry between Dickens and Collins in the later years of their friendship, which might also be relevant here. Nayder sees Edwin Drood as being a self-conscious engagement with and rewriting of aspects of The Moonstone, both in terms of a personal (and potentially jealous) rivalry with his younger protégée, and also an ideological revision of Collins’s more liberal attitudes to Imperialist questions. After initially praising Collins’s 1868 novel, as it began its serialization in All the Year Round, Dickens later wrote more damningly to Wills, ‘I quite agree with you about “The Moonstone”. The construction is wearisome beyond endurance, and there is a vein of obstinate conceit in it that makes enemies of readers.’ Collins was similarly discourteous about Dickens’s final novel, calling it “the melancholy work of a worn out brain”. I am happy, personally, to disagree with both statements.

The whole question of influence in this case can be in danger of becoming a rather circular argument, given that Dickens was the chief inspiration of, and model for, the group of writers termed sensation novelists in the 1860s in the first place. But if we accept the idea that Dickens, in his later work, was influenced by the type of fiction being written by his friend and collaborator, Collins, then this can have some bearing on questions about Edwin Drood.

For instance, if we consider the defining features of the 1860s sensation novel, then murder is actually a far less frequent trope than the appearance of murder followed by the return of a character from ‘the dead’. Perhaps most famous among the examples of this is the ‘resurrection’ of George Talboys at the end of Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, having survived the attempt of his bigamous wife to push him to his death down a disused well. Henry Dunbar (1864) is the main exception in Braddon’s 1860s sensation fiction, being focused on the murder of the eponymous character, but the majority of her novels of this period centre on more sanitized domestic crimes, such as fraud, identity theft, bigamy, family legacies of crime and madness, and shameful secrets of the past. The same can be said of Collins, where murders, when they occur, tend to be peripheral to the main plot (the assassination of Count Fosco in The Woman in White and of Godfrey Ablewhite in The Moonstone); they tend not to be the focus of the central mystery. If we think of murders that occur within Dickens’s own works, then a similar pattern is apparent. The brutal murder of Nancy by Sikes in Oliver Twist is undoubtedly a powerful moment in the novel, but it isn’t central to the plot in the way that a murder-mystery dictates.

Victorian readers had, by 1870, experienced a full decade of being habituated to the characteristics of the sensation novel, and it’s interesting to speculate how many readers at this point would have assumed that Edwin Drood was dead, rather than have anticipated the possibility of his mysterious reappearance at some later point of the novel. This, after all, would have been more typical of the sensation fiction preceding Dickens’s novel. I’m painfully aware as I write this that members of this Drood read-along may also be following the serial reading of Our Mutual Friend, so I’m unable to make the next point I planned to for fear of spoilers! Suffice to say that Our Mutual Friend, the novel immediately preceding The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and which itself exhibits a number of sensational features, can shed some interesting light on discussion of Dickens’s possible intentions in his final book.

Reading this month’s installment, I was aware of some familiar aspects of the sensation novels of Braddon and Collins (although recently I have begun to worry that over-exposure to the genre has led me to see them everywhere, so please feel free to disagree!). As an example, we have both Jasper and Neville Landless behaving rather suspiciously, their respective actions positioning them nicely as future prime suspects. In Dickens’s relatively detailed description of Neville’s ‘arrangements’ in chapter 14, the careful burning of papers seems more interesting to me than his purchase of the heavy walking stick. Why does Neville feel the need to tear and burn ‘his stray papers’ and leave ‘no note or scrap of paper undestroyed’? Is this related to Edwin in any way, or does it perhaps relate to a Landless family secret not yet (and perhaps never to be) revealed? And is it just me, or does that ‘fervent’ kiss between Edwin and Rosa suggest a certain level of passion that didn’t exist before they agreed to end their engagement? I find this suggestive too in terms of potential future plot developments, and end my post musing on many questions – so many of them destined never to be answered.


DroodOne of the treasures exhibited at Senate House for the ‘Treasures and Trash’ conference (VPFA, 8-10 July 2014).



Join the Conversation


  1. No apology necessary Anne-Marie! Thank you for this post and the useful context of sensation fiction in Dickens’s lifetime. I for one find it more useful to think of Drood as sensation, rather than mystery, because while the latter depends on a surprise ending (and has therefore led many of us to search for one), much of the fascination in a sensation novel that propels us to keep reading is precisely because we *can* anticipate the awful things that are going to happen, and the engagement with the text is in watching these fantastic events play out – consider how often major soap storylines are not only revealed, but actively advertised before broadcast: “tune in this week to see x get killed on Eastenders” etc… and far from discouraging audiences it boosts them.

    I’m also reminded in reading this post of a recent article for the NY times complaining of the very phenomenon you describe of resurrecting seemingly dead characters: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/magazine/how-hollywood-killed-death.html?_r=0
    In terms of Drood this throws new light on what would prove the more surprising – or something new and uncommunicable as Dickens described it – to a contemporary audience: would it be the hero turning up alive, or the hero turning out to be dead after all?

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