Happy Death Day, Charles Dickens

Posted by Emily Goldsher

141 years ago, Charles John Huffam Dickens took his last breath and bid adieu to this world without finishing his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  The book, perhaps the only one of his fictional works that self-identifies with the mystery genre, with its utter lack of a true conclusion, is thusly made that much more Dickensian than any of his other writings.  Though it has been proven to be otherwise, I can’t help but think that Dickens planned to leave Edwin Drood incomplete, letting the work of solving his last mystery fall to his greatest admirers.

In later life, Dickens enjoyed the courtesies offered to a man of great accomplishment, but devoted much of his time and wealth to philanthropic endeavors. He worked tirelessly to finance and support London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, an institution for children.  This time period coincides with the writing of David Copperfield and Bleak House. Not long after his work with the hospital, Dickens opened a school for wayward young women, a project that directly preceded the serialization of Great Expectations.  Given the timeframe, it is difficult not to make the connection between his role as benefactor to that of Abel Magwitch’s character in Great Expectations—a lowly man elevated by his selfless contributions to the poor, orphaned Pip.

As an adult, Dickens relishes the role of generous benefactor and purveyor of knowledge to those that would otherwise have no access.  Is it strange then to assume that Edwin Drood was left unfinished because he hoped it would be another opportunity for those less fortunate than he to reach (and attain) a certain stature or amount of glory?  A finished mystery novel, regardless of its quality, is limited by its singular outcome, and gives readers little opportunity for enrichment outside of just reading the novel from cover to cover.   Edwin Drood is genius in that it can be approached as solvable, as a puzzle that can be put together if one is clever and brilliant enough.

But I cannot think of Edwin Drood as just a final generous act by Dickens.  An unfinished mystery novel is also a real-life mystery, a legacy that demands more attention than great authors who leave behind complete bodies of work.  Using his fiction as a model for Dickens’ actions, though a tenuous approach, leads me to believe that he aimed to leave us wanting more, to wish that he would come back from the dead to resolve all of our unanswered questions.

And while Dickens is no Lazarus, I still think of this quote from David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  This idea, though initially posited by David’s narration, is just as easily applied to Dickens and Edwin Drood—perhaps “these pages” refers to the ones that have yet to be written, pages that could be written by anyone bold enough to try.