The death of Charles Dickens on June 9, 1870 wasn't entirely unexpected.
The eminent author had been in poor health for years and had already suffered one previous stroke. When a second stroke struck on June 8, he slipped into a coma from which he never awakened. Mourners from around the world paid tribute to the great author and it seemed only fitting that he be laid to rest in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey. Despite Dickens' full life and the long list of iconic books that he had left behind, there was one last bit of unfinished business, however...
At the time of his death, Charles Dickens was hard at work on what he had been planning to be his fifteenth, and most ambitious, novel. While mystery fiction was still a relatively new genre in literature at the time (the first true mystery story, Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue had only come out two decades previously), authors such as Wilkie Collins had already become best-selling authors by the time Dickens decided to write his own mystery novel. Dickens’ book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was intended to be released in serial form although Dickens kept the details of the novel very much to himself (aside from occasional hints to friends). By the time he died, Dickens had written twenty-two chapters and, while the general outline of the book is available, the ending of the book remains a mystery.
Although the unfinished book has intrigued mystery fans for generations (including a mock literary trial of the book's protagonist, John Jasper, in 1914), speculation over how Dickens might have finished the novel continues. There have been been attempts on the part of several writers to write their own endings to the novel which, not surprisingly, have failed to impress the legions of loyal Dickens fans who preferred that the novel remain unfinished.
In 1873, a Vermont printer named Thomas Power James made the incredible announcement that he had contacted the ghost of Charles Dickens and was thus prepared to finish his last novel. According to James, he had moved into the Brattleboro, Vermont boarding house of a woman interested in Spiritualism and had taken part in a seance there. While belief in spirits was thousands of years old, the era of Spiritualism only got started during the 1840s with the advent of famous mediums such as the Fox sisters. Spiritualism was all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic with eminent supporters such as Robert Owen, William Crookes, and Alfred Russel Wallace adding credibility to the movement. Seances were held in private homes and drawing rooms across Europe and North America and it was during one such seance on November 15, 1873 that Dickens reportedly contacted James.
According to eyewitnesses, Thomas James had reportedly gone into a trance, picked up a pen, and began to engage in automatic writing. While writing messages from different spirits, one spirit in particular requested a "private interview with James" and the note was signed, "Charles Dickens". Afterward, Thomas James produced notes which were purportedly from Dickens which and offered to use him as the vessel for finishing his final novel. Whatever the reaction of others at the seance, James' landlady was certainly a believer and she even provided him with free room and board until the book was completed.
It was an odd collaboration. As specified by "Dickens", he and James began writing on Christmas Eve and the sessions continued for weeks afterward. Night after night, Thomas James would sit alone at his desk with two sharpened pencils and a stack of sheets. Once he slipped into a trance, he began jotting down words in a handwriting that was clearly different from his own (although it didn't match Charles Dickens' handwriting either). The communication between James and his guiding spirit seemed linked to atmospheric conditions with stormy weather cutting the sessions down to a few minutes. Whenever James' interest in the project flagged or he became discouraged, "Dickens" would write notes of encouragement and stressed that other ghostly authors were following the project with interest and would soon be approaching mediums to write their own books.
As you might expect, people were somewhat skeptical of James' claim. Eyewitness accounts of James going into long trances and then writing furiously using automatic writing seemed dubious (with some critics suggesting that the only spirits involved were in a bottle of alcohol). Newspapers in particular had fun with the story until they moved on to other matters. It was only when James completed the novel and submitted it to a publisher that things began to change. The publisher became enthusiastic about James' work and published it October 25, 1873 as The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens as Continued by Thomas Power James. With the book becoming an immediate bestseller, Thomas James was naturally offered writing contracts for more books, all of which he regretfully declined. As far as he was concerned, Charles Dickens had used him to finish his last great novel and no further books would be forthcoming. Although "Dickens" had previously offered to write an entirely new book titled, "The Adventures of Bockley Wickleheep" through James, nothing ever came of it.
Despite the popularity of the book among American readers, the new ending to Charles Dickens' mystery didn't appeal to many of his fans in the U.K. As it happened, there had already been two previous attempts to finish the book (both by Americans) but the James version was definitely the most unusual (especially considering that Dickens himself had been highly skeptical of spiritualists during his lifetime). Those literary critics who bothered to review the book at all panned James' contribution (one critic dismissed the book as being "self-condemned by its futility, illiteracy, and hideous American mannerisms; the mystery itself becomes a nightmare, and the solution only deepens the obscurity"). While Thomas James' book remained popular in the United States for decades afterward, the Edwin Drood mystery remained a mystery for pretty much everyone else. As for Thomas James himself, he never wrote another book and became largely forgotten.
Not surprisingly, spiritualists came to Thomas James' defense and defended his version of how Charles Dickens had inspired him to finish the book. One spiritualist supporter in particular happened to be a famous writer in his own right: Arthur Conan Doyle. Having made a name for himself with his Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger stories, Doyle turned to Spiritualism following a series of tragedies in his life (including the deaths of several family members in World War One). In addition to writing about spiritual phenomena and supernatural occurrences (which led to his gaining a reputation for his lack of skepticism), Doyle turned his attention to Thomas James and his claims of spiritual help in finishing Charles Dickens' last book. While the James' version had been written decades before, it was still being praised as proof of spiritualist claims by Doyle's time.
After investigating the Thomas James case, Arthur Conan Doyle concluded that the book was genuine. He drew on his own reputation as a writer in insisting that Thomas James didn't "have a literary bone in his body" and couldn't possibly have written the book on his own. He also added that, "if it was a true communication, it must have been intensely galling to the author that his efforts should have been met with derision. There would however, be a certain poetic justice in the matter, as Dickens in his lifetime, even while admitting psychic happenings for which he could give no explanation, went out of his way to ridicule spiritualism, which he had never studied or understood”. Doyle had to have felt a certain satisfaction in writing that.
Doyle had his own experiences with ghostly authors, as it happened, since he once reported having communicated with the ghost of Joseph Conrad during a seance. Apparently, the late Conrad had asked Doyle to finish one of his own books although Doyle didn’t take the ghost up on its offer. In his final book, The Edge of the Unknown, which he wrote in 1930 (published just before his death), Doyle discussed various attempts by authors to finish books after their deaths. Authors such as Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, and George Eliot, among others were alleged to be inspiring new books. Few, if any, of those ghostly collaborations ever produced anything worthwhile.
And there it stands. Despite remaining unfinished, The Mystery of Edwin Drood still fascinates Dickens fans and other writers have attempted to write their own endings, although none were as memorable as the one by Thomas James. Dickens' last book has been the subject of movies, television adaptations, and theatre productions (including a musical with the audience getting to vote on which character is the murderer). It seems a fitting legacy for Charles Dickens that he should leave behind a novel which turned out to be an even greater mystery than he had ever intended.
Dr. Vitelli is a practicing psychologist from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He also writes "Providentia" (http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/), a blog about psychology in today's world.