Ghosts & Clairvoyants Galore: Notes on Endings to Edwin Drood

In 1870, the great novelist Charles Dickens was fifty-eight years old and quite ill, having suffered a stroke the previous year. Nevertheless, he began work on a new novel and arranged for it to be published serially by Chapman & Hall, with twelve monthly installments to appear starting in April 1870. However, on June 8th, 1870, reportedly after working a full day on this novel-in-progress, he was attacked by another stroke and died the next day. He had completed only half of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving the book unfinished and the mystery unsolved.

Undeterred by death, apparently, Charles Dickens appeared to a Vermonter named Thomas Power James and dictated the rest of the novel to him. James provided a “Medium’s Preface,” then included an “Author’s Preface” (supposedly dictated by Dickens’ “spirit-pen” and taken down via automatic writing), and a massive “completion” of the novel that more than doubles its length.

Let’s just say that death did not improve Dickens’ writing style.

Other folks wrote more honest continuations, putting their own names on them (or at least their initials), such as W.E.C. and Gillian Vase. Those were both published in 1914, which was a good year for Edwin Drood, as it also saw the amazing, parodic Trial of John Jasper for The Murder of Edwin Drood in Aid of Samaritan, Children’s Homeopathic, St. Agnes and Mt. Sinai Hospitals: a delightful piece of theatre in which such lofty and exalted persons as G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw took roles.

G.K. Chesterton as Judge in the Trial of John Jasper
G.K. Chesterton as Judge in the Trial of John Jasper

As if that’s not cool enough, no less a personage than the great Sherlock Holmes himself finally solved The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as reported by Harry B. Smith in 1942.

Okay, but back to ghosts for a moment. T.P. James was not the only medium to publish a work putatively received from a famous author after death. Hester Travers Smith brought out Oscar Wilde from Purgatory: Psychic Messages in 1926. Mark Twain’s spirit came to Emily Grant Hutchings in 1917 and communicated a novel called Jap Herron (which Clemens’ daughter deplored and successfully sued to have destroyed) and then to Mildred Swanson, who published their conversations-across-the-veil as God Bless U, Daughter.

But this post is not going where you might think it is, and I need to remind myself this blog is about Charles Williams, not Charles Dickens. Perhaps surprisingly, Williams did not jump on the spiritualist train to meet Dickens in the afterlife. Instead, he joined another, more respectable tradition: that of scholarly investigation into evidence about how Dickens might have finished the book had he lived to do so.

In 1924, Oxford World’s Classics issued a charming little hardback edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood “With a Supplementary Note by CHARLES WILLIAMS,” shown here with my small Penelope-cat for purposes of scale. After the text of the novel, Williams provides a ten-page survey of scholarship on Edwin Drood. It is remarkably professional, written in a clearer style than he’s usually known for, and does not stray into the bizarre nooks and crannies of this fascinating field. Instead, with admirable lucidity and logic, Williams lays out the points in the case–both the case of Edwin Drood and the case of Edwin Drood–articulating the problems created by the novel’s unfinished state and then surveying solutions provided by various scholars. The plain prose and matter-of-fact style are unusual for Williams, and it’s good to see him at work in his day job, producing a piece of professional writing far removed from his avocational passions of pursuing strange spiritual byways–especially when he could have done so, given the oddities with which I began this post.

I attribute his insightful writing in this piece not only to the fact that it was a commission from his employer, the Oxford University Press, but also to his love of murder mysteries. A little later, in the 1930s, he began regularly reviewing mysteries for The Westminster Chronicle and other papers. He did so at a remarkable rate, reviewing 290 books in five years!! So even though his Dickens project was before that time, we know he greatly enjoyed reading and analyzing mysteries, and that hobby served him well in commenting on the novel and on scholarship surrounding it.

I found one point particularly insightful. He writes that notable scholars, in analyzing the Drood fragment, have come to the conclusion that there could have been no satisfactory solution to the mystery: that, indeed, Dickens wrote himself into an awkward corner and could not have gotten himself out of it had he lived to try. “The reason for this,” Williams summarizes, “is that although the details are capable of several more or less satisfactory readings, not a single one of these readings gives a convincing account of the behaviour or the characters involved” (366). Wait, he is talking about Season One of The Rings of Power?? Oops, sorry. #SorryNotSorry

In a slightly more characteristic move, Williams ends his short essay with a series of questions about the novel that he clearly thinks are unanswerable without further evidence being discovered. Clearly, he liked the unsolvable mystery more than any tidy solution, which I find the least surprising detail about his “Notes” on Edwin Drood.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share your own thoughts on Whodunnit to Edwin Drood in the comments below.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Ghosts & Clairvoyants Galore: Notes on Endings to Edwin Drood

  1. screwtape316 says:

    Thank you for the humorous defense of Tolkien!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. chastmastr says:

    I don’t think it’s surprising that Williams didn’t try to jump on the spiritualist train; he was involved in various unusual metaphysical things, but I think trying to contact the dead would be a step too far for Williams, an orthodox Christian.


    • Thanks; you make a good point! However, I’m not convinced he was thoroughly “orthodox.” He was once called to exorcise a ghost, which doesn’t seem too far off to me, and he regularly tried to get in touch with spirits or at least supernatural forces in the FRC and the GD spin-off order.


      • chastmastr says:

        I think exorcism is very different from necromancy, though, and supernatural forces include many things beyond dead human beings. Heck, encountering and interacting with a human spirit is not the same thing as, say, using something like a Ouija board to try to bring one in.


        • He also used Ouija boards, and reportedly they went crazy around him.


          • chastmastr says:

            I’ve never heard this before. What source do you have on Williams using the Ouija board? If he knew of some way to approach it that was not actually forbidden, he’d be the one I’d expect to find a way.


            • That’s in Grevel Lindop’s bio.


              • chastmastr says:

                Aha, found it. It’s only mentioned on page 303 (at least according to the index) and it looks like it was not a regular part of his metaphysical work–it sounds like more of a one-time thing suggested by a visitor when Williams was out, and when he came home, he joined in, which is when the planchette started shooting all over the place. (I found it via Google Books at the link below.) It may have been a lark, or even a lapse in judgement–I can’t see him going out of his way to try to summon deceased human spirits in a serious way. Helping them move on from being stuck here, though–absolutely.

                (I wouldn’t mess with Ouija, specifically–apart from the question of whether or not it ventures into forbidden territory, from what a lot of people have said, it seems to generally take rough paranormal situations and make them much worse, pretty consistently. But of course that could be because of showing a malign entity that one is actively interested in chatting, and encouraging or inviting it to be more active.)



              • chastmastr says:

                I must check this book out, as well. Looks like there’s been a lot more Williams scholarship in recent years! I remember when just finding copies of the novels was iffy at best, but this was before the internet.


              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Worth noting is Anne Spalding saying in her interview with Grevel Lindop of experimenting with a Ouija board that it “wasn’t what we wanted to do at all […] but we did it because, you know, we had to humour our visitor”. Anne did not mention anyhting about this when I interviewed her in 1989. In her Guardian obituary, her niece, Jeanie Moyo, writes “She loved a glass of red wine and claimed to have drunk in every pub in Oxford – as a devout Christian, she had probably also prayed in every church in the city.” It would be interesting to know who (presumably?) brought the Ouija board and needed ‘humouring’ as a guest. We know Williams knew R.H. Benson’s 1909 novel, The Necromancers with its depiction of the dangers of ‘Spiritualist’ activities, but not a lot of detail about Williams’s response to it.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. mingsem12gmailcom says:

    This made me chuckle! Charles Williams was so accurate in his description of The Rings of Power Season One! so beautiful to look at but so poorly written. I hope the writers can pull it together better next season…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stephen Barber sent me this comment: “It’s some time since I read it but I remember being so convinced by Leon Garfield’s completion of Edwin Drood that I thought of writing to the OUP to suggest adding it to their Illustrated Dickens set. I don’t think I actually carried it out. It came out in 1980 and was later issued as a Penguin. Of course this was much later than Williams, but I would love to read his essay.”


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow – this is fascinating: thank you! I somehow failed to read that set of Williams’s notes when I had the chance – however, if I understand current US copyright law correctly (a big if!), they should have come out of copyright in 2020 and are ripe for online publication. This is the third item in chronological order in Lois Glenn’s section “Articles and Letters” in her 1975 Checklist – and I know the first two items are interesting. From the same period was Williams’s ambitious Outlines of Romantic Theology – which he did not manage to get published, meaning his first non-fiction prose book was Poetry at Present in 1930.

    Much as I enjoyed The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I have never ‘done my homework’ even apart from Williams thoroughly enough to know there was a ‘ mediumistic’ continuation! Or about all those other ‘mediumistic’ works, for that matter!

    Liked by 1 person

Comment in the Co-Inherence

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s