decorated initial 'C'

Click on image for larger picture

harles Allston Collins, the initial illustrator engaged to work on Chapman and Hall's monthly serialisation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, completed but one design. Collins — Wilkie Collins's brother, associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Dickens's son-in-law — bowed out of the illustration project supposedly because of ill health. The single contribution of this associate of Hunt and Millais, however, has elicited more critical and amateur comment than any other illustration produced for one of Dickens's works during his lifetime. The general feeling among Drood aficionados has been that, if one could only decipher the clues that Dickens has provided on the wrapper, one could accurately graph the direction that the author had intended the narrative to take. Since Collins's major paintings, such as Berengaria's Alarm, make use of complex symbolism, one might expect he used it in his illustrations, too.

Whether the secret to The Mystery of Edwin Drood lurks within the wrapper has to be determined by each careful reader. As Jane Rabb Cohen points out, the fact "that most of the wrapper vignettes in this instance could, at best, suggest only scenes not yet written, actions not yet worked out, and characters not yet totally conceived, has only spurred on the would-be detectives" (Cohen 212). Since no letters from Dickens to Collins about The Mystery of Edwin Drood discussing the project survive from the period during which Dickens conceived and wrote the story, it is difficult to assess precisely how much of the novel's plot the author revealed to Collins, the designer of the wrapper. Most of Dickens's correspondence that alludes to the artist dwells on his declining health; ironically, he outlived his vigorous father-in-law by three years, dieing at the age of 45. Certainly, after Collins moved into Gad's Hill with his wife, the novelist must have provided instructions and suggestions orally, but (according to what he told Fildes after Dickens's death) the illustrator undertook the wrapper design without understanding in the least the meaning or significance of the ten vignettes it contains. In a letter to Frederic Chapman dated 24 September 1869, Dickens requested his publisher to send the illustrator "any of our old green covers that you may have by you" (Letters 12, 413). No surviving correspondence indicates which covers Chapman arranged to have sent, although we may certainly speculate that those of fairly recent novels (including Marcus Stone's wrapper for Our Mutual Friend and, perhaps, Phiz's wrapper for A Tale of Two Cities) were still in stock. When illness forced Collins to bow out, Dickens replaced him with Luke Fildes; however, since once again the novelist delivered many of his instructions in person, in meetings with the artist at Hyde Park, no correspondence between the collaborators about the re-drafted design of the wrapper survives.

What Collins knew or did not know we shall never learn. Dickens, having decided on a mystification, would not be likely to tell the artist all about it and ask him to give the secret away on the wrapper. He would aim at as much concealment as possible, and, where revelation was unavoidable, would make the revealing obscure and delusive. [Walters 226]

In Chapter 17 of Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators (1980), Jane Rabb Cohen has reproduced the original draft (now in the Dickens House Museum, London) that Collins prepared for Dickens. There are only a few discrepancies between this provisional design and Fildes' final version: in the draft, the allegorical figure of Murder (upper right) is either androgynous or masculine; the figures climbing the winding staircase (right) are uniformed police; the figure whom Jasper encounters (bottom centre) has a moustache; the clergyman in the extreme upper left is behind Rosa rather than Edwin; and the opium-smoker in the lower right with feminine hair and clad in a nightgown but of masculine proportions is not specifically Chinese; and Durdles' key, dinner bundle, and shovel and the words "with illustrations" are not present in the draft. It is logical to assume that these differences reflect authorial intention--that is, Dickens was responsible for each of these changes to the design. Otherwise, the elements of the wrapper--including the "Wheel of Life" organization of the eight scenes--are much the same except for small particulars (such as Jasper's hair being darkened and Edwin's losing his moustache) in draft and finished production:

The sparseness of detail in Collins's much discussed sketch for the wrapper design, together with the angularity of its lines, suggests his hesitation as well as his ill health. He lacked the further knowledge of the plot, as well as self-confidence, to supply additional details. The artist drew two figures holding back the curtains at the upper corners of his design quite tentatively, although their allegorical significance seems clear enough. The female figure overlooking the romantic scenes, involving women on the left-hand side of the wrapper, represents Love. Her male counterpart, clasping a dagger [or stiletto] as he soberly overlooks scenes of suspicion or retribution involving only male characters, represents Hate or Revenge. Surrounding the crudely lettered title, the artist has placed bare branches. One extended branch, however, bears roses--some in bud, others in bloom — interspersed with thorns and wilted petals, suggesting the general love and death themes of the narrative as well as playing on two specifics: the name of the heroine, Rosa Bud, and the name of Bazzard's play, The Thorn of Anxiety. [Cohen 213]

In his appendix regarding the illustrations, David Paroissien, editor of the Penguin edition of the novel, explicates the real and allegorical figures in much the same manner as Cohen. Each month as the narrative unfolded in letter-press and illustration, the serial reader would have been able to make more and more sense of the pictorial elements of the wrapper, creating and/or revising identifications and connections as he or she pondered the meaning of those pieces yet to be introduced. In perusing and re-perusing the wrapper, then, the reader would have been engaged in narrative recapitulation, anticipation, and consolidation, grounding projection in what he or she had previously encountered.

Let us begin with the elements on the wrapper that the novel in its half-finished state permits us to identify with some confidence. The central feature of the design, enclosing the title, would have been familiar to Dickens's readers by way of the title-page designs for The Christmas Books as well as through Phiz's wrapper designs as far back as Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4), the right-hand side contrasting and complementing the left. The left-hand corner's allegorical female has variously been identified as Love, romantic sentiment, and (to the Victorian mind) the feminine nature. The right-hand corner's allegorical female, reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, has been termed an Amazon, Death, and Murder, and by her stern look and vigorous grip on the curtain (emblematic of the narrative) and her weapon exemplifies determination, vindictiveness, and retaliation. Thornless roses in various states of bloom and decay on the left connect the three romantic or sentimental scenes with the church porch at the top (presumably, Cloisterham Cathedral) and the scene in darkness at the bottom (in the cathedral crypt).

In the first vignette (moving counterclockwise from the central gothic arch of Cloisterham Cathedral's porch at the top), we encounter a young, fashionable, fair-haired couple--most probably Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud prior to the breaking of their engagement. Rosa looks away from her fiancé, perhaps dissatisfied with his treatment of her, perhaps merely nonplussed by the arrangement imposed upon her by her dead parents. Neither she nor Edwin seems to be aware of Jasper's staring at them from the right-hand side of the scene. Cohen interprets Jasper's having turned aside from the clerical procession to gaze intently upon his beloved nephew and the woman the choirmaster loves as indicative of his rejection of the harmony that the choir represents. Jasper's preoccupation with the couple reiterates the allegorical figure’s preoccupation with vengeance. The clerical figure to the left of the archway and carrying a staff cannot be identified precisely because such a scene does not occur in the novel.

Similarly, the second vignette, featuring a young woman with long hair looking at a wanted poster of the type Jasper causes to be produced and circulated after his nephew's disappearance, is not based on a scene from the letter-press. The only female figure who bears any resemblance to this young woman is the allegorical figure of Love, upper left. That she, like Rosa, looks dejectedly to the left may suggest that she is, as it were, the spirit of Rosa, or, as Collins asserted, "the doubt entertained by Rosa" (cited in Cohen, 213).

The third vignette, the couple on a rusticated bench, depicts Rosa with the garden-hat that she clutches in the scene with John Jasper behind the Nuns' House (see the first plate for the August 1870 instalment, "Jasper's Sacrifices"). Although the suitor is fair-haired, like Edwin (and therefore cannot be John Jasper, whose protestations of affection horrify her), Edwin has no moustache, and no such scene exists in the novel as we have it. "The internal logic of the developing narrative suggested to both Charles and Kate Collins that the young man is Tartar in a forthcoming scene" (Cohen 213). Rosa's obvious interest in him as the narrative breaks off is certainly an indication that she will eventually entertain him as a suitor; that Dickens should stage the proposal in the same garden as that in which Jasper attempted to extort Rosa's promise of marriage is a neat piece of narrative symmetry.

The opium woman of the fourth vignette, though not particularly haggard, is almost certainly Princess Puffer, even though the details of her den (notably the bedstead of the opening and closing plates furnished by Fildes) are absent. What is interesting is that her narcotic fumes rise and blend into the upward movement of the rose vine, in contradiction to the counterclockwise movement of the vignettes. Is Collins here implying that romance is itself a deluding narcotic which promises but fails to deliver scenes of happiness? The three romantic vignettes above the opium woman all apparently involve Rosa, John Jasper's second obsession (the drug being his first, and his nephew's murder his third). Thus, the crouching figure of Princess Puffer, like the Weird Sisters over their cauldron in Macbeth, inaugurates a darker sequence of anticipated scenes, a theatrical curtain rather than a doorway separating her from the central scene at the bottom to which our eyes are drawn by the counterclockwise motion of the vignettes; the clockwise motion of the opium smoke of John Chinaman (right), Princess Puffer's business rival; and the downward movement of the title-page lettering.

The problematic figures are those that, having read the first half of the novel, we cannot confidently explain or identify, most especially the figure with the white hat in the fifth vignette. Writing in 1905, J. Cuming Walters proposed that the dark-haired, bewhiskered man holding the lantern is John Jasper, returned to the scene of the crime to confirm that Edwin is indeed dead, and that the young man in the Tyrolean white hat is Helena Landless (otherwise known as "Datchery"):

How complete would the surprise be when the watcher, seemingly a man, proved to be a woman; doubly startling when the seemingly old man proved to be a young woman; how utterly confounding to a man like Jasper, when he found, after so successfully deceiving and thwarting men all his life, that a woman brought about his downfall. [Walters 244]

While it is not unreasonable to conjecture that the mysterious figure in the white hat is Datchery (or, for that matter, Edwin Drood returned to life from abroad, or a figment of Jasper's guilty imagination), the pale skin and rounded features do not square with Helena's physiognomy. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that Jasper and others about town would have failed to penetrate the disguise, Helena being so well known to them. R. A. Proctor (1887), has suggested that the "figure in a tightly-buttoned coat and with a large hat" (Walters 245) is Drood, whom John Jasper, acting under the influence of opium, had merely thought he strangled. Yet again, Dickens scholar Andrew Lang in "The Puzzle of Dickens's Last Plot" (also in 1905) advanced the notion that, while the "dark and whiskered man" (Walters 246) was indeed Jasper, the features of the other person indicate that the youth is "Edwin Drood, of the Grecian nose, hyacinthine locks, and classical features, as in Sir Luke Fildes' third illustration" (cited in Walters, 246), "At the Piano." Walters' theory about a disguised Helena Landless does, however, have its supporters: in particular, Henry Smetham in a series of articles in the Rochester and Chatham Journal (1905) speculated that Helena had assumed the figure of the murdered Drood in order to terrify Jasper into confessing his guilt. Some critics resolve the mystery without worrying about the identity of Datchery; for example,

*"S. Y. E." "Dickens and his last book; A new theory." [Article in Nottingham Guardian (Jan. 9 [1912]), suggesting that Drood "sailed for the East" and was not murdered; that Neville Landless was falsely accused of killing him; that Jasper, thwarted in his criminal designs, threw himself over the Cathdral parapet, and, in dying, confessed his ill deeds.] [cited in Walters, 263]

Although the issue of the identities of the pursuers climbing the circular stair at the right-hand side of the wrapper would seem relatively trivial compared top the identity of the smooth-faced stranger in white at the bottom centre of the page, there are two distinct and quite contrary interpretations of the leader. That the uniformed police of the draft have been transformed into a party of what Penguin editor David Paroissien terms "plainclothes men" (295) is not so great a matter. If the period in which Dickens set the novel is some thirty years prior to the date of composition, the change may simply reflect an attempt to correct an anachronism, the London Metropolitan Police (i. e., the "Bobbies" in crime and detection fiction such as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries) would not have existed when the authorities were in hot pursuit of Drood's killer. As J. R. Cohen suggests, the change may also be a deliberate attempt to inject ambiguities into the wrapper design; furthermore, the pursuers may well be a deputized "posse" such as the party of townsmen who apprehend Neville Landless on the highroad the day after Drood's disappearance. On the other hand, the location of the staircase may be limited to one of two places encountered in the letter-press: the postern of John Jasper's gatehouse, or the tower of Cloisterham Cathedral.

But who is the leader of the pursuers, if the two men wearing hats lower on the stair are, as J. R. Cohen proposes, Tartar and Crisparkle (whom she selects simply on the grounds that Dickens had planned to marry them to Rosa and Helena respectively, and because he had mentioned to Collins that he had thought of having Neville die in the pursuit of the real murderer)? The top figure, pointing upward in the general direction of choirmaster John Jasper in the top register, is unidentifiable in the draft, but with tailcoat and fair hair could well be Tartar--or the fair haired, fair skinned man of mystery at the bottom centre. The other possibility is fascinating in psychological terms because (if we can conceive of the figure as dark-haired) it could be John Jasper, pointing at himself, in which case the scene may represent the doting uncle's fruitless attempts to find his missing nephew, or (if his disappearance is the result of foul play) his killer.

Related Materials


Cohen, Jane Rabb. "Charles Collins." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980. Pp. 210-220.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Graham Storey. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002. Vol. 12 (1868-70).

--. The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Other Stories. With Illustrations by Sir Luke Fildes, R. A. London: Chapman and Hall Limited, 193, Piccadilly. 1880.

Paroissien, David (ed.). "Appendix 3: The Illustrations." Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Penguin, 2003. Pp. 294-299.

Walters, J. Cuming. The Complete Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens: The History, Continuations, and Solutions (1870-1912). Il. Luke Fildes and Frederic G. Kitton. London: Chapman and Hall, 1912.

Victorian Web Victorian Illustration Charles Dickens Luke Fildes

Last modified 4 July 2005