At the Piano, fourth composite woodblock engraving by Sir Luke Fildes for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, facing page 44 in the May 1870 number; positioned on page 28 in the Household Edition (1879). 10.0 cm high by 13.8 cm wide (4 by 5 ⅜ inches), framed and horizontally mounted in Chapter VII, "More Confidences than One." [Click on the illustration to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated: Growing Tensions between Edwin Drood and Neville Landless

Mr. Jasper was seated at the piano as they came into his drawing-room, and was accompanying Miss Rosebud while she sang. It was a consequence of his playing the accompaniment without notes, and of her being a heedless little creature, very apt to go wrong, that he followed her lips most attentively, with his eyes as well as hands; carefully and softly hinting the key-note from time to time. Standing with an arm drawn round her, but with a face far more intent on Mr. Jasper than on her singing, stood Helena, between whom and her brother an instantaneous recognition passed, in which Mr. Crisparkle saw, or thought he saw, the understanding that had been spoken of, flash out. Mr. Neville then took his admiring station, leaning against the piano, opposite the singer; Mr. Crisparkle sat down by the china shepherdess; Edwin Drood gallantly furled and unfurled Miss Twinkleton’s fan; and that lady passively claimed that sort of exhibitor’s proprietorship in the accomplishment on view, which Mr. Tope, the Verger, daily claimed in the Cathedral service.

The song went on. It was a sorrowful strain of parting, and the fresh young voice was very plaintive and tender. As Jasper watched the pretty lips, and ever and again hinted the one note, as though it were a low whisper from himself, the voice became less steady, until all at once the singer broke into a burst of tears, and shrieked out, with her hands over her eyes: “I can’t bear this! I am frightened! Take me away!” [Chapter VII, "More Confidences Than One," pp. 27-28 in the Household Edition]

Commentary: Introducing the Murder Mystery Cast

Fildes has seized upon the music party as the ideal vehicle for introducing Dickens's serial readers to the novel's cast in the visual program. While the Cloisterham choirmaster, John Jasper, plays the piano, the roomfull of auditors looks suitably attentive: Neville Landless leans against the piano (left), Edwin Drood (right) nervously plays with Miss Twinkleton's fan, and Rev. Crisparkle is seated (right), the young ladies present being Helena Landless and Rosa Bud, as described in the central paragraph on the serial number's page 55: "Mr. Jasper was seated at the piano . . . Miss Twinkleton's fan. . . ." Fildes avoids the stiff effect of a group study by placing the characters in different attitudes and on different planes, and providing unity by having all the characters focus on the back of the pianist's head, flanked by the faces of the young ladies (centre, the soloist, Rosa Bud or "Miss Rosebud" being the short blonde, Helena the statuesque brunette with shading indicating her facial colouring). Edwin Drood and Neville Landless (whom Dickens describes as taking an "admiring station," so as to study Rosa better) seem to be studying one another rather than giving their whole attention to the music. To give emphasis to the newcomer, Neville Landless, Fildes has placed him in the foreground, against the piano, and Edwin in the background. He thus enables us to scrutinise Neville in his reverie, allowing us to study his developing interest in Rosa, and to motivate his later accusing Edwin of neglecting her. The background is only slightly sketched in, thereby forcing our attention away from the furnishings and bric-a-brac of the drawing-room and toward the figures, particularly those who are closest to us. The picture thus establishes a romantic triangle between the young men and Miss Bud which will be further complicated by John Jasper's interest in the young woman who is his nephew's fiancee and who has excited Neville's interest, too.

Distinguishing Neville Landless from Edwin Drood in the May 1870 Plates

Jane Rabb Cohen notes the uneven quality of the last four illustrations, executed after Dickens's death. She notes, in particular, Fildes' inability to distinguish the two girls, Helena Landless and Rosa Bud, in the plates in which they appear, notably "Good-bye, Rosebud, Darting!" (the first plate of instalment four, July 1870). Owing to the similarities in their clothing, the story's young men, Neville Ladless and Edwin Drood, are equally difficult to distinguish since their figures in At the Piano and On Dangerous Ground (the May 1870 plates) equally resemble that of Edwin in Under the Trees (the second plate for April 1870).

Accepting the authority of the text, however, and paying very careful attention to their facial shading, the reader may identify Neville as the dark-haired, aloof, well-dressed young man to the left of "At the Piano" and to the right of On Dangerous Ground by virtue of both his position relative to the others in each scene as described by Dickens and of his skin colouring (conveyed by light shading in each case).

Right: The cover or monthly wrapper for The Mystery of Edwin Droode by Charles Allston Collins (1869).

The reader of the 1870 instalments, alert to the language of illustration, would probably have noted that Edwin Drood in the May plates is light-skinned a fair-haired, whereas Neville Landless (as is consistent with the letter-press) has a shaded complexion suggestive of a skin darkened by a tropic sun — Dickens at the beginning of Chapter VII, "More Confidences Than One," specifies Ceylon as the British colony in which the Landless twins were born, and implies that the twins may have either Portuguese or native ancestry. In At the Piano, Helena, Neville's twin sister, shares her brother's height, darker complexion, and profusion of wavy hair. This visual detail becomes extremely important as a motivating factor in the quarrel that is about to ensue in the illustration On Dangerous Ground since Edwin seems to disparaging Neville's dark complexion when he derides him as "no judge of white men," which his adversary correctly takes an "insulting allusion to his dark skin" (65). Had Luke Fildes in Under the Trees and in subsequent illustrations followed Charles Collins's depiction of Edwin on the wrapper (in which Dickens's son-in-law, Charles Allston Collins, has provided Edwin with a moustache), there would be less likelihood of misidentifying Neville as Edwin in the May plates.

Edwin's Moustache: A Note by David Paroissien (2002)

Paroissien mentions the issue of race in a lengthy note to Chapter 7 (no. 2, p. 342), and brings up the point of Fildes's having transformed Edwin from wearing a moustache to being clean shaven (no. 15, p. 346). That Dickens originally conceived of giving Neville a moustache is suggested by Miss Ferdinand's dinnertime burlesque of Helena's brother, "clapping on a paper moustache" (in Chapter 9, "Birds in the Bush").

Scanned images and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Cohen, Jane R. "Chapter 18: Luke Fildes." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980. Pp. 221-234.

Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With Illustrations [by Sir Luke Fildes, R. A.] London: Chapman and Hall Limited, 193, Piccadilly. 1870.

_______. The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Reprinted Pieces and Other Stories. With Thirty Illustrations by L. Fildes, E. G. Dalziel, and F. Barnard. The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879. Vol. XX.

Paroissien, David (ed.). "The Illustrations," Appendix 3 in Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Penguin, 2002, pp. 294-299.

Created 9 May 2005

Updated 16 June 2023