At the Piano

At the Piano by Sir Luke Fildes. Facing page 55 for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 16.3 cm wide by 10 cm high, vertically mounted. Click on image to enlarge it.

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Fildes has seized upon the music party as the ideal vehicle for introducing Dickens's 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 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 (described in text as taking an "admiring station," so as to study Rosa better) seem to be studying one another rather than giving their whole attentions 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, nervously toying with the fan borrowed from the elderly teacher seated beside him. He thus enables us to study 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 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).

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 7, "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 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 has provided Edwin with a moustache), there would be less likelihood of misidentifying Neville as Edwin in the May plates.


Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With Illustrations [by Sir Luke Fildes, R. A.] London: Chapman and Hall Limited, 193, Piccadilly. 1880.

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

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").

Victorian Illustration Charles Dickens Luke Fildes

Last modified 25 July 2018