Charles Dickens

It is 8 June 1870, in a delightful home in Gadshill, between Rochester and Chatham, in Kent.  It is eight o’clock in the evening.  Near a window, which is open onto a garden filled with climbing roses, tulips and honeysuckle, a man with a beard like a fan is feverishly writing.  Fatigue, however, shows in the dark circles under his eyes, and veils his usually sparkling eyes.  From time to time, he stops, as if exhausted.  But he makes an effort, dips his pen into the ink and continues to set down words.

This man, who is working despite his illness, is one of the greatest English writers.  His name is Charles Dickens.

At the moment, he is writing a very curious book, a fantasy novel, entitled The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which, for the last five months, has been appearing in monthly episodes, and is passionately followed by an immense public.

Around midnight, Charles Dickens lays down his pen and sighs with relief.  He has just finished – with difficulty – the sixth chapter that he has to post to his editor the next morning.  There are six more left to write to recount the end of his hero’s strange adventure.  He’ll get back to it in a few days, when he has gathered a bit more strength.  For the moment, he is exhausted.  He blows out the candles and drags himself upstairs to bed.

Charles Dickens' house in Gadshill

The next morning, he is found dead in his bed.  He was 58.

News of Charles Dickens’ death causes considerable emotion throughout the whole world.  Andre Malraux recounts that, in all the homes of England, America, Canada, Australia, this death was announced to children like a death in the family, and that a little boy, who was very upset about it, then asks:

“Is Father Christmas going to die too?”

But, if the admirers that the author of David Copperfield counts throughout the world are extremely sad to learn of his disappearance, the thousands of readers who followed each month the episodes of The Mystery of Edwin Drood are even more upset.  For to their sadness is added an immense disappointment:  they will never know how this extraordinary book ends…  even in the form of a synopsis, Dickens not having left any plan for his work.

Two years pass, and the public gradually forgets Edwin Drood and his mystery…

Then comes 3 October 1872.  On this day, at Brettleboro, a little American town in the State of Vermont, an elderly lady, Mrs Blanck, who keeps a sort of boarding house and dabbles in spiritism, sees one of her lodgers enter her office, young Thomas P. James, employed by a printer.

The boy is pale and trembling.  Mrs Blanck tells him to sit down and asks him if he is ill.  He doesn’t answer straight away.  He seems very upset.  Finally, he raises his head and says:

“Mrs Blanck, have you ever heard of a writer called Charles Dickens?”

The old lady smiles:

“Of course I have!  Who hasn’t heard of the author of Mr Pickwick and Oliver Twist?…”

“He died, didn’t he?”

“Two years ago…  Why are you asking me this?”

Thomas James hesitates for a few seconds:

“Because…  a while ago, I was in my bedroom.  I was reading a magazine and…  how can I put this…  I felt a presence…  To the point that I turned around.  But there was no-one there…  So, I started reading again, but the feeling that someone was near me became so strong that my heart starting beating very fast.  So fast that I was afraid of having an attack, so I stretched out on my bed…  That’s when I heard a voice in my head…”

Mrs Blanck is literally captivated:

“And what did this voice say?”

“It said:  ‘I am Charles Dickens.  I have chosen you for some work.  Get up, take a paper and a pencil and sit down at your table.’

“I obeyed.  My hand then started to write words as if someone else was controlling it…  And here is what I wrote without even knowing what I was doing.”

And Thomas James shows a paper to Mrs Blanck who reads:

‘By dying, I left my book unfinished…  It’s title is “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”.  I have chosen you, Thomas, to finish it.  I shall come regularly to dictate the missing chapters to you…  I’ll be back this evening…’

Young Thomas James adds:

“I came to see you straight away, Mrs Blanck, because I know that you delve a bit into spiritism…  But I would never dare to tell this story to anyone else.  Never.  I would be too frightened that they would make fun of me…  What do you think I should do?”

Mrs Blanck is delighted:

“This is marvellous, Mr James!  This evening, you must sit at your table with paper and pencil.  The spirit of Dickens would be too unhappy if you refused to obey it…”

Thomas James promises and goes to the printers’.  That evening, he returns tired, dines with the other lodgers, then seeks out Mrs Blanck.  He tells her that he is a bit afraid and asks her if she would accompany him.

Enchanted, the elderly lady accepts.  A few seconds later, they are both in the young man’s bedroom.  Thomas James, seated at his table, pencil in hand, waits.

Suddenly – Mrs Blanck will tell it later – he starts to write very fast, without crossing out and

“as if he had difficulty following what was being dictated to him”.

When, after an hour, he suddenly stops, around fifteen sheets of paper have been filled.

And from then on, for days and days, alone or in front of witnesses, for Mrs Blanck is unable to hold her tongue and people sometimes come to watch the seances of communication with the After-Life, Thomas James will write hundreds of pages on which he will modify nothing.  He says that it doesn’t need any corrections and, anyway, he has no right to do it.

Some evenings, he only writes a few lines and his hand stops.  Sometimes, he covers with his childish handwriting – he left school at thirteen – more than thirty pages before going to bed.  Finally, in March 1873, after five months of work, the last six chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood are finished.  Thomas James gives the manuscript to Mrs Blanck who, assisted by the printer for whom her lodger works, starts to look for an editor.  It takes them months to find one.

To be continued.