By 1870, Charles Dickens had reached the height of his fame. The British novelist had concluded his second reading tour of the U.S., where fans stood in line for hours just to be in the same room as the literary superstar. His last three major works—A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel; Great Expectations, a coming-of-age story; and Our Mutual Friend, a social satire—had all been critical and commercial successes. For his next project, he chose a darker genre to explore.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a whodunit set in Cloisterham, England (the fictionalized version of Dickens’s hometown of Rochester). In the tale, Edwin Drood is engaged to be married to Rosa Bud, but his fiancée has attracted romantic attention from two other men in town: his uncle John Jasper and the hot-tempered Neville Landless. Tensions boil over when the three men spend an evening together, and Landless nearly chucks a wine goblet at Drood. Days later, Drood disappears without warning, and though foul play is suspected, the culprit’s identity is unclear.
Before starting the book, Dickens wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster that he had “a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The writer’s vision would never be fully realized, however; Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, at age 58 after publishing the sixth installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood—which was meant to be serialized in 12 parts.
The author took the ending of his final novel to the grave, and to this day, the full plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains mysterious. There was, however, one person he came close to sharing his secret with: Queen Victoria. To the people who knew Dickens, she seemed like the last person he would confide in.
An Unlikely Meeting
Queen Victoria was one of the few people who rivaled Dickens’s fame in mid-19th century Britain. She held the throne from 1837 to 1901, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history at the time of her death. The queen devoured literature—she also published a book of her own, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, in 1868—and like many of her subjects, she enjoyed the works of Charles Dickens. She described Oliver Twist as “excessively interesting,” and tried many times during her reign to set up a meeting with the author. But for 22 years, Dickens declined.
Dickens wasn’t as enchanted with royalty as some of his peers. To him, Queen Victoria was "merely a provincial devotee,” and he didn’t feel compelled to meet this one fan out of many, even if declining a royal invitation was a great violation of social norms at the time. Despite the insults implied with each rejection, the queen persisted—and in March 1870, she finally succeeded in getting the most famous novelist in England into her palace.
The meeting was a little awkward—they both stood the entire time—but any frank opinions the author had about his host or royalty in general he kept to himself. When Queen Victoria presented him with a copy of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, he accepted it politely, and did not mention the fact that he had once called it “preposterous” in a letter to a friend, and described those who gave it positive reviews as a “shameful lick-spittle chorus.”
Yet Dickens also didn’t exactly go out of his way to make Victoria happy. When the queen expressed regret over never making it to one of Dickens’s famous live readings, he told her didn’t do private shows (a statement that wasn’t entirely truthful). Dickens instead offered to share something with her on his terms: the ending of the novel he was currently writing, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
It's possible Queen Victoria didn't realize the full significance of this gesture; Dickens hadn’t shared the full ending of the book with anyone, and as far as historians know, he hadn’t written it down anywhere—an unusual move from the normally meticulous note-taker. Whatever her reasons, the queen said 'no thank you,' and the rest of their conversation consisted of much less historically important matters, such as rising food prices and how hard it was to find good servants in England.
Dickens died less than four months later. Following their meeting, Queen Victoria had described Dickens as "very agreeable, with a pleasant voice and manner." After his death, she wrote in her diary, "He is a very great loss."
The Unsolved Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens was known for his cliffhangers, and dying halfway through writing his last novel produced the greatest cliffhanger of his career. Whatever ending he had planned for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it likely wouldn’t have matched the 150 years' worth of mystique that has developed around the story.
Some have claimed they were in on the secret. John Forster, a friend with whom Dickens often shared his work before publishing it, wrote in his biography of the author that Drood ends with the discovery of Edwin’s lime-resistant gold ring. This apparently confirms speculations that John Jasper murdered his nephew and dissolved his remains in lime.
Other scholars and writers have attempted to solve the mystery on their own over the years. In 1914, the Dickens Fellowship held a mock trial for Jasper, with G.K. Chesterton serving as the judge and George Bernard Shaw as the foreman of the jury. (The fictional character was found guilty of manslaughter.) In 2015, the University of Buckingham set up a website called Drood Inquiry, where the public could submit their theories on the book’s conclusion. The ending that pinned Jasper as the murderer was by far the most popular, but the project also attracted some more surprising ideas. According to one submission, Edwin Drood was killed by the sweet mother of the local reverend.
All of this speculation might have never have happened if Queen Victoria had agreed to hear the ending Dickens offered to share with her. Instead, she lived out the remainder of her life just as in the dark about what the writer intended as the rest of us—even if she was lucky enough to once share in his company.