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Edwin Drood and the Mystery of the Unfinished Novel

In Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood , opium-using choirmaster, John Jasper, plots against his nephew and ward Edwin Drood, who is engaged to marry Rosa Bud, a beautiful young woman Jasper is obsessed with. Edwin mysteriously vanishes, and Dick Datchery, a character clearly in disguise, begins what seems to be an investigation of Jasper. Datchery gets closer to Jasper's secret...

...and the novel ends. Dickens died in 1870, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood only half finished. Since then, critics and novelists have written hundreds of theories of how the novel might have been completed. It's overwhelming and interesting.  Right now, I'm starting to read through some of these versions and begin to trace the memes and nodes of the argument that appear in the different explanations, starting in 1870 and leading all the way to the present. 

There are the obvious questions--did Edwin live or die? (Victorians mostly believed that he lived, while in the 20th century, critics insist that he must have died.)  Who is Dick Datchery? (Several Victorians believe that he's Edwin himself, while moderns like a vanishing lawyer's clerk, though responses are varied and mixed.) 

Other, less obvious questions are emerging in my reading as well. Would it have been a good novel or a bad one? Was the novel a plotted mystery story leading to the surprise of Jasper's capture, or was it a psychological thriller written by a man who didn't really "do" plots? What sort of evidence does the adapter/critic use--close reading of the text, explanations of the cover illustrations, reference to Dickens's conversations with friends before his death? And the final, unanswerable question--why is everyone so sure that the specific answer they are presenting is the right one?  Even critics who claim that we shouldn't even look for an ending end up giving their explanation for the text, drawn back yet again towards these questions they are trying to reject.

Right now, I'm at the early stages, reading through the material and recording the text's take on these different questions into a chronology-based Excel spreadsheet. I'd love to hear from anyone using similar methodologies. What do you think are the "best practices" for collecting (admittedly somewhat subjective) information about a text? Are there ways to make my "nodes" less arbitrary, or is it fine that I just pulled out what seem the most recurrent questions these texts seek to answer? (Aka, data collecting is always interpretation...)  How did you transition from an Excel spreadsheet of data to the richer world of data analysis?  How do you look at your own data and find meaning in it? What other things might this sort of project reveal, beyond chronological changes in reading this specific text?


[To give some context, this chapter is going to be part of a dissertation which looks at new reading demands created by Victorian technologies as partially creating the rise of detective fiction.  I'm planning to look at Drood alongside the technology of serialized literature, which both builds up and defers the ending. Without an ending, the text enters a state of perpetual circulation.]

People are doing amazing things with the digital humanities and Drood--using textual analysis to predict the ending, etc. In some ways, reading and entering reactions to different arbitrary "nodes" I've selected into a spreadsheet doesn't feel like the most glamorous project.  I'm not sure if it'll show anything at the end, besides the obvious fact that people are still fascinated with Drood.

But I also think Drood might be an indicator of the ways that critical reading changed over time.  Why did we as a society suddenly stop liking Edwin as a choice for Datchery, and insist that he must have died instead?  Why do particular questions gain prominence and then disappear over time? How does our reading change as we creep into a digital age?


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