The Drood Inquiry
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Lukes Fildes

On 3rd November 1905, The Times printed this letter from Luke Fildes, the original illustrator of Edwin Drood:

Sir, - In an article entitle “The Mysteries of Edwin Drood” in your issue of today, the writer, speculating on the various theories advanced as solutions of the mystery, ventures to say: -

Nor do we attach much importance to any of the hints Dickens dropped, whether to John Forster, to any member of his family, or to either of his illustrators. He was very anxious that his secret should not be guessed, and the hints which he dropped may very well have been intentionally misleading.

I know Charles Dickens was very anxious that his secret should not be guessed, but it surprises me to read that he could be thought capable of the deceit so lightly attributed to him.

The “hints he dropped” to me, his sole illustrator – for Charles Collins, his son-in-law, only designed the green cover for the monthly parts, and Collins told me he did not in the least know the significance of the various groups in the design; that they were drawn from instructions personally given by Charles Dickens and not from any text – these “hints” to me were the outcome of a request of mine that he would explain some matters, the meaning of which I could not comprehend and which were for me, his illustrator, embarrassingly hidden.

I instanced in the printers’ rough proof of the monthly part sent to me to illustrate where he particularly described John Jasper as wearing a neckerchief of such dimensions as to go twice around his neck; I called his attention to the circumstance that I had previously dressed Jasper as wearing a little black tie once round the neck, and I asked him if he had any special reasons for the alteration of Jasper’s attire, and, if so, I submitted I ought to know. He, Dickens, appeared for a moment to be disconcerted by my remark, and said something meaning he was afraid he was “getting on too fast” and revealing more than he meant at that early stage, and after a short silence, cogitating, he suddenly said, “Can you keep a secret?” I assured him he could rely on me. He then said, “I must have the double necktie! It is necessary, for Jasper strangles Edwin Drood with it.”

I was impressed by his earnestness as, indeed, I was at all my interviews with him – also by the confidence which he said he reposed I me, trusting that I would not in any way refer to it, as he feared even a chance remark might find its way into the “papers” and thus anticipate his “mystery”; and it is a little startling, after more than thirty-five years of profound belief in the nobility of character and sincerity of Charles Dickens, to be told now that he probably was more or less of a humbug on such occasions.

I am, Sir, yours obediently,

Luke Fildes
Harrogate, Oct. 27

While this seems a fairly comprehensive account of Dickens’s intentions for Edwin, and a sound rebuttal of those who would accuse Dickens of misleading his friends, there are nonetheless questions raised by Fildes’s statement. He had already written on the end of Drood twice before, and on neither of which occasion did he reveal that the scarf as the murder weapon. Instead, in 1871, when Augustin Daly was on his hunt for clues, Fildes’s reply was simply to forward Daly on to Charles Alliston Collins. He was later interviewed in 1891 by W R Hughes, who tells us:

“His opinion is that the ingenious and kind-hearted Edwin, had he been living, would never have allowed his friend Neville to continue so long under the grave suspicion of murder. Nay more, he is convinced that Dickens intended that Edwin Drood should be killed by his uncle, and this opinion is supported by the fact of the introduction of a ‘large black scarf of strong close woven silk’ which Jasper wears for the first time in the fourteenth chapter of the story and which was likely to have been the means of death, I.e. by strangulation. Mr Fildes said that Dickens seemed much surprised when he called his attention to this change of dress - very noticeable and embarassing to an artist who had studied the character - and appeared as though he had unintentionally disclosed the secret. He further stated that it was Dickens’s intention to take him to a condemned cell in Maidstone or some other gaol, in order that ‘he might make a drawing and’ said Dickens ‘do something better than Cruickshank’, an allusion of course to the famous drawing of Fagin in The Condemned Cell. ‘Surely this’ remarked our informant ‘points to our witnessing the condemned culprit Jasper in his cell before he met his fate’.”

Note how this statement, predating the letter to the Times, seems more cautious in its assumptions; but is this Fildes’s caution or rather the intepretation of Hughes as he writes of what Fildes told him? Gavin Brend felt the uncertainty of the first two statements threw the veracity of the third into doubt; equally it could be argued that Fildes was initially aloof from discussion, hence forwarding Daly’s request on to Collins, but increasingly became embroiled in it as the Drood question refused to go away.