History records that on June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens died of a cerebral haemorrhage. History, however, is wrong. June 9, 1870, is the day on which Emile de la Rue murdered Charles Dickens. During a stay in Genoa in 1844-45, Charles Dickens, an accomplished mesmerist, used his mesmeric abilities to treat a young Englishwoman, Augusta de la Rue, attempting to cure a years' long malady of hers that included facial spasms and phantom-filled dreams. During her trances she revealed to Dickens a truth she had long suppressed--the knowledge that her husband murdered a rival so he could have her for himself. Dickens, at that time, was helpless to act on the devastating admission, but twenty-five years later Emile de la Rue shows up in London, and Dickens finally seeks justice. De La Rue cannot let this happen and stops at nothing to keep Dickens from revealing his secret.
Charles Dickens had been unwell for some time. Neuralgia on the left side of his face punished him with periods of utter misery. Kidney spasms, a nemesis since childhood, prostrated him on occasion. His left foot, often swollen and painful, made his daily twelve-mile walks a thing of the past. His left hand had begun to disobey his commands, and the sight in his left eye caused him concern. His public readings had caused a deterioration in his health impossible to counter, yet he bore up and continued working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He approached this book differently from his other books, however. For one thing, it would have only twelve monthly numbers rather than his usual twenty. In his contract for the book, he insisted on a clause detailing what monies would be returned to his publishers, Chapman and Hall, in the event he could not finish the book. He knew completing Drood involved a race against his own mortality.
June 6, 1870, a Monday. Dickens rises about seven, maintaining the rigid schedule he needs to give shape and meaning to his day. His work routine must run like clockwork or he cannot even begin his day’s writing. It is a lovely morning in Rochester, twenty-five miles southeast of London, as Dickens takes a morning tour of his Gad’s Hill home and grounds to assure himself everything is in its place. He breakfasts, then walks through the garden to the tunnel he has had constructed under the Rochester High Road. The tunnel leads to a piece of property he owns, where a Swiss chalet stands. His family calls his retreat “The Wilderness.”
The chalet is a small, two-story structure with an outside stairway given to him in 1864 as a Christmas gift (in fifty-eight boxes!) by Charles Fechter, a French-born actor and regular Sunday visitor to Gad’s Hill, and it is on the chalet’s second floor that Dickens writes in fair weather. Before settling in, though, he looks over his desk to be certain everything is in its place—the goose quill pens and his blue ink; sheets of blue-gray paper 8 ¾ inches by 7 ¼ inches; the bronze statue of two toads dueling; a small china monkey; a paper knife; a gilt leaf with a rabbit on it. These are the things his eye rests familiarly upon in moments of contemplation. His crystal carafe of water sits at his elbow. He sets to work.
Kate, his married daughter, is returning to London and, knowing her father’s distaste for farewells, originally plans to leave without seeing him. Such a cold good-bye does not feel right on this day, however. The night before, she had sat up late with her father, and feels uneasy at a remark he made. In their conversation he said he hoped he would be able to finish his new book. Hoped. So, she makes her way through the garden tunnel to the chalet and climbs the staircase. Instead of his usual brief farewell, her father rises and embraces her. She leaves and Dickens returns to Edwin Drood.
Dickens follows his usual work schedule the next day, Tuesday. He writes until one then lunches in the main house. Instead of the accustomed three-hour-long walk he previously took in better days to fill up the time between his writing and dinner, he rides in a carriage to nearby Cobham Wood with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and they take a much briefer walk.
The next day, the final day on which Dickens would ever write a word, he deviates from his schedule. He writes until one, but after lunch smokes a cigar in his study, no doubt contemplating where to take the plot of his story. Then he goes back to the chalet and writes through the afternoon until nearly five. He throws down his quill just after Datchery, a mysterious character newly introduced to the tale, learns something which pleases him to excess. Datchery marks a strange chalk tally on his door, orders a meal, and “falls to with an appetite.”
Dickens returns to the house, and though he feels ill, he writes two letters. In one letter he promises to see his correspondent, a Charles Kent, in London the next day at three—no doubt after a morning’s work. He writes, though, “If I can’t be—why, then I shan’t be.”
Only he and his sister-in-law, Georgina, dine at Gad's Hill that evening. When they come to the table, Georgina sees from his expression something is wrong. She asks whether he is ill. He says he is and has been for the past hour. He dismisses her suggestion of sending for Doctor Steele, the local doctor, saying he plans on traveling to London after dinner.
Then it happens.
Georgina watches him struggle with something sweeping over him. He speaks incoherently and indistinctly. She rises from her chair and goes to help him, saying he should lie down, but he is struggling, wavering, and he is too heavy for her.
"Yes," he says. "On the ground." He collapses.
Doctors are summoned, one local, Doctor Steels; one a friend, Dr. Frank Beard, who arrived from London; and one, a noted physician also from London, who arrives the next day. The prognosis of each is the same. He cannot live. Dickens lingers some twenty-four hours lying on a sofa brought into the dining room where he collapsed, his loud, heavy breathing no doubt chilling those who gather at his side hoping to see his eyes open, hoping to detect some movement, anything to indicate his return to them.
At six o’clock in the evening on the day after his collapse, Dickens’ breathing quiets. As the gathered mourners watch, a tear wells up in Dickens’ right eye and rolls gently down his cheek. He heaves a deep sigh and breathes no more.
And so history proclaims that on Thursday, June 9, 1870, England’s greatest novelist died of a cerebral hemorrhage. History is wrong. June 9, 1870 is the day on which Emile de la Rue murdered Charles Dickens.
Buffalo Branch of The Dickens Fellowship
After receiving your e-mail I ordered your book through Barnes & Noble. I must say that the review you attached is correct and its enthusiasm well-deserved. I was especially impressed by your portraits of the last days of Dickens and of his friend John Forster. The way you have dovetailed the mesmerism/De La Rue incidents of the 1840s with THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and Dickens' debilitations in his final months is masterful. The murder mystery plot captured both my wife's and my keen interest. And yes, it's a fine "page turner." I will certainly bring it to the attention of our members in the Buffalo Branch of the Dickens Fellowship. Congratulations on a fine work of fiction.
Boston Branch of The Dickens Fellowship
The Mystery of Charles Dickens was a page turner!!!! I was so sorry that it ended. Great character sketches drawn. There is a waiting list in The Dickens Fellowship in Boston to read this story!!! I will just tell them to wait until I get the ok from you to distribute this Dickensian master-plot!!! Such fine details expressed from the Palaces in Italy to the very wardrobe that Dickens wore. It was as if someone were following Charles and taking notes of all the goings on. A fast read and, of course, I could not put it down.
Buffalo and Boston Branches of The Dickens Fellowship