The Mystery of Edwin Drood recently got a lot less mysterious. A BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens murder mystery that was unfinished on his death over 100 years ago, came complete with an ending supplied by the screenwriter. Dickens undoubtedly would have approved – while the serial publication of his novels during his lifetime impelled him to build in a series of strategic cliffhangers, it’s doubtful that he would have wanted the questions posed by this particular plot left dangling for a century.
But Edwin Drood’s consummation throws up a thornier question when it comes to unfinished works of art: should they be completed at all? Shouldn’t they rather be left untouched?
There’s a long and illustrious list of projects that have remained unfinished, owing to hubris, illness or untimely death, from the Tower of Babel to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Jane Austen’s Sanditon. They’re a literal manifestation of the interim quality that many artists feel about everything they produce.
Leonardo da Vinci asserted that “art is never finished, only abandoned,” leaving four of his 15 paintings incomplete. But the provisional, thwarted quality of the half-completed or the preliminarily-sketched, not only adds a layer of poignancy in the minds of viewers, but also provokes intense speculation as to how the summarily abandoned work would have been brought to fruition. It all speaks to a deep-seated human need, as the literary critic Frank Kermode wrote in his book The Sense of an Ending, to be placated with something wrapped up or polished off.
That need has brought forth an industry of posthumous polishers in recent years, particularly in the literary field – eager writers whose dotting of their illustrious forebears’ Is and crossing of Ts has seen them christened “continuators”.
Occasionally they can perform a valuable service – if Max Brod hadn’t organised and published his late friend Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, rather than burning them as Kafka stipulated, we wouldn’t have The Trial. And if David Foster Wallace’s editor David Pietsch hadn’t ploughed through and assembled the author’s thousands of posthumous papers, we wouldn’t have his incomplete but potent masterpiece The Pale King. But this is of a different order than extending the body of work of Austen or Dickens into tepid pastiche, despite their own definitive demise.
If you watched the BBC’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, you’ll finally know who did it. But as to how Dickens himself would have sewn things up? That remains unfinished business.