Readers' Guide: The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

The Last Dickens

by: Matthew Pearl

Category: FICTION
Guide Created By: JoanP
Discussion Leader(s): JoanP & Andy
Read our discussion of this book

Book DescriptionBook cover for The Last Dickens Matthew Pearl's historical literary fiction picks up where Dickens left off in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Tragically, Dickens' mystery is destined never to be truly solved, as Dickens died before he could finish this novel. All that he left are the clues that can be found in the completed chapters. Pearl sends a partner of Dickens' American publisher, James Osgood, to the Dickens' estate in England where we meet the "fugitives" from the characters of Dickens' novel. Is Edwin Drood dead or alive? Was he killed by his uncle, John Jasper? Or did he somehow escape that fate, possibly to return later? We are anticipating more intrigue as Pearl's fictional characters search for answers in the author's well-researched fiction.

Relevant Links

SeniorLearn Q&A with Author Matthew Pearl

19th c. publishing houses, including Fields and Osgood

Wikipedia article on James Osgood

NY Times article on failure of one of James Osgood's publishing companies (pdf document)

Matthew Pearl's interview at the Parker House in Boston (scroll down the page)

Article by Matthew Pearl about Dickens in America

"Interview" of Matthew Pearl by James Osgood (pdf document)

Facts behind characters and elements of THE LAST DICKENS

Related Background Images

Sears Building Elevator

Example of Dickens' Shorthand

Photo of Harvard Medical College

Harper Brothers Insignia and Motto

Photo of Dickens' Gadshill Estate, Kent

Questions for Consideration

Chapters 1-10, June, 1870

1. Were you surprised that the story opens in India, not London, and in the same month Dickens died? What is a dacoit? What do you know of opium or landanum use in the 19th century?

2. What makes the dark stranger stalking the boy stand out on the Boston dock? From his description, would he stand out anywhere? Do you see any connection between him and the theft in the opening chapter?

3. "Who could have told whether he had known ambition or disappointment?" Do you recognize this line Sylvanus Bendal reads in the bundle of paper he takes from the dying boy? Did he know what it was? Why would he take it?

4. Do you recognize any of the publishing houses in 19th c. New York and Boston? How can Fields, Osgood and Co. hope to compete with the powerful NY publishers at this time? How might the deaths of Daniel Sand and Charles Dickens affect the Boston publishers?

5. What does Daniel Sand's sister's situation reveal about the position of women in the late 19th century? Do you think conditions were the same in US and England? Why did Rebecca choose seek a job in publishing?

6. "What good is a mystery novel without the ending?" Do you agree that an ending must be found before publishing the unfinished novel? How do Osgood and Fields differ as to how Dickens intended to end his story?

7. How did it happen that Osgood, not Fields, would go to Enland to learn the intended end to Dickens' mystery as originally planned? Do you expect that Osgood will solve Dickens' mystery - or create one of his own?

8. Mysteries within mysteries. What do you see as the "mysteries" presented in these opening chapters? Do you think they are somehow related?

9. Why has Osgood been targeted by the diabolical figure? Is he "over the top"?

10. In this first Installment we have met a number of characters. Which do you suspect to hear more from in future chapters?

Chapters 11-17, November, 1867

1. Can you recall another author creating such rock star excitement as Dickens did in his American tour in 1867? Why was he here? Was this a book tour?

2. Have you ever read Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby? Did you notice William Thackeray's rhyme on Nickleby at the start of the Second Installment? Why do you think it was placed here?

3. Do you have any idea why Dickens receive such negative press, yet the public's adulation?

4. Did you notice that screw in Dickens' walking stick? Do you think it was common at this time to use walking sticks as weapons, or for protection?

5. Those Bookaneers again! Who were they? Did they really exist? Do you suspect the man described as George Washington was one of them?

6. Is Tom Branagan correct in warning the police to keep the female stalker away from Dickens, or do you think she's harmless? Did you notice something about the description of her eyes?

7. Why do you think the subject of mesmerism was brought up and then quickly dropped as the train jolted? Have you ever been hypnotized? How had the train wreck at Staplehurst in 1865 affected Dickens? Do you expect to hear more of mesmerism - and Staplehurst in upcoming chapters?

8. Are you familiar with the terms, "incubus" and "succubus"? The stalking woman refers to herself as an incubus. Why is this so odd? Do you think it is ominous?

9. What has happened to Dickens' diary? Could the incubus have learned anything of importance while she had it?

10. Do you think the incident with the lighting in the Tremont Temple was an accident? If not, who do you think would want to harm Dickens?

Chapters 18-22, Kent, 1870

1. How is John Forster, Dickens, friend, confidante and biographer portrayed here? Do Forster and Aunt Georgy differ on how Dickens intended to end his last novel? What did you think of Katie Collins' comment - that no one knows how Dickens would end his story because he didn't want anyone to know?

2. Were you surprised that Dickens' British publisher, Chapman & Hall had not investigated Dickens home at Gadshill, where he had been working on the sixth installment of his unfinished novel? What did you think of Chapman as a book publisher?

3. Why is James Osgood in such a rush to learn the ending that Dickens planned? What effect would his failure have on Fields and Osgood's authors if he doesn't?

4. Do you think the "few small gems" that Osgood and Rebecca were able to find were significant? Why is Rebecca interested in the books in Dickens' library?

5. What did they learn about the white-haired intruder? Had Dickens been really able to help this man at one time? What does he want from Osgood?

6. Did you find anything of interest in Dickens' will?.

7. How can the playwright, Walter Stephens, write a screenplay without an ending? Who does his character, Datchery, turn out to be? If you read Drood, do you agree with this conclusion?

8. Everyone in London has a flower in his coat - for Dickens? Why do you think Osgood's rescuer at the auction house is wearing an opium poppy? Who does he tell Osgood that he is? Why would Osgood agree to meet him at night?

9. Why does Frank Dickens suspect that the Bengali thief is hiding something else besides opium? Why was Dickens able to locate the thief when Turner and Mason failed? What did he find in Narain's remote village?

10. "Though I am the guide, it is not I who guides." What does Datchery mean as he leads Osgood to the Familiar opium den? Has Osgood been left for dead? Who was his assailant? And where is Datchery?

Chapters 23-26, Boston, Dec., 1867

1. Was Dickens fully aware of the dangers he would face on this American tour? If so, why would he risk his health and safety? What was the state of his health before he set out?

2. Considering his poor health and dread of train and water travel, why did Dickens jump off the paddleboat in the middle of winter to save the drowning livestock? What does this say about him?

3. What did Louisa Parr Barton want from Dickens? Do you think there really was such a person and was she as dangerous as Tom Branagan suspected?

4. Why did Dickens insist on visiting the medical college basement with Dr. Oliver Wendall Holmes to see the place where George Parkman's remains were found? Do you see a connection between this case and the next novel Dickens would write?

5. What was significant about William Godwin's novel that Poe described to Dickens about - in which he wrote the second half of Caleb Williams before writing the first part?

6. Did you note Dickens' dinner at the White House? What effect would President Johnson's impeachment trial have on Dickens' tour?

7. What is the promise Tom made about reading Dickens' next novel? Do you think we will see more of Tom Branagan?

8. Do you believe dreams predict the future? Does Dickens?

9. Tom sleeps in Dickens' bed to capture Mrs. Barton red-handed. What do you think of the whole chase scene with Mrs. Barton kidnapping Dickens? Has she really died?

10. How did Dickens' last visit to America affect the last years of his life? Was it worth it? What did he do with all those (tax-free) American dollars?

Chapters 27-29 ~ Kent, London ~ July. 1870

1. What had happened to James Osgood that night in Sally's opium den? Why was he taken to jail? Do you have any reason not to trust the respected Marcus Wakefield - other than the way he looks at Rebecca?

2. Given Dickens habit of using actual names and characters in his novels, is it far-fetched that he would include his neighbors in Kent and Rochester as he wrote his last novel?

3. How does the relationship between Eddie Trood and his uncle Nathan resemble or differ Edwin Drood and Jasper John? Why do you think Dickens would portray the relationship one way and Matthew another?

4. Why would do you think Dickens' last words would be to call for Forster, instead of Georgy, one of his daughters - or Ellen Ternan?

5. When you consider Dickens' interest in the George Hartman murder case and the incriminating forensic evidence when in America, do you think Dickens could have intended to reopen a real murder case in this novel?

6. Had Dickens actually hypnotized Datchery? Why did Osgood decide to give him another chance, even after Tom Branagan revealed his disguise?

7. Why does Datchery/Rogers believe that Osgood is in danger?

8. Does Yahee's revelation of Herman's childhood experience explain his cold-blooded behavior now? How would Dickens have veiwed this character? Why would Herman be following Osgood?

9. Do you think Dickens may have planned his Mystery of Edwin Drood backwards, with the second half in mind as he wrote the first six episodes? If he had actually written the second half first, where is it? Did he leave a clue with someone?

10. Why does the note that Forster received from Christie's Auction House cause Osgood to start packing to go home?

Chapters 30-39 ~ New York, Boston ~ July, 1870

1. Just how desperate is Harpers to learn Dickens' ending?

2. Do you think the Bookaneers are dangerous in their pursuit of Osgood? Do they know what it is they are looking for? Why is Jack Rogers in New York?

3. How many characters in both novels who were men who "only wanted to belong to a family?" What were their relationships with their fathers? Do you believe that Wakefield would have gone back to kill his own father?

4. What was Osgood's reaction to Tom Branagan's cable telling him what he found in Grunwald's lodgings?

5. Why is Dickens' ending and Osgood's discovery important to the Bengali smugglers?

6. How did Rebecca learn where Dickens was heading the night he left the Parker House back in 1867?

7. Which scenes did you consider the high points of the story as it unravelled in the basement of the Medical College? Which scenes did you most enjoy? Do you still have unanswered questions?

8. Can you describe how you felt as the precious pages covered with purple black ink fluttered down into the inferno? Has the author left us a glimmer of hope at the conclusion of the Fifth Installment that someone someday might be able to transcribe that last page?

Chapter 40/Historical Note

1. Do you agree with Longfellow, that it was for the best that the end of Dickens' story is not available?

2 .What did Longfellow mean when he said that "all proper books are unfinished"? "An unfinished Dickens novel is a mystery in itself." Do you agree?

3. If you could ask Dickens one question about his unfinished novel, what would it be?

4. Why would Chapman not come forward with the final chapters if he had been able to transcribe them?

5. Do you believe that Dickens did write the ending first and that the pages are waiting somewhere to be found? Were you expecting to hear more from Frank Dickens - who also knew the Gurney shorthand ?

6. When all is said and done, do you believe that Edwin Drood was murdered by his uncle?