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The Mystery of Charles Dickens: A Tale of Mesmerism and Murder

By John Paulits

The Mystery of Charles Dickens

A Tale of
Mesmerism and Murder

A novel exerpt

John Paulits


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 Steele; one a friend, Dr. Frank Beard, who arrives from London; and one a noted physician also from London, Dr. Russell Reynolds, 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.

How can I claim such a thing?

The following narrative is based primarily on two pieces of evidence I uncovered writing my own biography of Dickens. John Forster, Dickens' best friend and first biographer, provided me with the initial inkling of this story when I went through some boxes of Forster's original papers which, clearly, no one had inspected with any great care. The short manuscript I found told a story dictated to him by Dickens -- a story which never made it into Forster's biography. Perhaps Forster feared that including such a fantastic tale would damage his credibility. More likely, after Dickens' death he had no way to corroborate the story's claims. At any rate, he kept it secret. The manuscript told the story of the ghost which haunted both Augusta de la Rue and Charles Dickens.

I had no way to confirm the story either, so taking my cue from Forster, I left it out of my biography. But the shocking news in Forster's notes ate at me -- became a ghost to me also you might say. I began digging.

After a near twenty-month investigation, I managed to find a descendant of the de la Rues living in Italy -- Genoa to be precise -- a very old woman -- a cousin, once removed, of a great-granddaughter. To make a long story short, she let me inspect her attic, home to the family records.

Beneath some moldering nineteenth century business documents, I found a diary kept by Emile de la Rue in flawless English, detailing his relationship with Charles Dickens.

De la Rue began the diary in 1844 on the day he first met Dickens in Italy and put it aside when Dickens left Italy in the late spring of 1845. The diary started up again in 1869 when de la Rue met Dickens in London at the Athenaeum Club and continued until Dickens' death.

What Emile de la Rue wrote seemed impossible, but I knew he told the truth since not only did the diary confirm the information in Forster's manuscript, it took the story to lengths unknown to Forster.

Everything you are going to read is based on de la Rue's diary, Forster's suppressed notes, or my own research. It is quite a tale.

First edition published in 2012

© Copyright 2012

Paperback ISBN 9781780921778

ePub ISBN 9781780921785

PDF ISBN 9781780921792

Published in the UK by MX Publishing
335 Princess Park Manor, Royal Drive,
London, N11 3GX


Article © John Paulits. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-06-11
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