8th June, 1870: After spending most of the day working on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens comes down to dinner looking weary, ‘his eyes full of tears.’ Noticing that Dickens is unusually pale, his dinner companion, Georgina Hogarth, asks him what’s wrong. Dickens replies that he has been ‘very ill for the last hour’; Georgina Hogarth tells him he should lie down. ‘Yes,’ Dickens says, ‘on the ground.’ Within minutes, he has suffered a stroke; within a day, without regaining consciousness, he will be dead. The manuscript of Edwin Drood remains abandoned in the author’s study (for the moment at least), never to be finished.
Dickens’ death wasn’t entirely unexpected: he had made a ‘last revision’ of his will the previous week, and seemed to doubt that he would live long enough to complete Edwin Drood. Nevertheless, it’s haunting to imagine him setting aside the manuscript on 8th June fully expecting to resume work the next morning, not realising that he had already written his last sentence. The words ‘last sentence’ are chilling, but everyone will write their last sentence at some point — perhaps we expect to go out at the top of our abilities, neatly summing up a life’s work at the foot of our final page. The truth, as Eliot anticipated, is that the world tends to end ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’ Dickens’ last sentence(s) went like this:
Mrs. Tope’s care has spread a very neat, clean breakfast ready for her lodger. Before sitting down to it, he opens his corner- cupboard door; takes his bit of chalk from its shelf; adds one thick line to the score, extending from the top of the cupboard door to the bottom; and then falls to with an appetite.
Few writers have the foresight (or would want the foresight) to control what they put in their final pages. Gogol’s Dead Souls and Shelley’s poem The Triumph of Life both break off mid-sentence, while many of Kafka’s works were left unfinished (and all were supposed to be destroyed after his death). An article by Sean French in The New Statesman discusses (alongside Dickens’ lines) the hideously poignant final entry in Anne Frank’s Diary, which requires no further comment:
I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if… if only there were no other people in the world.
When Nabokov’s unfinished The Original of Laura was published in 2009, the last page — a list of synonyms hastily scribbled on an index card — seemed to mock its famously controlling author, who once described his characters as ‘galley slaves’:
Nabokov had previously suggested, in a lecture on Jekyll and Hyde, that ‘books have their destiny… and sometimes the destinies of authors follow their books.’ He alludes to Robert Louis Stevenson dying in Samoa, screaming out to his wife, ‘What’s the matter with me, what is this strangeness, has my face changed?’ The connection between the death of the author and his most widely-read work, in which Doctor Jekyll changes into the abhorrent Mr. Hyde, is clear, as is the connection between Tolstoy’s death at Astapovo train station and the more violent death of Anna Karenina.
More often, there’s no obvious link, no line to underscore a life’s work, and anyone wishing to attach particular importance to a last line will be disappointed. The final paragraph of Edwin Drood is a banal non-event — understandably so, given that Dickens didn’t have time to go back and revise his work. Unfinished works are typically abandoned at the first-draft stage, one of the primary reasons that the ‘posthumous masterpieces’ unearthed by avaricious publishers (Nabokov’s Original of Laura is a prominent example) so often fail to live up to the hype.
Writing is, in most cases, a job for life: there’s no retirement, and when the last line has finally been written, it’s likely that all of us will leave a manuscript behind on the study desk (or, abandoning nineteenth-century delusions of grandeur, leave a document behind on Microsoft Word), forever waiting in vain to be completed.