Dickens’ Faux Bookcase and “The Last Dickens”

Dickens' Dream by Robert William Buss, portraying Dickens at his desk at Gads Hill surrounded by many of his characters
Dickens’ Dream by Robert William Buss, portraying Dickens at his desk at Gads Hill surrounded by many of his characters

“The Last Dickens, A Novel,” by Matthew Pearl provides an exciting mystery which follows Dickens’ life and presents a compelling alternative ending to his unfinished masterpiece, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Pearl is known for his well-researched literary mysteries, including The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.

The novel flows effortlessly between two time frames, and describes Dickens’ last trek along the eastern seaboard from December 1868 until April 1868; alternating with the period immediately after his death on June 8, 1870. Both timelines relate tales of “bookaneers,” unsavory characters who take advantage of early U.S. copyright laws, and their fight to acquire books for publication without paying fees to authors. These presage Pearl’s latest novel, “The Last Bookaneer.”

The twisty mystery weaves its way through a complicated chase to find the missing Edwin Drood chapters, if they exist. The hunt makes its way through England, the U.S., and India, and describes members from all echelons of society, from the rich Harper brothers, founders of the American publishing company Harper Collins, to desperate opium growers in India.

Although murder and mayhem are the order of the day in the novel, the rich detail provides an interesting peek at the life and times of Dickens. For example, the novel mentions a secret bookcase door in Dickens’s study at Gad’s Hill Place. A quick search turned up the following images. The first shows the position of the door within the library; the second is a close-up of the door.

The study at Gad's Hill Place where Charles Dickens lived and died, near Rochester, Kent. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian Graham Turner/Guardian
The study at Gad’s Hill Place where Charles Dickens lived and died, near Rochester, Kent. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian Graham Turner/Guardian

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What makes this faux bookcase so much fun is that Dickens made up the book titles. His wit and style is readily apparent with book jackets displaying names like: History of a Short Chancery Suit in twenty-one volumes, Socrates on Wedlock, King Henry the Eighth’s Evidences of Christianity, and the series The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: I Ignorance, II Superstition, III The Block, IV The Stake, V The Rack, VI Dirt, and VII Disease. Alongside these was placed a very narrow dummy volume entitled The Virtues of Our Ancestors.”

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