These unfinished novels were penned by some of the world’s most famous authors, who died before they could complete their manuscripts. Some of these incomplete books had the potential to become masterpieces…unfortunately, we’ll never know exactly how their authors would’ve written the endings!
Sometimes an author’s own life story ends before they have a chance to finish telling their character’s. These thirteen tales were left incomplete at the time of their author’s death–sometimes because the author had set them aside for other pursuits, but sometimes because the author died in the very middle of a chapter. And while it’s tragic not to have their final words, in many ways these unfinished novels are a parting gift to readers, as well as an intimate look at the creative process of the authors we love and revere.
If you’re looking for endings, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that many of these incomplete novels have, actually, been finished–by friends, scholars, and fans of the original author. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether these additions are worthy. But in any case, we can respect the contributions made by the writers who picked up the pieces and brought these unfinished works to light.
2022 Classics Reading Challenge
If you’re following along with our 2022 Classics Reading Challenge (and it’s never too late to join!), March’s theme is “an unfinished classic.” One of the rules of the challenge is that all books must be written before 1970. Any of the books mentioned in the following post may be used for March’s theme, because even though some of them were published only recently, the original authors all began working on them before 1970! If multiple books on the list catch your eye, remember that some can be used for other categories this year. For instance, The Last Cavalier could count for April’s adventure novel theme, or Thrones, Dominations could count for September’s Inkling theme.
Unfinished Literary Classics by Famous Authors
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Many people aren’t aware that one of the oldest and most widely-known English texts is incomplete! Written in the late 1300s, The Canterbury Tales are a collection of twenty-four stories, framed as part of a storytelling competition by a group of travelers on a pilgrimage to visit Canterbury Cathedral. But the General Prologue of the Tales introduces more than twenty-four pilgrims, and indicates that each pilgrim is to narrate four stories–two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back.
In that case, The Canterbury Tales is less than half finished (and we’ll never know which pilgrim was going to win the contest!). Nevertheless, there’s still plenty here to enjoy…just not as a bedtime story for your kids–it’s bawdy.
Sanditon by Jane Austen
Jane Austen completed Persuasion in August of 1816, and in January of 1817 began working on Sanditon. She wrote throughout the winter, but her health declined sharply and on March 18 she officially stopped writing (she passed away on July 18). Sanditon was left with eleven complete chapters, and part of a twelfth. It’s unclear how long Austen intended the novel to be, or even where she was going with the plot. By comparison, Persuasion has twenty-four chapters, Northanger Abbey thirty-one, and her other novels have between forty-eight and sixty-one chapters. It seems that Sanditon is indeed just a fragment, albeit a promising one.
The setting of Sanditon is the eponymous seaside village in Sussex. It’s a quiet town, but Mr. Parker and his business partner Lady Denham plan to improve and modernize Sanditon with hopes of transforming it into a fashionable resort like Brighton. The Parkers invite Charlotte Heywood, the eldest daughter of a country gentleman, to Sanditon as their summer guest. Charlotte begins meeting the residents of the town, and…there the story ends.
Although Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included excerpts of Sanditon in his biography of Jane Austen, the complete text of the novel fragment was not published until 1925. Sanditon has been completed by various authors; for a publication history of these continuations and spin-offs, see this article on JASNA.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s almost finished unfinished novel! The book was serialized in monthly installments beginning in 1864. Gaskell died of a stroke in November of 1865, with only a chapter or two left to write. Thankfully, her intentions about the ending are clear–there’s no mystery to unravel here! But fans of Gaskell know how satisfying that ending would have been when the heroine and hero at last understand each other, especially if her earlier novel North and South is anything to go on!
Molly Gibson is the leading lady of Wives and Daughters. She lives happily with her widowed father until he takes a second wife and the tone of their home changes to accommodate her. Molly dislikes her stepmother, but finds a friend in her step sister Cynthia, in spite of the fact that the two young women have vastly different temperaments. Wives and Daughters is considered Gaskell’s masterpiece, in spite of being incomplete.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is one of the most tantalizing unfinished classics because not only is it an incomplete novel but an incomplete mystery novel! Working within the emerging detective fiction genre–pioneered in part by his friend Wilkie Collins with The Moonstone–Dickens began publishing installments of Drood in 1870. It had been five years since his last book, Our Mutual Friend, and readers were thrilled to get a new Dickens novel. The book centers around uncle and nephew John Jasper and Edwin Drood. Drood is engaged to marry Rosa Bud, but Jasper happens to be in love with her. When Drood vanishes under suspicious circumstances, it appears Jasper may have had something to do with it…
But readers never discover Jasper’s role, or even if Drood is dead or alive. Dickens himself died of a stroke on June 9, 1870 with only half the novel finished, and no outlines or written plans of how he intended the story to end. Only one person might have had the power to disclose the ending to a shocked and grieving public–Queen Victoria, one of Dickens’s lifelong fans. Just a few months earlier, the Queen had achieved her long-held wish of meeting Dickens in person, and at this meeting he offered to tell her the ending of his current novel. Queen Victoria, bless her heart, declined having the novel spoiled for her, and Dickens took the secret with him to his grave.
The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon by Alexandre Dumas
The discovery of this lost Dumas novel is like the stuff of fiction itself! Alexandre Dumas died in 1870, but it was not until 1990 that his last major work was brought to light. Just think of it! Makes you wonder what other lost stories are out there, waiting to be found.
The Last Cavalier was found by foremost Dumas scholar Claude Schopp, who discovered a reference to the novel and at last the novel itself, buried deep within the microfiches of the National Library in Paris. The work had been serialized in 1869 and amounted to about 900 pages, but lacked an ending. Over the next decade, Schopp found further parts of the lost novel, including mouse-chewed pages from a castle in the Czech Republic, previously unreachable behind the Iron Curtain. (For a more complete account of Schopp’s detective work, read this fascinating article.) At last the novel was published in 2005, with an English translation in 2007. Schopp decided to write a conclusion for the book based on what he could discern of the author’s intentions.
The Last Cavalier is an historical adventure novel set during the Napoleonic Empire, in which the hero Count Sainte Hermine is responsible for shooting Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar! The novel was the third in a trilogy, preceded by The Companions of Jehu and The Whites and the Blues.
Blind Love by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins’s last novel traces the moral decline of Lord Harry Norland, a member of an Irish secret society. Englishwoman Iris Henley is in love with Norland despite his reputation as a scoundrel. Taking place in rural Ireland, London, Paris, and Belgium, the story that unfolds is a sensation novel of crime and intrigue, played out by a cast full of the nuanced characters Collins was so skilled at creating.
Unlike the unknowable ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, we do know what Wilkie Collins had in mind for Blind Love. In 1889 Collins, on his sickbed, sent a letter to his friend Sir Walter Besant, asking if he would finish the novel for him. Besant agreed, and was soon mailed an extremely detailed guide of every scenario–and even important dialogues–that Collins had in mind. Besant completed the novel and published it the following year.
Weir of Hermiston by Robert Louis Stevenson
Although we have only about half a novel in Weir of Hermiston, the fragment is often regarded as Stevenson’s masterpiece. Set in the early 1800s, the protagonist of the novel is Archie Weir, a young man of a well-to-do Edinburgh family. His mother is pious and timid, whereas his father is a rough and severe man who serves as the Lord Justice Clerk–the most senior judge in Scotland. Archie has more affinity with his mother, and nurtures an increasing dislike of his father. When Archie publicly denounces his father, he is banished to the family’s property in remote Hermiston.
Stevenson was still writing Weir of Hermiston on the morning of his death in his beloved home on Samoa. He felt that it was his best work yet: “so good that it frightens me,” he said. On the evening of December 3,1894 he was attempting to cheer his wife, who had had a feeling of impending doom, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a few hours later.
The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. by Jack London
The Assassination Bureau is a thriller novel with a fascinating premise! Protagonist Ivan Dragomiloff is the founder of a secret organization that makes money assassinating evildoers in order to make the world a better place. But then Ivan finds himself to be the next target of the Bureau, and a cat-and-mouse game ensues.
Jack London began work on the novel in 1910, writing about 20,000 words before he abandoned it to work on other novels. London died in 1916; the book was completed and published by mystery writer Robert L. Fish in 1963.
The Ivory Tower by Henry James
An American by birth, Henry James nevertheless felt more affinity for Europe, where he spent much of his adult life and set many of his novels. James’s stories often feature young, innocent Americans who go to Europe and encounter an enticing world of beauty and corruption. But The Ivory Tower one-eighties this narrative by having European-raised protagonist Graham Fielder return to America, where he finds a predatory greed lurking beneath the lure of the fashionable rich.
Set initially in Newport, Rhode Island, The Ivory Tower was poised to be a sweeping critique of Gilded Age society. James planned for the novel to consist of ten books. His work on it stalled with the outbreak of World War I, and we’re left with an unfinished sentence in book four, chapter two. Henry James died of pneumonia on February 28, 1916. Besides the novel, we’re left with James’s rambling, stream-of-consciousness notes that he dictated, which provide a fascinating insight into his creative thought process.
Thrones, Dominations by Dorothy L. Sayers
Throughout several of her mystery novels, Dorothy L. Sayers had an ongoing romantic storyline between her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and novelist Harriet Vane. Thrones, Dominations was meant to take place when the couple are married and newly-returned from their honeymoon. The year is 1936, and Lord Peter is called in to investigate the death of beautiful Rosamund Harwell, found dead at her country retreat.
Sayers abandoned the novel, possibly due in part to the controversy surrounding Edward VIII and his relationship with Wallis Simpson. Her book explored the contrasting relationships of various married couples, and the current events of the day may have affected the novel’s reception. In any case, Sayers was ready to turn her attention to a work she felt was more important: writing commentary for and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
Set in the 1870s of Wharton’s childhood, The Buccaneers follows the fortunes of five ambitious American girls, all wealthy heiresses seeking the status of a European title to go with their money. (Or at least, that’s what their families want for them.) Reminiscent of a Henry James novel, the girls go to Europe and encounter the “Old World” aristocracy of the landed (but financially declining) gentry. Gradually the girls shed their innocence, becoming active players in the social game. Wharton died of a stroke in 1937, with her novel roughly two-thirds complete. The Buccaneers was published “as is” the following year. Following Wharton’s outline, Marion Mainwaring finished the novel in 1993.
The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Based on real-life people, The Last Tycoon is a story about old Hollywood. The book traces the life of workaholic film producer Monroe Stahr, who’s a loner despite being in the thick of the bustling Hollywood scene. Like The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s incomplete novel explores the theme of the American Dream, this time in the context of a looming World War II.
In 1940, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44 before he could complete the book. The story and manuscript notes were completed and published posthumously in 1941, and it was good enough that critics surmised it could’ve been Fitzgerald’s masterpiece if he had lived to complete it.
Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison published his first and only complete novel, Invisible Man, in 1952. The book painted a stirring portrait of the racial and social issues of early twentieth-century America, and it met with critical acclaim and an instant bestseller status. The public waited eagerly for the next novel from this previously-unknown author. But years past, and it never came. Ellison would continue working on his next novel for the rest of his life. He died in 1994, leaving a rambling 2,000-page manuscript written over the course of four decades.
In 1999, Ellison’s friend and biographer John F. Callahan edited and condensed the manuscript down to under 400 pages, publishing it under the title Juneteenth. Told in a series of flashbacks, it’s the story of two men: white Senator Adam Sunraider, formerly Bliss; and Alonzo Hickman, the black musician and preacher who raised him. For a fuller but less coherent compilation of Ellison’s original manuscript and notes, try Three Days Before the Shooting… published in 2010.
There are many more unfinished classics, major and minor, sprinkled across history for as long as people have been writing. Although it’s frustrating to read a book that has no ending, it highlights something unique about the relationship between a book and its reader: it’s interactive.
Even a finished book is not a static creation. Its impact and interpretation change with the culture and the individuals who read it. An unfinished book requires even deeper involvement, whether we choose to mentally (or literally) complete the story on our own, or