Don Juan by Lord Byron
Byron composed new instalments of his great mock-epic poem whenever he was inspired or angry or at a loose end without his mistress. Young Juan, his sexually irresistible adventurer, travelled from Spain to a harem in Constantinople to the court of Catherine the Great and then to England, where he was left in mid-episode when the poet died.
Woyzeck by Georg Büchner
The title of Büchner’s tragedy, whose protagonist is brutalised in the army and driven by jealousy to murder his mistress, was supplied by later editors. Büchner left four different versions of the play, all incomplete.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell’s novel was being published in the Cornhill Magazine when its author died in 1865. The journalist Frederick Greenwood stepped in to provide a conclusion. Some intriguing sexual entanglements in an English provincial town have to be unravelled, and Molly Gibson must surely be rewarded with marriage to the squire’s deserving son, Roger.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
It may be a magnum opus of 24 tales plus prologues, but it was intended to be even larger. There are 27 pilgrims described in the General Prologue, and each is supposed to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back. In the event Chaucer did not get a quarter of the way to his goal.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
If you’re going to leave a novel uncompleted, it is a good idea to announce it to be a “mystery”. Dickens’s final novel reached only the sixth of 12 instalments before its author died. Edwin Drood has disappeared, but how and why? We suppose that he has been murdered, and his guardian, the opium-taking John Jasper, looks a likely suspect . . .
Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
When Wollstonecraft died, days after giving birth to the daughter who would be Mary Shelley, she left this uncompleted novel. Its title sardonically echoes that of her own Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a pioneering work of feminist political theory. The heroine of Maria has been incarcerated in a lunatic asylum by her despotic husband. She writes an account of her cruel life, but does not get to complete her story.
“Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge was the master of the tantalising fragment, perhaps because of his drug addiction but also because he was always setting off on grand projects. This poem was inspired by opium but unfinished, claimed the poet, because its composition was interrupted by a “person from Porlock”.
Sanditon by Jane Austen
It is delicious agony to Janeites to wonder about the final shape of the novel whose 11 chapters she had completed when she died in 1817. Set in the bright, absurd new seaside resort of Sanditon, it promised to be a deadly satire of Regency follies.
Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert’s novel concerns two middle-aged Paris clerks who, when Bouvard inherits a small fortune, dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits. They wander through almost every science and discipline, bungling all the way. Only half the novel was completed.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
We are not used to thinking of Kafka’s most famous novel as incomplete because he gave it one of the most justly famous final chapters in all fiction. “‘Wie ein Hund,’ sagte er . . .” But in fact the novel was a collection of unfinished manuscript sections whose destruction Kafka ordered at his death.