The Great Charles Dickens Scandal
by Michael Slater
Yale University Press, $30.00, 224 pages
Michael Slater, Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of the acclaimed Charles Dickens (2009), has written a literary detective story in meticulous and wry fashion, so meticulous that at first I was a bit confused by the names of all the writers, dates, and publications involved, but so wry in his humorous asides that he won me over and, after my initial frustration, I finished the book quickly, putting off other things I should have been doing.
It seems that in the late 1850s, when Dickens was at the height of his fame, he grew disenchanted, somewhat with his ten children, but especially with his aging wife, who was also gaining weight, and became enamored with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. At some point, Dickens gave Ternan, known as “Nelly,” a brooch or bracelet that was later broken, repaired, but returned to Dicken’s house where Catherine Dickens, nee Hogarth, discovered it. Catherine Dickens was, understandably, “not impressed,” as the current saying goes, and soon Dickens forced her to move from “his” house.
Against the advice of friends, he published two letters to defend his actions in the press, in order to keep his readership, but according to Slater, the letters just muddied the waters. After 1858, Dickens never lived with his wife again, and there is much evidence that he kept a variety of residences, one or two in France for a time, where he visited Ternan frequently during the last twelve years of his life. He appears to have been rather petty at times in resenting his children visiting their mother—he ostensibly lived full time with them, helped by Catherine’s sister, Georgina, (cue, raised eyebrows)—and according to another recently released book, Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, was also in other ways not a great father, loving his children as long as they were children but, psychologically at least, casting them off when they reached adolescence.
After his death, Ellen Ternan, representing herself as ten years younger than she was, married a schoolmaster and had a son, George. Years later, according to one source, this son confronted Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles’s most successful, in worldly terms, son, and asked him if his mother had been the mistress of Charles Dickens. “Unfortunately yes,” was the reply.
That is what Gladys Storey, O.B.E., one of the many Dickens detectives Slater presents herein, said, and she got it from Kate Perugini, Dickens’s second daughter. Storey also wrote, in her notes, that a child from Dickens’s union with Ternan died as an infant, and many have conjectured that Ternan went to France to have the baby. But others, among them Peter Ackroyd, who wrote the definitive biography of Dickens before Slater did, argues that Dickens was an odd duck, so odd that he might have set up a quasi-marriage with Ternan who was for him a virgin bride.
Thus in Slater’s book a Rashomon of critical and biographical opinions and feuds confronts the reader. And there is no smoking gun, so far at any rate, no proof one way or the other, although Dickens’s latest biographer, Claire Tomalin, concluded that it was “most likely” that Dickens and Ternan were lovers. Slater writes, “I would guess that the number of those who still believe that Dickens’s relationship with Ellen was indeed Platonic is not large.”
In the epilogue to his book, “Will We Ever Know?” Slater says in one way it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t think we can say more than that they were probably lovers, and might have had a child who died in infancy. How long were they lovers, were there any other children? Slater says,
these are questions unlikely now ever to be resolved. But even if they were to be, the Great Charles Dickens Scandal would, I believe, lose none of its interest for the media and for the public at large, since one of the main things that Dickens still represents in our culture is an ideal of perfect, blissful, quintessentially English, domesticity.
This is fascinating stuff, but does it matter to the reader of his novels even if all the allegations could be proven? Or not? Who cares if Dickens had a mistress, if, despite his hypocrisy, he produced some of the best and best-loved novels in the English-speaking world? For my part, it does matter—I don’t think I would have wanted to be his friend–but not enough to keep me from reading, as he has been truthfully called more than once, the Shakespeare of novelists.