The Great Charles Dickens Scandal – Michael Slater

This is just the kind of book I love. Michael Slater is one of the foremost Dickens scholars in the world. His biography of Dickens was published a few years ago & I loved it. Slater brought something new to the life of Dickens by focusing on the journalism &, in so doing, broadened our idea of Dickens as a writer & a professional journalist & editor. This new book has a rather sensational title & vaudevillian cover but the content is serious, well-reasoned & very unsensational in its conclusions.

The great scandal of Dickens’s life was the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine. They had been married over 20 years, they had 10 children & Dickens’s image as a family man was a major part of his public persona. In 1858, Dickens separated from Catherine in a sudden & very cruel manner. He took all but one of the children to live with him & he never saw Catherine again. Dickens had met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, known as Nelly, while performing in a charity production of Wilkie Collins’s play, The Frozen Deep. Nelly was 17, Dickens was 45. He was immediately infatuated & seemed to see in Nelly all the qualities of innocence, beauty & purity that he had so admired in other young women in his past life & that he portrayed in many of his heroines in his fiction.

Dickens had had two experiences in his youth that had influenced him ever after. His first love was a young woman called Maria Beadnell. He was poor & unknown; she was capricious & her parents didn’t encourage her relationship with Dickens. She rejected him & he never forgot her. Then, after his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, her sister Mary came to live with the couple. Her sudden death one night after an evening at the theatre, shocked Dickens profoundly. He never forgot Mary & she became an idealized figure in his imagination. Catherine, meanwhile, must have found it difficult to live up to these ethereal images of womanhood. She seems to have been a kind, loving, not very intelligent woman who was almost constantly pregnant & gradually putting on weight with every year. She must have found it difficult to keep up with her dynamo of a husband with his restlessness & his great capacity for work. Dickens was the superstar of the age & news of the breakdown of his marriage caused a tremendous scandal.

When the scandal broke, Dickens took steps to try to contain the story. He allowed his close associate, W H Wills, to circulate the contents of a letter which detailed his unhappiness in his marriage & complained that he & Catherine had never been suited to each other & had never been happy. His vague comments about a young lady whose name has been coupled with his but who was as innocent & pure as his own daughters only fanned the flames of rumour. Most people seemed to believe that he was having an affair with Catherine’s sister, Georgina, who had lived with the family for years & had helped Catherine look after the household. Dickens’s warm comments about Georgina in the letter only encouraged this idea. Dickens then made the mistake of publishing an Personal Statement in The Times which only excited more gossip. The Statement vehemently denied the rumours without spelling them out so the many people who didn’t know about the scandal yet were mystified & eager to find out what it all meant.

In these last twelve years of Dickens’s life, he hid his relationship with Nelly so effectively that there is very little documentary proof of where they lived, if they lived together, how often they met. Scraps of evidence have come to light, including rate notices that show that Dickens paid the rates on a house in Slough where Nelly lived with her mother. He used several false names, including Charles Tringham. Nelly seems to have spent time in France & it was rumoured that she had a child there, who died young. Nelly & her mother were with Dickens on the train that crashed at Staplehurst in 1865. Dickens covered his tracks there as well & Nelly’s name was never mentioned in all the publicity about Dickens’s work on that day as he helped the wounded & comforted the dying. Nelly spent the rest of her life hiding her relationship from Dickens. She married & had children but they knew nothing about their mother’s relationship with Dickens until after her death.

Slater’s book really takes up the story after Dickens’s death with the attempts by scholars & biographers to discover the truth about Nelly. Dickens’s first biographer, John Forster, was a close friend &, although he certainly knew the truth, he did not reveal it in the book. Biographers were circumspect while Dickens’s children were alive. But, after the last survivors,  Kate & Henry died in the 1930s, the revelations began to be published. Kate had spoken to Gladys Storey, who published a book, Dickens & Daughter, which told the story of the child who died. Sir Henry Dickens & the Dickens Fellowship effectively stymied other writers by refusing permission to quote from family letters but the books & articles kept coming & the speculation about the relationship ranged from it being a chaste relationship to a torrid affair complete with scenes of anguish & torment.

Slater explores the gradual drip of information & speculation that reached its climax in 1990 with the publication of Claire Tomalin’s wonderful book, The Invisible Woman, which brought Nelly out from the shadows of the Dickens story. Tomalin’s book brought together all that was known about the affair & her interpretation of the facts where there was no hard evidence. The Great Charles Dickens Scandal is an absorbing account of the lengths Dickens & his family went to to hide Nelly & the equal lengths researchers went to after his death to find out about her. We probably know all there is to know now unless something sensational turns up like Dickens’s letters to or from Nelly or the birth certificate of the child that may have been born to them. Dickens destroyed so many letters & documents that it’s hard to believe that there’s anything left to find but a letter about his separation from Catherine was discovered just the other day so anything is possible. In this Dickens Bicentennial Year, this witty, intelligent, well-reasoned book should not be missed.

6 thoughts on “The Great Charles Dickens Scandal – Michael Slater

  1. I think I just came across this book this morning, but under another title! I hope it's the same one I put on library reserve, because after reading your review I especially want to read it.

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  2. I'm sure that his relationship with Catherine's sister Mary wasn't innocent either. He was so ghastly to his wife that I can't even stand to read any of his books. I read somewhere that Dickens was a wife beater too, poor Catherine.

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  3. This one should definitely be on your list Karen! I've made a slow start with Barnaby as I'm reading two other books at the same time but I hope to catch up over the weekend. I'd better catch up as the read along was my idea!

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  4. I've never heard the wife beater allegation before. His behaviour towards Catherine at the time of their seperation was dreadful & cruel but I try to seperate the man from his books.

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