This is the Year of Dickens and you might think by now that you are Dickensed out and that there is nothing left to say. Well, there might be for a while but pretty sure that sooner or later some scholar somewhere will unearth some intriguing bit of paper or document that will start us all off again.
The title The Great Charles Dickens Scandal is guaranteed to catch the eye, the main scandal in Dicken's life being his association with the actress, Ellen Ternan or Nell as he used to all her. And the thrust of this book by Michael Slater, author of a superb biography published a few years ago, is to trace this story and how it was suppressed for so long and how the truth finally emerged into the light of day. OK Famous Writer leaves Wife Takes Mistress - these days would not make an eyelid bat, but while Dickens was alive and for a long time after his death, a scandal surrounding the great man would have sullied his reputation for ever and, as Ellen had reinvented herself as a woman ten years younger than her actual age, married and had a son, it was vital that her story was kept secret. It is quite remarkable that it was only after her death that her son discovered his mother had been Dicken's mistress.
The rumour and gossip about Dickens and his relationship with Ellen Ternan started soon after he and his wife Catherine separated and really, it was Dickens who started it all off with a letter to The Times in which he denied all such wrongdoing, thus ensuring that most people who had never thought of this before certainly did now. Because Dickens was so famous and so revered his family, friends and supporters fought to maintain his reputation and to put these rumours to flight and this continued for some considerable time until a book was published, by Mills & Boon of all people, by one C E Bechofer Roberts in which a fictionalised love affair between Dickens and Ellen was the main subject. Shock horror "had he preached cannibalism" the author was purported to have said, it would have proved less shocking than the revelation that Dickens was a "man of the world". The Dickens Society rubbished the book and its allegations and Sir Henry Dickens, Charles's son threatened to horsewhip him.
Once the cork is out of the bottle it is very hard to put it back in and so it proved. As the years went by more and more research and digging was done, more witnesses came forward and it gradually became impossible to cover up the fact that not only was Dickens not the paternal kindly paterfamilias so beloved of Victorian society, but he was an adulterer to boot and he had tried to cover it up all his life in order to maintain his spotless reputation.
The author of this fascinating book mentions, once again, to my joy, the episode when Dickens entered a draper's shop in Hull to buy some silk stockings and the young draper wondered who they could be for. The young assistant, a fan of Dickens, was given a ticket to Dicken's reading that night. He had not recognised the author and found himself sitting amongst the best seats on the stage and that Dickens read from what he, the draper, had told him earlier in the day were his favourite pieces of his writing. That young man was Edward Simpson-Long, my great great (not sure how many greats) grandfather and this story has been passed down through the generations. It is a tenuous link, I know, but as I love Dickens and his writing, it is one which gives me great pride, slight though it may be. And I know I have mentioned this before, so my apologies.
Michael Slater works though all the evidence produced over the years by various writers and scholars, some of which can be dismissed as flimsy at best, but there is a solid body of writing about this aspect of the Inimitable's life over the last twenty twenty years or so. Peter Ackroyd in his 1990 biography holds that a 'consummated affair' between Nelly and Dickens is 'almost inconcievable'. Claire Tomalin in her life of Nell The Invisible Woman takes the line that of course there was sex, though when reading this book I did feel that Nell was not really happy with this aspect of their relationship at all. Slater, in this fascinating book, and in his earlier biography does not come down on one side or another regarding the affair or not between Ellen and Dickens, but merely stating the facts that are indisputably known. He does predict that the story 'will run and run'.
And it will....
A mine of information and facts for all Dickens lovers from Michael Slater whose knowledge and expertise on all aspects of Dickens life never fails to amaze. His earlier biography which I reviewed here, has pride of place on my shelves.