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Household Words

The Complicated Domestic Life of Charles Dickens

No writer has ever been as uncritically beloved as Dickens was in his lifetime. At his death in 1870, he was extolled as the inimitable hero of the Victorian age. Philanthropist, performer, patriarch, he seemed the embodiment of the Victorian domestic virtues of family, hearth, and home. This sunny view persisted well into the twentieth century. And yet three new books, among the many by-products of the Dickens Bicentenary of 2012, show just how much our conception of the great writer has changed. The Dickens of these books is a flawed, divided, secretive literary genius. Today, of course, we assume all great men have dark sexual secrets. Moreover, the image of Victorian fiction has shifted, too. Once a byword for the respectable, earnest, and dull, “Victorian” is now almost a synonym for decadent, erotic, and sensational. In the contexts of neo-Victorian fiction about lesbianism, prostitution, and serial killers, the old Christmassy Dickens seems a little weird, but the new illicit Dickens is a man for all seasons.

To be sure, the first biography of Dickens was not about all happy times. John Forster’s classic text, the first volume of which appeared in 1871, revealed Dickens’s childhood labor in the blacking factory, when his father was arrested for debt. Dickens’s fears of being buried forever in drudgery and shame haunted him all his life, and the Marshalsea prison, Dickens’s personal Bastille, represented a life of ignominy, violence, and crime that he would compulsively revisit in his books.

But Forster only briefly mentioned the much more shocking contemporary scandal of Dickens’s separation from his wife, Catherine, the mother of his nine living children, and his decision to install her sister Georgina as his housekeeper. In a famous statement that he allowed to be released to the newspapers in August 1858, Dickens explained that “Mrs Dickens and I have lived unhappily together for many years. Hardly any one who has known us intimately can fail to have known that we are, in all respects of character and temperament, wonderfully unsuited to each other.” He hinted that Catherine was mentally unbalanced, and unable to care for her own children. Rampant gossip and speculation about his ungentlemanly behavior followed, especially in the United States, where libel laws were not as strict. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper wryly observed, “It is to be regretted that after having endured his wife for twenty-five years, he could not hold on a little longer.” Catherine “had a tendency to corpulency,” they suggested, “which is very disgusting to a man of elegant tastes.”

But only his most intimate circle knew that Dickens had fallen in love with an actress named Ellen Lawless Ternan, who was eighteen years old, the same age as his youngest daughter. For twelve years, until his death, he provided housing for Nelly and her family, and saw her secretly. In 1858, he insisted that “there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady. I know her to be innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters.” Dickens’s family, and his devoted supporters in the Dickens Fellowship and The Dickensian magazine, deflected and denied any rumors about his private life, and kept them out of the press for decades.

But in 1933 Dickens’s last surviving child, Henry, died in an accident, and a flood of memoirs and scholarly analyses investigating the relationship with Nelly Ternan quickly followed. In addition to what Michael Slater calls the “Marplish” sleuthing of amateur Dickensians, Ada Nisbet, a professor at UCLA, used infrared photography to reveal deleted instructions about care and payments to Nelly in Dickens’s letters to his agent. But most Dickens specialists could not bring themselves to believe that Dickens and Ternan had actually been lovers. Convinced by Freudian interpretations of Dickens’s lifelong adoration of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died at seventeeen, and by literary arguments about the child-women in the novels, they were sure that his dominant fantasy, as Peter Ackroyd wrote, was of a “sexless marriage with a young, idealized virgin.”

In the past twenty-five years, this view has been gradually abandoned, chiefly due to the ingenious and persuasive research of Claire Tomalin. In 1990, Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, argued persuasively, by setting out dates of Dickens’s mysterious absences, that they had been lovers. Highly controversial when it first appeared, Tomalin’s view of Dickens is now the standard one, and the center of her acclaimed biography of the writer that appeared last year. Now all three of these new books concede that Nelly was Dickens’s mistress, and they are also all convinced of Tomalin’s most radical conjecture—that in 1863 Nelly bore a son who died in infancy.

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal (Yale University Press, 215 pp., $30), by Michael Slater, is primarily a work of cultural history, and the best place to begin. Slater traces the meta-story of the Nelly Ternan scandal from its beginnings in 1857–1858 to the present day, showing how each generation confronted the story in terms of its emotional connection with the Dickens myth, with the methods of modern detection, and with first a post-Freudian, and then a post-modern understanding of personality. You don’t need to know the fiction to enjoy Slater’s zesty account of the life. Slater doesn’t speculate on the larger cultural reasons for the change, except the universal love of scandal; but he is fascinating on the ways the scandal leaked out in the days before The National Enquirer or Heat.

In Great Expectations (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $25) Robert Gottlieb takes up the story of the Dickens children, seven sons and two daughters, about whom Dickens woefully observed: “You don’t know what it is to look round the table and see reflected from every seat at it … some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything.” Dickens’s conviction of his children’s “failed lives” contradicts the legend of his domestic saintliness. But as Gottlieb shows, the children were only a disappointment in the light of Dickens’s huge and impossible expectations for them. He mercilessly consigned the sons to careers in the colonies at a very young age. Charley and Henry, the sons who were allowed to stay in England, prospered; Charley even got to spend a few years at Eton before he was launched into business and publishing. But Charley eventually sided with his mother, and Dickens blackballed him at the Garrick Club. The others were sent off to struggle in Australia, or to join the Army or Navy, where Sydney and Walter died of sickness in service; while the extraordinary Frank started off apprenticed in India and ended up as a Canadian Mountie. Mamie and Katey, the daughters, had more conventional and relatively happy lives: Katey married twice, while Mamie’s great rebellion was to dye her hair blond. It was easier to be a daughter; less was expected. Indeed, Nelly was a surrogate daughter who could support herself as a working actress as well as a lover who could be the companion Dickens never found in his wife.

It is good to have an account of the Dickens children in one place, but Gottlieb lets Dickens off the hook in terms of his shipping the boys off as teen-agers, in ways that often sound like a more bourgeois version of the blacking factory. Although sympathetic, Gottlieb does not do much to bring the children to life. No reader can fail to pity the shy youngest son, Edward, always called Plorn, from whom Dickens parted emotionally but cleanly when he was only fifteen. Dickens wept at the separation but quickly rationalized his decision; and out of sight, his sons seemed out of mind. “These are hard, hard things,” he wrote of the sobbing Plorn, “but they might have to be done without means or influence, and then they would be far harder.” Plorn and his brothers await the treatment of a novelist like Peter Carey to tell their tale.

The third of these new books, Charles Dickens in Love (Pegasus, 440 pp., $29.95), is the long-awaited study by Robert Garnett, one of the most assiduous of the Dickens detective-scholars. Garnett spends half the book reconstructing the affair with Nelly, but he integrates the story with Dickens’s entire romantic history, with his unhappy marriage, and with the portrayal of women and sexuality in the novels. He quotes Katey on the impact on the children: “My father was like a madman when my mother left home. This affair brought out all that was worst—all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.” Following on Tomalin, Garnett’s research assembles a wealth of circumstantial evidence of how Dickens arranged lodging for Nelly; traveled regularly to see her, including a long sojourn in Paris; and was with her when she bore their son—what Gottlieb calls “the eleventh child,” in January 1863. The affair with Nelly, conducted “at a great cost of time, trouble, secrecy, and deception” was, in Garnett’s view, an affair of love, a redemption rather than an aberration. “If not a notably faithful husband, he proved a loyal and ardent lover, never swerving from his devotion to his beloved Nelly.” Garnett provides readings of the novels in which versions of Nelly appear, and Dickens’s increasing effort to find fictional techniques and plots in which to present adult sexuality in all its contradictions.

Charles Dickens in Love finally shows Dickens in three dimensions, as a man, as a lover, as a writer—and less the Inimitable Boz than a modern personality. Even the account of Nelly’s life after his early death shows her to have been more than a childlike innocent, and more intelligent and resourceful than we might suppose. Nelly married an Oxford-educated schoolmaster, lying about her past and claiming to be fourteen years younger than she was. She became a well-read, even intellectual woman, respected in her social circles, and a friend of Dickens’s sister-in-law Georgina. Indeed, Nelly carried off her deception so well that her son was devastated when he learned the truth about her after her death.

Of course, none of these revelations can explain Dickens’s extraordinary creative force. But they bring him into line with the other great heroically divided and self-destructive figures of the Victorian imagination, both fictional, such as Dr. Jekyll and Sherlock Holmes, and real, such as Oscar Wilde. The case of Charles Dickens is an extreme example of both our desire to know all the darkest details about the lives of our great heroes, and the conflicting need to deny and repress a truth which strips these colossal figures of their parental perfection, and shows them to have been merely human. This new Dickens is ready for his close-up in a biopic or a TV series; he is a hero whose hidden motives we can understand. But the teemingly inexhaustible richness of his life, his career, and his imaginative world promises that the story which has taken so long to tell is far from closed.

Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University.