The Great Charles Dickens Scandal

 Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens

I have been stumping around the country talking about Dickens in this bicentenary year; afterwards, I invite questions from the audience, and at some point, someone – usually a woman – will ask me how I can possibly admire a man who treated his wife so atrociously.

Eating humble pie on behalf of my hero, I admit that, yes, Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Catherine; he became surly and critical towards her, then, after 20 years of marriage and 10 children, and without informing her in advance, had the marital bedroom divided in two, soon after demanding, on no particular grounds, a legal separation from her.

She left the house, and he never saw her again as long as he lived. He wrote a baffling statement about the situation, which was printed in the Times and elsewhere, and another letter for private circulation in which he described her as an incompetent mother and possibly afflicted with some mental disorder. I confess, again on behalf of Dickens, that this letter is a disgraceful document.

I then note that nonetheless he gave her a house, a carriage and a substantial annual income of £600 to be continued as long as she lived, and that he encouraged their children to see her whenever they wanted to. I add that, despite his erratic and unkind behaviour, he didn't beat her or starve her; neither, as far as I or anyone else is aware, did he have any extramarital affairs before their separation. In other words, he behaved like many men who have fallen out of love with their wives, except that he was Charles Dickens and everything in his behaviour was proportionately magnified.

I rarely have the feeling that my questioner is satisfied by my reply; Dickens the domestic monster has become part of the intellectual landscape, along with some increasingly lurid speculations about his sex life. A hair-raising version of these is quoted by Michael Slater, at the beginning of his deliciously dry and compulsively readable new book: "Charles Dickens," wrote Victoria Coren in the Observer in 2005, "the man who committed what was in his lifetime considered incest with his wife's young sister. Poor Mrs Dickens was banished to a separate bedroom while her husband conducted many affairs, until finally he abandoned her and took their children with him. Nice guy." Apart from the banishment to a single bedroom, there is not a word of truth in any of this.

What happened, or as close to it as we will ever get, is laid out with characteristic meticulousness by Slater, the Dickens polymath whose Dickens and Women remains one of the most illuminating books on the infinitely complex personality of our greatest novelist. The Great Charles Dickens Scandal has the form of a detective story, carefully and with amused scepticism reprising all the evidence concerning the woman – not his sister-in-law – with whom he was involved until his death in 1870, Ellen Ternan. Dickens met the 17-year-old in January 1858; she was to take over a small part in his sensational production of The Frozen Deep, the Arctic melodrama Wilkie Collins had written for him. Dickens, it seems, instantly fell in love with Ternan. Meeting her sounded the death knell for his marriage; this is when he divided the marital bedroom in two.

After his separation from Catherine, and not, as far as we know, before, he pursued his relationship with Ternan, which (though again, there is no hard evidence) it seems safe to assume developed into a full affair. It was of the utmost importance to Dickens that no one should know of this relationship. He had a morbid dread of loosening the bond between himself and his readers, which he rightly saw as being "personally affectionate and like no other man's".

But it was more than that; it was the mainspring of his life, and he allowed nothing to imperil the relationship. He therefore set about, with all the vigour and ingenuity that was his to command, concealing the very existence of Ellen Ternan. Among his many precautionary measures, which included adopting aliases and inventing codes, he burnt all his papers, all his documents and every letter he had ever received. He knew that he was a symbolic figure for millions of people, and he was determined to protect them and himself from any uncomfortable facts.

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