The Great Charles Dickens Scandal Hardcover – Oct 8 2012
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About the Author
Michael Slater is emeritus professor of Victorian literature at Birkbeck College, University of London; past president of the International Dickens Fellowship and of the Dickens Society of America; and author of Charles Dickens. He lives in London.
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In "The Great Dickens Scandal" Slater presents a careful study of the affair Dickens engaged in with Ellen Ternan. Dickens was the father of 10 children married to Catherine Hogarth Dickens. Mrs. Dickens was fat and over 40 when the dashing Dickens acted in a Manchester 1857 theatrical production of "The Frozen Deep" penned by Wilkie Collins the author's close friend. Ellen was blond, bright, witty and had a lovely figure. She was in the acting profession along with her actress mother Florence. She had two siblings Fanny (who married Tom Trollope, novelist Anthony's brother) and Mamie. Dickens may have fathered a child by Ellen but whether the baby died at birth is up for speculation. Ellen may have given birth in France. Dickens kept up his relationship with her until his death in 1870. She may have been the thirteenth person preent at his internment at Westminster Abbey. She and Dickens were passengers on the wrecked Staplehurst train wreck on June 9, 1865 five years to the day prior to the author's death on June 9, 1870.
This book is a dry examination of the evidence on Dickens and Ellen's life culled from memoirs of the author's children, friends and literary scholars. Slater is to be commended for his outstanding research. However, the book would most appeal to Dickens scholars or someone very familiar with the life and works of Charles Dickens.
For the next 12 years, until his death in 1870, Dickens maintained a relationship with young Ellen Ternan. Exactly what that relationship was has never been truly determined, but it spawned a minor research industry that continues through today.
That research industry is the subject of Michael Slater’s “The Great Charles Dickens Scandal,” and it may tell us more about the generations that followed Dickens than it does about the man himself.
It’s a fascinating book.
Slater, Professor Emeritus of Victorian Literature and Fellow of Birkbeck College at the University of London, is well positioned to tackle the subject. His doctorate at Oxford was on Dickens’ The Chimes. He’s written an acclaimed biography of Dickens. He’s written several books on aspects of Dickens’ life and times, including Dickens on America and Americans (1970), “Dickens and Women” (1983), “The Genius of Dickens” (2011), and “Douglas Jerrold 1803-1857” (2002). He’s a past president of the International Dickens Fellowship and editor of its journal, The Dickensian. And he’s served as trustee and president of the Charles Dickens Museum in London.
The man knows his Dickens. What he explores in “The Great Charles Dickens Scandal” is what can never ultimately be known about Dickens and Ellen Ternan.
For decades after his death, Dickens’ children maintained something of an iron lock on what was written and known about their father. What began to break the story open was a novel published in 1929, entitled This Side Idolatry. It was written by a journalist for the Daily Express, Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts, and what he tripped over in his research was the possibility, or likelihood, that Ellen Ternan caused the breakdown in Dickens’ marriage.
Slater moves decade by decade, describing additional investigatory work by biographers, journalists, defenders and prosecutors, involving significant names in Britain’s literary establishment (including G.K. Chesterton, who was a Dickens defender). By the 1970s, Ellen Ternan starting receiving her due, particularly as a result of the growing popularity of feminist studies. Peter Ackroyd, author of a mammoth biography of Dickens, argued that the relationship was platonic, given Dickens’ own attitudes toward young women (and there’s precious little proof to the contrary).
Slater looks at all of the decades of work and research, and concludes that “the smoking gun” to prove Dickens and Ternan were physical lovers will likely never be found.
But, oh, what lengths people have gone to in the attempt to prove one thing or another.