Magazine article The Spectator

Flaws in Our National Treasure

Magazine article The Spectator

Flaws in Our National Treasure

Article excerpt

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal by Michael Slater Yale, £20, pp. 232, ISBN 9780300112191 Charles Dickens remains in his bicentennial year as much a national treasure as Shakespeare, and just as deeply embedded in the English psyche as the Bard, declares Michael Slater, an Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of London. Among the innumerable Victorians who sanctified domesticity, sentimentalised hearth and home and idealised family love, Dickens is especially conspicuous.

Few people nowadays know Coventry Patmore's Angel in the House, but many have seen depictions of Bob Cratchit's humble Christmas dinner in A Christmas Carol. Dickens's weekly magazine for the lower middle classes, Household Words, entrenched his reputation as the favourite storyteller of the 19th-century Englishspeaking world, and as an idealist serving humanity and battling social evils.

Yet the English like to stand on tiptoes, peer into secret compartments and catch their betters philandering. And so, beginning in his lifetime, and mounting to a fervent pitch in the last 80 years, there has been scrutiny of his relations, during the last 12 years of his life, with an intelligent, cultivated and pretty young actress called Ellen ('Nelly') Ternan.

Was Dickens's involvement with Ternan sexual or platonic? Claire Tomalin, whose 1990 biography of Ternan is a classic, concludes that they were sexual lovers. Slater suspects that Ternan gave birth in Paris in 1863 to Dickens's child, who swiftly died. Yet he is fair enough to give prominence to the opinion of Peter Ackroyd, who published a rousing biography of Dickens in 1990.

Ackroyd is an exceptional man who recognises exceptionality in others. He feels that it is 'almost inconceivable' that Dickens 'consummated' his love for Ternan, because she provided him with 'the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies', that of 'sexless marriage with a young, idealised virgin'. Ackroyd's idea is not dissimilar to the reality of Gore Vidal, who lived for 53 years with Howard Austen without once laying a finger on him, because he preferred Austen to serve as the fictive fantasy substitute for the dead love of his boyhood, Jimmy Trimble. Some authors find the most refined gratification in using their companions as symbols rather than as bed-mates.

The gossip started in 1858 when Dickens separated from his wife, Catherine, who had borne him seven sons and three daughters. He had been restive in his marriage for years, and the rumour-mongers originally targeted his wife's younger sister, Georgina, who stayed to manage the Dickens household after her sister left.

However, the real story involved Nelly Ternan, whom Dickens first met in 1857 through charity fund-raising amateur dramatics.

Slater analyses Dickens's marital breakdown as it was discussed in club gossip, by English and American newspapers, and other opinionated meddlers. He chronicles the novelist's fluctuating reputation in obituaries, biographies, reminiscences and academic criticism. He shows the distaste of Dickens's children at nosey biographers 'sniffing around'. He mines the sturdy volumes of Dickens correspondence, and has read every article in the long-running periodical The Dickensian. He traces Nelly's later life: she married, ran a boys' school in Margate, and survived until 1914. Some of the highpoints of Slater's story - the Staplehurst train crash from which Dickens and Ternan escaped with their lives, or the cottage at Slough where he lived under an alias - resemble chapter titles from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. …

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