Celebrity scandal, even scandal more than a century old, sells books. So when a world famous middle aged novelist, infatuated with a young actress not yet out of her teens, decides to separate from the wife with whom he’s fathered ten children, it is no surprise that literary scholars—not often privilege to best seller gold—have looked to mine the ore. By now the general story of Charles Dickens and his May/September affair with Ellen Ternan is well known, told, you would have thought, as thoroughly as possible given the care the principals took to keep it under wraps, in Claire Tomlin’s 1992 study of Ternan, The Invisible Woman. And you would have been right, Charles Dickens in Love, the latest addition to the canon by Robert Garnett adds little, if anything that is new.
Instead of focusing on the one great affair, Garnett embarks on a study of all of Dickens’ significant romantic attachments, which unsurprisingly perhaps doesn’t include the one woman he actually did marry. As Garnett would have it there were really only three women for whom Dickens formed a significant attachment. First there was the flirty Maria Beadnell, the young social butterfly he pursued unsuccessfully as a poor youthful court reporter. Then there was the sweet younger sister of his wife, Mary Hogarth, and finally the pretty young actress who graced his final years.
Not only were these the women that dominated Dickens’ emotional life, they were also important for the effect they had on the portrayal of the women in his fiction. “The earlier women he loved gave him models of the Coquette and the Virgin; his later novels probed the mysteries of Venus.” He points out how a character like the flighty Dora in David Copperfield seems based on Maria, while the sweet young Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist is modeled on Mary. He explains how the unfeeling Estella in Great Expectations, beautiful though she is, could not have been based on Ellen. The value of this kind of critical application of biographical information will of course depend on the reader’s aesthetic philosophy, but, if you find it useful, it does make all the emphasis on scandal more palatable.
Still, most of the book deals with the author’s attachments to these women biographically, and for the most part the information is already well known. His failure with Maria Beadnell seems to have troubled Dickens for years, only cured by her reappearance later in life as a simpering, chubby matron. That he never fully came to terms with the early and completely unexpected death of Mary Hogarth would seem a real possibility. For years she was his ideal of womanhood. For years, until Ellen Ternan—another beautiful young girl—showed up.
While Dickens affair with Ellen takes up most of the book, details are limited. If Dickens was reckless about his behavior, he was always somewhat circumspect. He tried his best to protect both their good names. Certainly some friends and close associates knew what was happening, but he avoided rubbing the public’s noses in his affair. He understood that as the great spokesman for Victorian family values, he had a reputation to protect. As did those around him: John Foster, his friend and first biographer, even after the author’s passing was careful to keep the scandal out of his book. His daughter Katherine expunged all reference to Ellen from his letters. Ellen, herself, had little to say about her relations with Dickens even though she had married, had children, and lived on up to the start of WW I. In the end, we just don’t know that much about the details of their relationship.
So, inevitably, much of what Garnett has to say is speculation, informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless. He suggests possibilities. Dickens may have done this; Ellen may have done that. He puts things in the form of questions. Citing some confusion about what a coded message from America might mean, he writes: “Was Ellen now being summoned to join him in America?” He doesn’t come right out and say it, but he invites you to think it might well be the case. It is a style of argument that is at best somewhat manipulative.