In 1858, Charles Dickens the universally acknowledged pitchman for Victorian family values picked up and separated from the woman to whom he had been married for over 20 years, a woman who had borne him ten children, one of whom had died in infancy. Divorce unthinkable for a conventional 19th century gentleman, he set his wife up in an establishment of her own, made provision for her support and left her in the company of their oldest son. The rest of the children remained with him under the care of his sister-in-law Georgina who had been long been a member of the Dickens household and whose decision to stay with him rather than with her sister was cause for much scandalous gossip.
Scandal there was, but it appears that the gossips had it wrong. There was another woman, but it wasn’t the mild mannered Georgina. In 1857, Dickens and some friends had put together a theatrical production of The Frozen Depths, a play he had written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins to benefit the widow of author Douglas Jerrold. After some successful amateur performances, it was decided to take the production to a larger venue and to supplement the amateur actors with some professionals.
Frances Eleanor Ternan, an actress who had appeared with the great Macready was hired along with her two daughters, Maria and Ellen. Ellen, the younger, at 17 was just beginning to take on adult parts. A pretty young girl, she was just the thing to attract the attention of a man ready for what today would be called a mid-life crisis. And a year later, Dickens citing incompatibility put his wife out to pasture. The affair with Ellen was to continue for the rest of the author’s life, and become fodder for biographers, critics and scandal mongers ever since. There were those that accused and those that defended. There were those that refused to believe that their hero had feet of clay, and those that conjectured there were sins still to be discovered.
Indeed there has evolved over the years almost a Dickens scandal industry. It is the scholarly study of this industry that is the subject of Dickens scholar Michael Slater’s The Great Charles Dickens Scandal. While he does go over what is known and imagined about the events of the affair, his main interest is how the affair has been treated first by contemporaries of the author and then by the enthusiasts who came after.
He includes factual material like the public statements Dickens wrote defending the separation. He retells perhaps apocryphal stories like the oft repeated tale of Dickens’ first meeting with Ellen as she huddled behind some scenery backstage is despair and shame over her revealing costume. He discusses problems like the suggestion that Ellen may have given birth to a child or even two children who died in infancy, an accusation for which proof, other than circumstantial evidence of sorts, has never been found. In other words, this is the definitive study of everything that has been known and thought about the affair.
By way of example he talks at length about the somewhat dismal 1928 novel This Side Idolatry by journalist Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts which the author claims was intended at first as a biography and which focuses more than some on the long suffering Catherine Dickens. He talks about the dearth of information in the Edgar Johnson biography of the author, a book long thought to be the standard work on the author’s life. He discusses the work of actress Gladys Storey who befriended Dickens’ daughter, Kate and wrote a book called Dickens and Daughter which purports to tell the truth about the author as revealed by Kate.
That Dickens, perhaps the one man most responsible for the sentimental image of the family so often identified with the 19th century, should have behaved so hypocritically when it came to his own family, is one of the great ironies of his life. People, it turns out, were not much different back then than they are today with regard to preaching and practicing. Weak flesh needn’t negate positive values, even if it blackens reputations.