An ambitious first novel from short-fiction writer and editor Rackham—a multivoiced story of Charles Dickens’s long affair with actress Ellen Ternan—offers a saucily imagined but uneven view of life behind the screen of Victorian propriety. Dickens the man emerges as a tortured soul, racked by a guilt born of his awareness of himself as the conscience of England even as he seeks the unchaperoned company of the young, still childlike actress. But his relationship with his ever-larger and more bitter wife Catherine has soured beyond repair, and after moving her out of the house they share with their many children, Dickens turns to Ellen for solace. For a long while the solace doesn't involve sex, until Ellen's frustration at the state of things eventually brings them together in bed—but at first only in France. The voice of Ellen captures the hope and despair of subsequent events well, as she's denied a place by her lover's side while he tours America, which drives her into the arms of a bold Italian count who gets her pregnant. But the other voices speak with less substance, namely Catherine's sister Georgina, who is Dickens's indispensable housekeeper and secretly in love with him, and Wilkie Collins, mystery writer and bon vivant, whose friendship with Dickens does not survive the tragic turn of events.
A tale of initially great but subsequently diminished expectations.