A noted Dickens scholar and biographer traces the story of Dickens’ relationship with young actress Nelly Ternan, an affair that has titillated Dickens fans and scholars since the mid 19th century.
Slater (Victorian Literature Emeritus/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; The Genius of Dickens, 2011, etc.) begins and ends with recent news and headlines related to the story—the story that, as the author shows convincingly, is not likely to go away soon. The two principal questions remain: Did Dickens and Ternan have a sexual relationship? Did she deliver Dickens’ child? Slater begins by sketching Dickens’ early romantic attachments and disappointments followed by his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, a marriage that by the late 1850s was essentially over. Dickens and his wife separated, and the story spread everywhere. One early (and false) story was that Dickens had become involved with his wife’s sister. But gradually, eyes turned to Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, a young woman in a family of actors who’d met Dickens in 1857 while performing with him in a play, The Frozen Deep. She was more than two decades younger than the phenomenally popular writer. A friendship and much more ensued. As Slater proceeds, he examines the Dickens-related biographies and scholarship and journalism to show us how each work portrayed the relationship and how each little documentary discovery prompted inference and theory. (Dickens and his heirs had done much to destroy and cover up; letters and other documents disappeared in flames.) Slater is evenhanded in his assessments and has solid praise for the work of Claire Tomalin, whose book The Invisible Woman (1991) first propelled the story toward a more general audience. Slater concludes: surely sex, probably no child.
A sexy story resting on a bed of comprehensive scholarship and pursued with Sherlock-ian imagination.