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by Robert Garnett

Pub Date: Dec. 15th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60598-395-0
Publisher: Pegasus

A detailed and well-documented but limited account of the great loves of Charles Dickens (1812–1870).

In his debut, Garnett (English/Gettysburg Coll.) combines scholarly detective work, biographical criticism and imagination to show how Dickens’ three major romantic attachments would shape his life and art. The first was Maria Beadnell, the local rich girl who spurned him; on the rebound, he married Catherine Hogarth, who had nothing in common with him (except the 10 children she would go on to bear him). It was Catherine’s younger sister, the delicate Mary, who became his next obsession; her death at 17 made her, for Dickens, an immortal vision of angelic purity. Both Mary and Maria would appear in David Copperfield as the polar opposites of the title character’s love life. Garnett devotes most of his book to Dickens’ longtime affair with the young actress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, an open secret to his close intimates but one strenuously concealed from the Victorian world. Although the story has been told before, Garnett maps out this lengthy liaison in close detail, based on a mountain of circumstantial evidence from Dickens’ coded diaries, novels and whatever wasn’t censored from his surviving correspondence. Although the author makes a credible case that Ellen was the true love of the writer’s life, he doesn’t tell the whole story. Catherine is all but absent from the book, and Garnett says little about how Dickens’ selfish behavior throughout this episode would alienate his children.

A wealth of entertaining information in an ultimately incomplete account.