Flaws in our national treasure

22 September 2012 9:00 AM

Charles Dickens remains in his bicentennial year as much a national treasure as Shakespeare, and just as deeply embedded in the English psyche as the Bard, declares Michael Slater, an Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of London. Among the innumerable Victorians who sanctified domesticity, sentimentalised hearth and home and idealised family love, Dickens is especially conspicuous.

Few people nowadays know Coventry Patmore’s Angel in the House, but many have seen depictions of Bob Cratchit’s humble Christmas dinner in A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s weekly magazine for the lower middle classes, Household Words, entrenched his reputation as the favourite storyteller of the 19th-century English-speaking world, and as an idealist serving humanity and battling social evils.

Yet the English like to stand on tiptoes, peer into secret compartments and catch their betters philandering. And so, beginning in his lifetime, and mounting to a fervent pitch in the last 80 years, there has been scrutiny of his relations, during the last 12 years of his life, with an intelligent, cultivated and pretty young actress called Ellen (‘Nelly’) Ternan.

Was Dickens’s involvement with Ternan sexual or platonic? Claire Tomalin, whose 1990 biography of Ternan is a classic, concludes that they were sexual lovers. Slater suspects that Ternan gave birth in Paris in 1863 to Dickens’s child, who swiftly died. Yet he is fair enough to give prominence to the opinion of Peter Ackroyd, who published a rousing biography of Dickens in 1990.

Ackroyd is an exceptional man who recognises exceptionality in others. He feels that it is ‘almost inconceivable’ that Dickens ‘consummated’ his love for Ternan, because she provided him with ‘the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies’, that of ‘sexless marriage with a young, idealised virgin’. Ackroyd’s idea is not dissimilar to the reality of Gore Vidal, who lived for 53 years with Howard Austen without once laying a finger on him, because he preferred Austen to serve as the fictive fantasy substitute for the dead love of his boyhood, Jimmy Trimble. Some authors find the most refined gratification in using their companions as symbols rather than as bed-mates.

The gossip started in 1858 when Dickens separated from his wife, Catherine, who had borne him seven sons and three daughters. He had been restive in his marriage for years, and the rumour-mongers originally targeted his wife’s younger sister, Georgina, who stayed to manage the

Dickens household after her sister left. However, the real story involved Nelly Ternan, whom Dickens first met in 1857 through charity fund-raising amateur dramatics.

Slater analyses Dickens’s marital breakdown as it was discussed in club gossip, by English and American newspapers, and other opinionated meddlers. He chronicles the novelist’s fluctuating reputation in obituaries, biographies, reminiscences and academic criticism. He shows the distaste of Dickens’s children at nosey biographers ‘sniffing around’. He mines the sturdy volumes of Dickens correspondence, and has read every article in the long-running periodical The Dickensian. He traces Nelly’s later life: she married, ran a boys’ school in Margate, and survived until 1914. Some of the highpoints of Slater’s story — the Staplehurst train crash from which Dickens and Ternan escaped with their lives, or the cottage at Slough where he lived under an alias — resemble chapter titles from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.

Dickens’s reputation took its first big knock in 1928 after the publication of a Mills & Boon novel entitled This Side Idolatry. Its author (a Daily Express journalist who had previously written a biography of Winston Churchill) focused on the novelist’s love-life in such a way as to justify a Daily Mail headline ‘Was Dickens a Hypocrite?’  A literary storm erupted: This Side Idolatry must be the only Mills & Boon novel to have been denounced in reviews by G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Priestley and Leonard Woolf. The novel was banned in municipal libraries in Dickens’s birthplace of Portsmouth until as recently as 2011.

A few years later, after the Daily Mail bought exclusive rights to Dickens’s unpublished Children’s New Testament, Lord Beaverbrook ran a spoiler story in the Daily Express headlined ‘The Private Life of Charles Dickens’ publicising the murky existence of Nelly Ternan. An Express contributor even suggested that Dickens’s sympathetic handling of the hypocrite, Pecksniff, suggested that he was a hypocrite himself.

Dickensians are as dogged as basset hounds as they track scents on trails and off. One of their finds is an obituary in the Hull Daily News of 1927 of a mercer who remembered that as a young man he had sold six pairs of ladies’ silk stockings to Dickens. This is the incident that led the Sun to report in 2011, ‘Dickens used his trips outside London to secretly buy his teen conquest saucy black underwear.’

As Dickens seems to have had assignations in France with Ternan, it is a pity that Dickensians do not investigate his curious friend Sir Joseph Oliffe, the physician at the British embassy in Paris, whom Slater mentions in passing. Oliffe was the model in Daudet’s novel The Nabob for Dr Robert Jenkins who supplied middle-aged men with ‘aphrodisiac pearls’ that served the purpose of Viagra. Their chief ingredient was arsenic: Oliffe’s patients, ‘saturated with arsenic like gluttonous mice insatiable for love’, wrote Daudet, ‘died standing like men of the world’.

Slater is pertinacious in his researches, and shows a dry, crackling humour well suited to over a century of squabbles between biographers, scholars, dotty enthusiasts and wildly irresponsible journalists. At times his book is little more than a documentary paperchase, with Slater cast as a painstaking office manager going through his files in search of a missing invoice. Despite the Slough love-nest and French rendezvouses, The Great Charles Dickens Scandal contains no moments of Ooh-la-la.