In 1858, during the production of a play written by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Dckens met the veteran actress Frances Ternan and her two daughters, Maria and Ellen. That same year, he announced that he and his wife Catherine were separating, which was something of a sensation in Victorian Britain, involving as it did the most popular writer in the English language and a man associated with family values.
For the next 12 years, until his death in 1870, Dickens maintained a relationship with young Ellen Ternan. Exactly what that relationship was has never been truly determined, but it spawned a minor research industry that continues through today.
That research industry is the subject of Michael Slater’s The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, and it may tell us more about the generations that followed Dickens than it does about the man himself.
It’s a fascinating book.
Slater, Professor Emeritus of Victorian Literature and Fellow of Birkbeck College at the University of London, is well positioned to tackle the subject. His doctorate at Oxford was on Dickens’ The Chimes. He’s written an acclaimed biography of Dickens. He’s written several books on aspects of Dickens’ life and times, including Dickens on America and Americans (1970), Dickens and Women (1983), The Genius of Dickens (2011), and Douglas Jerrold 1803-1857 (2002). He’s a past president of the International Dickens Fellowship and editor of its journal, The Dickensian. And he’s served as trustee and president of the Charles Dickens Museum in London.
The man knows his Dickens. What he explores in The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, published in 2012), is what can never ultimately be known about Dickens and Ellen Ternan.
For decades after his death, Dickens’ children maintained something of an iron lock on what was written and known about their father. What began to break the story open was a novel published in 1929, entitled This Side Idolatry. It was written by a journalist for the Daily Express, Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts, and what he tripped over in his research was the possibility, or likelihood, that Ellen Ternan caused the breakdown in Dickens’ marriage.
Slater moves decade by decade, describing additional investigatory work by biographers, journalists, defenders and prosecutors, involving significant names in Britain’s literary establishment (including G.K. Chesterton, who was a Dickens defender). By the 1970s, Ellen Ternan starting receiving her due, particularly as a result of the growing popularity of feminist studies. Peter Ackroyd, author of a mammoth biography of Dickens, argued that the relationship was platonic, given Dickens’ own attitudes toward young women (and there’s precious little proof to the contrary).
Slater looks at all of the decades of work and research, and concludes that “the smoking gun” to prove Dickens and Ternan were physical lovers will likely never be found.
Related: Finding "The Genius of Dickens' at the Charles Dickens House.