“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips whereI have opened my heart.” —Charles Dickens
When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he was the best-known man in the English-speaking world—the preeminent Victorian celebrity, universally mourned as both a noble spirit and the greatest of novelists. Yet when the first person named in his will turned out to be an unknown woman named Ellen Ternan, only a handful of people had any idea who she was. Of his romance with Ellen, Dickens had written, “it belongs to my life and probably will only die out of the same with the proprietor,” and so it was—until his death she remained the most important person in his life.
She was not the first woman who had fired his imagination. As a young man he had fallen deeply in love with a woman who “pervaded every chink and crevice” of his mind for three years, Maria Beadnell, and when she eventually jilted him he vowed that “I never can love any human creature but yourself.” A few years later he was stunned by the sudden death of his young sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, and worshiped her memory for the rest of his life. “I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed,” he declared, and when he died over thirty years later he was still wearing her ring.
Charles Dickens has no rival as the most fertile creative imagination since William Shakespeare, and no one influenced his imagination more powerfully than these three women, his muses and teachers in the school of love. Using hundreds of primary sources, Charles Dickens in Love narrates the story of the most intense romances of Dickens’s life and shows how his novels both testify to his own strongest affections and serve as memorials to the young women he loved all too well, if not always wisely.
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Charles Dickens In Love
By Robert Garnett
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Robert Garnett
All rights reserved.
No discourse, except it be of love
Charles Dickens first visited America in 1842. Not yet thirty when he landed in Boston, he was already famous for half a dozen novels, including the rambling Pickwick Papers, the melodrama Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the death of the girl heroine Little Nell had been a maudlin sensation in both Britain and America. Now America was eager to welcome him, and he in turn arrived with high expectations ...
... only to be disappointed. Americans were coarse, cocky, and money-loving; obtrusive, vain, and ignorant. He reported one of them boasting, "Our people don't think of poetry, sir. Dollars, banks, and cotton are our books"—and Dickens agreed: "They certainly are in one sense; for a lower average of general information than exists in this country on all other topics it would be very hard to find." American men chewed tobacco and spit everywhere, incessantly. In four months of touring, from Boston to St. Louis, he found little to admire, much to dislike.
Toward the end of his tour, however, he visited Niagara Falls, and, awed by "nature's greatest altar," he momentarily put aside the annoying Americans. He was seldom sensitive to the presence of the divine, in or out of church, but standing at the foot of the cataract he was moved by powerful intimations of the sacred. "It would be hard for a man to stand nearer God than he does there," he wrote to his close friend John Forster in England:
There was a bright rainbow at my feet; and from that I looked up to—great Heaven! to what a fall of bright green water! The broad, deep, mighty stream seems to die in the act of falling; and, from its unfathomable grave arises that tremendous ghost of spray and mist which is never laid, and has been haunting this place with the same dread solemnity—perhaps from the creation of the world.
In this sublime mood, and with the mighty falls suggesting both Death and Resurrection, his thoughts irresistibly turned to a beloved girl, Mary Hogarth.
His wife's younger sister, Mary Hogarth had died suddenly five years earlier, only seventeen, and since that stunning loss Dickens had revered her as his tutelary angel. In moments of deepest feeling, he sensed "the presence and influence of that spirit which directs my life, and through a heavy sorrow has pointed upwards with unchanging finger for more than four years past."
Now at Niagara Falls, Mary was vividly present, hovering in that "tremendous ghost of spray and mist" which haunted the falls with such "dread solemnity." "When I felt how near to my Creator I was standing," he wrote in American Notes, the travel book he wrote about his visit, "the first effect, and the enduring one—instant and lasting—of the tremendous spectacle was Peace. Peace of Mind, tranquillity, calm recollections of the Dead...." The rest of America was well forgotten, but at Niagara he stood on "Enchanted Ground," where the spirit of his beloved Mary was alive and spoke to him:
What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels' tears, the drops of many hues that showered around, and twined themselves about the gorgeous arches which the changing rainbows made!
Mary's grave was in Kensal Green Cemetery outside London, and from Niagara he wrote to his friend John Forster: "What would I give if the dear girl whose ashes lie in Kensal-green, had lived to come so far along with us—but she has been here many times, I doubt not, since her sweet face faded from my earthly sight."
Dickens survived Mary Hogarth by more than thirty years, and until he died his love for her was inseparable from his strongest religious feelings: indeed, she was his religion. Hers was the human face of perfect beatitude, and of his own ultimate longings: "peace of mind—tranquillity—great thoughts of eternal rest and happiness."
A quarter century later, he crossed the Atlantic again, this time to give a series of public readings from his works. During his reading tour, he took time out to make a second visit to Niagara Falls—the only spot he had visited in 1842 that he went out of his way to revisit in 1868. It was March; the upstate New York winter had been, as always, frigid and snowy; but as he traveled toward Niagara from Boston, giving readings in Syracuse and Rochester along the way, a rapid thaw dammed the rivers with ice and caused widespread flooding. Syracuse, he observed glumly, was "a very grim place in a heavy thaw, and a most depressing one." Niagara welcomed him with almost providentially fine weather, however. "We have had two brilliant sunny days at Niagara," he wrote to his daughter back in England, "and have seen that wonderful place under the finest circumstances."
Once again, Niagara stirred his deepest feelings; once again, he sensed the immediacy of God. From a vantage point above the falls:
All away to the horizon on our right was a wonderful confusion of bright green and white water. As we stood watching it with our faces to the top of the Falls, our backs were towards the sun. The majestic valley below the Falls, so seen through the vast cloud of spray, was made of rainbow. The high banks, the riven rocks, the forests, the bridge, the buildings, the air, the sky, were all made of rainbow. Nothing in Turner's finest water-colour drawings, done in his greatest day, is so ethereal, so imaginative, so gorgeous in colour, as what I then beheld. I seemed to be lifted from the earth and to be looking into Heaven.
As before, Niagara gave a glimpse of unearthly power and beauty, raising his soul to a higher pitch of awareness. And once again, he hinted to his friend Forster, the transcendent spectacle awakened him to Mary Hogarth's presence: "What I once said to you, as I witnessed the scene five and twenty years ago, all came back at the most affecting and sublime sight. The 'muddy vesture of our clay,' " he misquoted Shakespeare, "falls from us as we look." Though she had now been gone for more than thirty years, Dickens's most powerful emotions and most exalted, even mystical, aspirations still returned to his beloved Mary Hogarth. The spirit of the dead girl rose from the powerful torrent of water roaring down—"dying"—into the chasm, and the cascade itself suggested the rush of emotions evoked by Mary's ghostly presence. It was characteristic of Dickens to be so deeply moved by the thundering violence of the falls, and at the same time by a gentle, gently remembered girl.
His Niagara thoughts on this second visit were not entirely transcendent, however, nor was all his time spent "looking into Heaven." On the same day that he described the sublimity of the falls to Forster, he dispatched a packet to the sub-editor of his magazine All the Year Round in London, enclosing (as he cryptically put it) "another letter from the same to the same." The second "same," the recipient of the letter, was his mistress Ellen Ternan, whom he had been eager to bring with him to America but had reluctantly left behind.
Along with the letter for Ellen, he enclosed a "receipt for a small box from Niagara that is to come to the office addressed to me. Please pay all charges on it, and put it (unopened) in my office bedroom to await my coming." His confidant the sub-editor might have wondered about the exact contents of the mysterious package, but would scarcely have doubted that it was a gift for Ellen. Dickens liked to give her jewelry, in particular, and when not standing enraptured by the magnificent prospects at Niagara he had evidently found time to purchase a (probably not inexpensive) bijou. The spirit of Mary Hogarth, suspended in the mists, had encountered a rival in the warmly embodied Ellen Ternan. The two absent women both stirred his strongest emotions—but while Mary drew his thoughts upward, Ellen drew them down to earth, to the moment when, back in England, he could once again embrace her.
Thus the virgin icon and the mistress came together at Niagara Falls—and in this curious meeting, we glimpse some of the contradictions of Dickens in love.
Scarcely two years after this second visit to Niagara Falls, he was dead, buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey: near the grave of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose bones had lain beneath the Abbey floor for almost five hundred years; of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend and rival; of John Dryden, the first poet laureate; of John Gay, author of The Beggar's Opera; of Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century monarch of letters. A distinguished company of writers and poets—but none of his silent companions had possessed the fancy and fertility of Dickens. His only peer in that respect was the playwright buried in Stratford.
Three months before his death, Dickens had been honored by a private audience with Queen Victoria: a meeting, it was said, of the most famous woman and most famous man in England. For all his fame, however, and despite the distinction of Poets' Corner, he was buried quietly—indeed, secretly.
Two decades earlier, a million and a half spectators had crowded the streets of London for the Duke of Wellington's funeral procession. With six regiments of infantry, eight squadrons of cavalry, and seventeen rolling guns, the procession took two hours to file past. The duke's body was carried in an ornate eighteen- ton bronze carriage, twenty-seven feet long, drawn by twelve black draft horses; as many as eighteen thousand people jammed into St. Paul's for the service. Dickens had censured the gaudy spectacle: "the more truly great the man," he asserted, "the more truly little the ceremony."
His own body was smuggled into the Abbey surreptitiously, with only a dozen or so mourners and a handful of early-morning tourists in attendance. A plain, private service had been his own dictate, for he detested funeral ostentation; but the modesty of his funeral had a fitting symbolism as well, bringing his life full circle.
He had arrived in the world obscurely. His father had been an unimportant clerk in the Navy pay office; his father's parents had been servants. From modest circumstances, the Dickenses sank even lower, into bankruptcy and embarrassment. When Charles was twelve, his father was imprisoned for debt, and while his mother and younger siblings moved with him into debtors' prison in London, young Charles was sent to work in a shoe-blacking factory, "a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats." A bright, ambitious boy with hopes for education and gentility, he found himself a working drudge. The poignant tale of the sensitive, neglected boy toiling in the blacking factory and wandering alone and unprotected through the streets of London is well known, for it was related by a master storyteller—Dickens himself, the only source for the story.
This boyhood experience of insecurity, indignity, poverty, and menial employment helped form some of the salient qualities of his character—his determination, his drive, his perseverance, his workethic, his earnestness. His parents had failed him; he would not fail himself.
A self-made man, he was an exemplary figure of his dynamic, striving times, the age of "steamboats, viaducts and railways," as Wordsworth put it; the age of telegraph, Crystal Palace, and Empire. Victorian writers were no less industrious than the engineers, entrepreneurs, explorers, speculators, and navvies. Dickens's contemporary Anthony Trollope wrote forty-seven novels (three times as many as Dickens, the Trollope Society likes to point out), rising at four each morning and writing without pause from five to eight—before heading off to his full-time job, for he was also a busy bureaucrat in the Post Office. Trollope's mother, Frances, had been a novelist, too; publishing her first book at fifty-two, she went on to publish forty more over the next twenty-five years. Dickens attributed his own success to "a patient and continuous energy." "I have been very fortunate in worldly matters," his autobiographical character David Copperfield remarks; "many men have worked much harder, and not succeeded half so well; but I never could have done what I have done, without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one object at a time."
If in his indefatigable activity Dickens was a man of his times, he was unique in a second and rarer quality—his extraordinary inventive powers. His energy was a steam engine, his imagination the winged horse Pegasus.
This fertile tension between force and fancy was paralleled by other inconsistencies. Like David Copperfield, for example, he was punctual, diligent, and orderly—almost excessively so. He had a rage for tidiness: "There never existed, I think, in all the world, a more thoroughly tidy or methodical creature than was my father," his eldest daughter Mary recollected. "He was tidy in every way—in his mind, in his handsome and graceful person, in his work, in his large correspondence, in fact in his whole life." He was strongly domestic, "full of the kind of interest in a house which is commonly confined to women," inspecting every room daily, "and if a chair was out of place, or a blind not quite straight, or a crumb left on the floor, woe betide the offender." Many years later, his second daughter Katie told a friend that as girls, she and her sister were allowed to arrange and decorate their bedroom as they pleased, "so long as the room was kept tidy and neat." This neatness also applied to their dresser drawers, which their father periodically inspected—at one time every day—in common with his visits to other rooms in the house—"and if their contents were not found to be in apple-pie order they quickly had to be rendered so."
He was dapper in dress, with a penchant for bright, even flashy, waistcoats, admitting "that he had the fondness of a savage for finery." He "liked a tidy head," his daughter Katie recalled, "and if when he went out into the garden a wind blew his hair about, and he caught sight of his dishevelled locks in a mirror, he would 'fly for his hairbrush.' " (A fellow diner at a London restaurant was once amazed when Dickens "took out a pocket-comb and combed his hair and whiskers, or rather his goatee, at the table"; two days later the same observer at the same restaurant "saw Dickens again, and a recapitulation of the comb process.") He couldn't begin his morning writing session until his writing implements and the bric-a-brac on his desk (including an indispensable figurine of two frogs dueling with swords) were perfectly disposed, but in thirty-five years of writing to deadline—all his novels were written as weekly or monthly serials—he missed a deadline only once, and then only because he was stunned by Mary Hogarth's death. "His punctuality," his daughter remembered, "was almost painful."
In 1846, he spent the summer and autumn in Switzerland. Earlier, he had spent a year in Italy, which he found dirty and disorderly. "The condition of the common people here is abject and shocking," he wrote of Naples:
I am afraid the conventional idea of the picturesque is associated with such misery and degradation that a new picturesque will have to be established as the world goes onward. Except Fondi [a town outside Naples], there is nothing on earth that I have seen so dirty as Naples. I don't know what to liken the streets to where the mass of the lazzaroni live. You recollect that favorite pigstye of mine near Broadstairs? They are more like streets of such apartments heaped up story on story, and tumbled house on house, than anything else I can think of, at this moment.
Switzerland, by contrast, was an Eden of tidiness:
The country is delightful in the extreme—as leafy, green, and shady, as England; full of deep glens and branchy places ..., and bright with all sorts of flowers in profusion. It abounds in singing birds besides—very pleasant after Italy; and the moonlight on the lake is noble.... The cultivation is uncommonly rich and profuse. There are all manner of walks, vineyards, green lanes, cornfields, and pastures full of hay. The general neatness is as remarkable as in England.... The people appear to be industrious and thriving.
Excerpted from Charles Dickens In Love by Robert Garnett. Copyright © 2012 Robert Garnett. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsCHAPTER 1 No discourse, except it be of love,
CHAPTER 2 Deep as first love, and wild with all regret: Maria Beadnell,
CHAPTER 3 So perfect a creature never breathed: Mary Hogarth,
CHAPTER 4 Of all my books, I like this the best: David Copperfield,
CHAPTER 5 I counted up my years ... and found that I should soon be grey,
CHAPTER 6 Enter the actress, stage left,
CHAPTER 7 The crisis,
CHAPTER 8 Mr. Tringham and the train crash,
CHAPTER 9 If I go, my dear; if I go,
CHAPTER 10 Four graves,
A NOTE ON SOURCES,
What People are Saying About This
To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature.
I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Quickly go grab a copy of this book. It's hopping off the shelves. There were only two copies left at my local book store. Articulate and hypnotic, this is a novel that flows and speeds towards a conclusion and will hold you captive for hours. Elizabeth Black can't possibly be a debut author, I thought! Her book is so good, I was reminded of "Prince of Tides" from the get-go. I absolutely couldn't put it down. Told from the perspective of Clare, a young artistic photographer who has just experienced the death of her only child and who returns to her childhood home, it is a break-neck suspense novel and Southern Gothic. It takes place around Galveston Island with its own set of mysteries and island lore, town folk isms and traditions that kept me on the edge of my seat. Ms Black has a distinct voice that is seductive. She is a writer of the old school in that she knows how to tell a tale about the South with its idiosyncrasies and love of the strange and absurd, characters in particular, families that are eccentric and enduring. I could read her work all night long. Let me give you an example: "...Every instant of every day, life is streaming past, all experience--every action, word, or thought, every particle of intention--rushing toward some moment you can't foresee that is anything but safe. Toward, perhaps, one ordinary afternoon." and "...marriage is generally unfathomable..." She had no understanding even of her own. I resonated with this author from the moment I picked up her book. She was writing my story; in my head, speaking my thoughts. If there's one book you should read this year it's this one. I have a feeling it's going to be one of my favorites. 5 shining stars for a debut author Deborah/TheBookishDame
I have long been in love with the work of Charles Dickens and the informal glimpses into his thoughts through correspondence framed in context with this impeccably researched and presented book, have rekindled that flame anew. This is truly a must-read for Dickens fans. In the chosen letters you find the voice of the author, which may differ greatly from the work you have read. Whether demanding or morose, with flights of fancy and fits of pique: all moments in his life, however fleeting and momentary. This book does all of that and more, making my feet itch to travel to Niagara Falls and see it as he did, or find a vantage point in the mountains, to commune with memories and thoughts. What emerges in this book is the great dichotomy that was Dickens. A man obsessed with neatness and order, a proponent of orderliness in his home and person, with a cutthroat business sense fueled by great ambition. Every conversation, every event was fodder for his imagination, facile enough to see three sides of a single coin and represent each viewpoint fully and succinctly. I was provided an eBook copy through NetGalley from Open Road Integrated Media for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review and all conclusions are my own responsibility.