A page-turning account of the scandal that almost ruined Dickens and how the story disappeared from history
"Michael Slater revisits the layers of deception, gossip, commercial speculation, and academic work that grew around Dickens’s extramarital relationship with Ellen Ternan in order to track the unfolding of "the great Dickens scandal" from Dickens’s own lifetime to ours."—Sambudha Sen, Victorian Studies
“In this delightfully learned, sceptical and drily witty book, Slater shows how the story of their liaison has been told time and again in ever-changing tones of shock, sympathy and prurience.”—Boyd Tonkin, TheIndependent
- Yale University Press
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- First Edition
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- 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)
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The GREAT CHARLES DICKENS SCANDAL
By MICHAEL SLATER
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Michael Slater
All right reserved.
As Thackeray was going into the Garrick Club one evening in late May 1858 he was greeted by some fellow-members eager to know if he had heard the sensational news that Dickens, after more than twenty years of marriage and the begetting of ten children, had separated himself from his wife Catherine. It was, they claimed, the result of an 'intrigue' between Dickens and his resident sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, Catherine's junior by eleven years. This was a very grave charge indeed a question not just of adultery, which would have been bad enough, but of what would then have been legally classified as incest. Describing the incident in a letter to his mother, Thackeray ruefully admitted that in seeking to defend Dickens from this hugely damaging accusation, he had let quite another cat out of the bag: 'No such matter', he told the gossips, 'It's with an actress'.
Well might his clubmen friends have been excited. The news of the breakdown of Dickens's marriage had come as a complete shock to the public. Many of his devoted readers, commented J. Hain Friswell in his Charles Dickens: A Critical Biography published this very year, 'seeing that "David Copperfield" was in form autobiographical, and was actually so in some parts, have amused themselves with speculations in the matter of Mr Dickens's married life'. Now, he continued, alluding to certain statements about the end of his marriage that, as we shall see, were imprudently issued by Dickens, 'a rough solution has been afforded by Mr Dickens himself, who tells us that his marriage to Miss Hogarth was not productive of happiness to either of them'. Inevitably, Georgina became the target of gossip when, following her sister's sad departure from the marital home accompanied only by Charley the eldest son, she stayed on to run Dickens's household for him and to take care of the younger children in conjunction with his eldest daughter, twenty-year-old Mary, or 'Mamie' as she was always called. Catherine Dickens herself was, as it were, pensioned off ('dismissed with a good character', commented one of the wags on the staff of the comic weekly Punch) with £600 a year, a brougham, and a 'pretty little house' in Gloucester Crescent, not far from Regent's Park. Meanwhile Dickens was naturally anxious that this upheaval in his domestic life should not adversely affect the potentially highly lucrative new career on which he was just then embarking, giving public readings from his own works. He had been heartened by the tremendous warmth of his reception on the occasion of his first commercial reading of, as it happens, his intensely domestic little Christmas Book The Cricket on the Hearth at St Martin's Hall, Long Acre, on 29 April, but this had been before the news broke in early May of his separation from Catherine.
Now, on 25 May, while negotiations regarding Catherine's settlement were still pending, Dickens provided his readings manager Arthur Smith, a much-loved and trusted friend, with a statement about the separation, together with a covering note giving Smith full permission to show it to 'any one who wishes to do me right, or who may have been misled into doing me wrong'. This was what Dickens later came to refer to as 'the Violated Letter' (see Appendix 2). In producing it he had in mind, no doubt, those who might have fought shy of the readings having heard sensational gossip about his private life. In the statement he asserts that there had always been a basic incompatibility of character and temperament between Catherine and himself. With notable lack of compunction, he then goes on to describe her as a failed mother who threw all the care of her children on to Georgina (for whom, he says, they all have 'the tenderest affection') and even to assert that Catherine was sometimes mentally unbalanced. He refers darkly to 'two wicked persons' who have blamed the separation upon his involvement with 'a young lady' for whom he has 'a great attachment and regard'. He will not name her, he says, but roundly proclaims: 'Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady. I know her to be innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters.'
The result of this document as it got into circulation was, of course, merely to arouse curiosity and provoke questions. Just who, for example, were those 'two wicked persons' who should have spoken of Dickens very differently, 'in consideration of earned respect and gratitude'? This was soon answered when another document, signed by Catherine's mother, Mrs George Hogarth, and by her youngest daughter, Helen, was appended to this letter to Smith. In this addendum, which Dickens had absolutely demanded should be produced, Mrs Hogarth and Helen repudiated 'certain statements' indicating that the separation had resulted from 'circumstances deeply affecting the moral character of Mr Dickens', a reference, presumably, to the gossip about him and Georgina. But who was the radiantly pure young lady referred to in the penultimate paragraph of Dickens's statement? The chattering classes of the day did not have far to look for a likely candidate given the recent involvement of Frances Eleanor Ternan and her two younger daughters, Maria and Ellen, all three of them professional actresses, in Dickens's amateur company's production of Wilkie Collins's melodrama The Frozen Deep.
It hardly needed Thackeray's indiscretion, therefore, to set the scandalmongers on the Ternans' trail. In the letter to his mother already quoted Thackeray says that he first heard about Dickens's actress from 'a man at Epsom'. Could this perhaps have been some devotee of the turf who had noticed Dickens at Doncaster Races the previous September when Maria and Ellen, chaperoned by their mother, had been engaged at the theatre there and Dickens had been dancing attendance on the family? There certainly was, Thackeray continued, 'some row about an actress in the case' but Dickens was denying 'with the utmost infuriation' any charge against her or himself. He has not yet, Thackeray adds, seen Dickens's statement, meaning the letter Dickens gave to Arthur Smith, but he has evidently learned the details in it from someone who has. Smith, it seems, wasted no time in showing the document around. He was prompted, no doubt, by his zeal to counteract what Georgina called, in a letter of 31 May pretty clearly dictated by Dickens, to Dickens's old flame Maria Winter, 'the most wonderful and wicked rumours which have been flying about the town'. (Mrs Winter, as we have seen, had three years before had startling evidence of Dickens's capacity for sudden emotional turbulence and, aware of this, he would surely have been concerned to keep her as calm as possible in this crisis in his domestic life.)
One choice bit of gossip that was circulating in the metropolis was learned by Hans Christian Andersen away in Denmark, where he was still nursing fond memories of his five-week visit to the Dickens household the previous summer during which he had apparently been quite oblivious of any domestic tensions. A friend of his, the painter Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, wrote to him from London about what she had heard concerning the cause of the break between Dickens and Catherine:
D. had sent a bracelet with a poem to an actress; it got lost, and D. advertised for it in the papers. It was sent, his wife received it, thinking it was a present for her; she put it on, the poem fell out and she never forgave him that after having been married to her for 25 years [actually, 21] he could enter into an understanding with another.
Dickens himself was at this time in a highly combustible state, incensed by what he called in a letter written on 31 May to the novelist Catherine Gore 'such thronging multitudes of wonderful and inexplicable lies about myself'. They posed a distinct threat to the success of the readings and to that special relationship he had with his hundreds of thousands of devoted readers which he once described to Forster as 'personally affectionate and like no other man's'. To counteract this threat he decided to publish his side of the story in a far more effective way than just having Smith show the document he had given him to various individuals. He drew up a second statement headed 'Personal' which, overriding the strenuous objections of many friends including Forster, he caused to be published in The Times on 7 June and in his own weekly magazine Household Words a few days later (see Appendix 1). In it he spoke in general terms of 'some domestic trouble of mine, of longstanding ... of a sacredly private nature' which had 'now been brought to an arrangement' and 'amicably composed' ('Alas', commented the Sunday journal John Bull on 12 June, 'for the trouble that can be brought to so easy an arrangement! Alas for the twenty years of wedded life that can be amicably composed, so that nothing is left but for their details to be forgotten!').
In his concern to protect both Georgina and Ellen, Dickens again referred to unnamed third parties who were being traduced ('innocent persons dear to my heart, and innocent persons of whom I have no knowledge'). He 'most solemnly' declared, both in his own name and in Catherine's, her consent having been obtained (not that she had much choice in the matter), that all such rumours were 'abominably false'. As with the earlier document he had given to Arthur Smith, this statement served only to stir up more gossip and wild rumours, blazoning the matter the length and breadth of the country. Some papers were simply bemused, or pretended to be. 'Now really', commented The Critic on 12 June, 'we should be very much obliged to anybody who will inform us what this is all about? What are the "misrepresentations"? What are the "slanders" ...?' A few weeks later, on 3 July, the journal reverted to the matter, referring to 'the error into which Mr Dickens fell when he put forward that extraordinary document which, as we predicted ... has set all the old women in the land inquiring into what dreadful things the amiable author of "Pickwick" has been doing'. The Morning Post was clear that the accusation brought against Dickens was one of 'gross profligacy' and this highly aristocratic newspaper, normally no friend to Dickens, now championed him on 7 June as the author of works 'utterly free from any taint or stain of vice'. The slanderous 'poison', said the Post, mixing its metaphors rather freely, had been spread abroad by 'the hundred tongues of Fame' and it rejoiced that Dickens 'has stepped forward like a man, at whatever cost to his feelings, to brush away the web of untruth, and to claim the belief due to candour and innocence'.
At the other end of the social spectrum of the English press from The Morning Post were papers like the cheekily-named Court Circular, which gleefully reported on 12 June the scabrous rumour that Dickens had preferred 'his wife's sister to herself, a preference which has assumed a very definite and tangible shape', and the widely-circulated Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper. The editor of the latter was G. W. M. Reynolds, an amazingly prolific writer of cheap sensational fiction. He had done well out of plagiarising Dickens at the outset of his writing career with publications like his Pickwick in America, but now owed him a grudge for having been denounced in the 'Preliminary Word' to Household Words (30 March 1850) as 'a Pander to the basest passions of the lowest natures'. He seized on the publication of Dickens's personal statement to attack him in the 13 June issue of his Weekly Newspaper:
The names of a female relative, and of a professional young lady, have both been, of late, so freely and intimately associated with that of Mr Dickens as to excite suspicion and surprise in the minds of those who had hitherto looked upon the popular novelist as a very Joseph in all that regards morality, chastity and decorum.
And he returned to the charge a week later noting that 'the rumours that are now afloat about this unhappy affair are innumerable'. These rumours were denounced by the gossip columnist Edmund Yates in the 19 June issue of his magazine Town Talk as 'lies so preposterous in their malice, as almost to defeat the design of their concocters', yet Dickens, he claimed, had been obliged publicly to deny them as they involved the names of 'most innocent and worthy persons'.
A year later George Augustus Sala, who like Yates was one of 'Dickens's young men', as certain staffers on Household Words were called, was mischievously to remind his colleague of an epigram that was doing the rounds of literary London in this summer of 1858:
With tongue and pen few can like Dickens fudge
But now in vain for virtue's cause he pleads
The world his virtues in the end will judge
Not by his Household Words, but Household Deeds.
Meanwhile the news had sped across the Atlantic. On 18 June The New York Herald published a long piece mailed to it by its London correspondent on 4 June asserting that it was 'all fudge' to say that Dickens and his wife were separating after twenty-two years of marriage on account of 'incompatibility of temper'. The real cause was the coming into Dickens's life, as a result of his fund-raising amateur dramatic activities in which it 'was necessary to get some histrionic talent beyond the benevolent projectors', of 'a Miss Ternan, well known in Manchester, and latterly on the London boards'. A 'very pure and very platonic affection' had sprung up between her and 'the author of Pickwick', but she was now 'charged with being the cause of the separation that has just taken place between the eminent author and his wife'. Three days later The New York Times published a report dated 8 June from its London correspondent: 'All London, you must know, had for some time been rife with legends concerning Dickens and an actress, with whom it was at last affirmed that the author of David Copperfield had eloped to Boulogne.... He has indeed separated from his wife, but only on account of an ancient and unconquerable incompatibility in their respective characters'.
The correspondents of the New York papers seem to have been unaware that there were no fewer than three Misses Ternan extant. In England only the eldest, Fanny (also an actress but, ironically, the one member of the family who had not acted with Dickens), could properly be referred to as 'Miss Ternan', so these newspaper references led, as will be seen below, to some confusion on the part of the Ternans' American relatives. The Herald's correspondent added: 'Dickens does not get much sympathy, the public generally deciding, as it does usually in such cases, in favour of the lady'. Another New York paper, the popular weekly Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, threw its net rather wider and did display some sympathy with Dickens, albeit of a somewhat coarse and distasteful kind. The first paragraph in its 'Gossip of the World' column on 3 July reads as follows:
Charles Dickens. This great author, whose works have humanised the present age to so great an extent, has separated from his wife. The reasons are variously stated. Some of his enemies say it is an unfortunate penchant for actresses; others that Mrs Milner Gibson [wife of a prominent Liberal politician and a notable London hostess] led his fancy astray. As Dickens is forty-seven [sic], and Mrs Gibson forty-five, we think the similarity of years would neutralise the similarity of tastes. Miss Ternan has also been mentioned, and Miss Amy Sedgwick, both of them actresses. It is to be regretted that after having endured his wife for twenty-five years [actually twenty-two], he could not hold on a little longer. Twenty-five years ago Katharine [sic] Hogarth was as pretty a young woman as ever changed her name, and tolerably amiable. She was, however, constitutionally indolent and unintellectual. In addition to this, she had a tendency to corpulency, which is very disgusting to a man of elegant tastes, or who has much company at home, since it materialises the head of his table, and converts the high priestess of the repast into the fattest joint on the board.
The writer goes on to report gossip about the tangled marital affairs of two other literary figures, G. H. Lewes, later to become George Eliot's consort, and Thornton Hunt. This report is attributed to Charles Mackay, editor of The Illustrated London News, 'during his recent visit to America'. It may be that Mackay was also the source for the gossip about Dickens, though this seems unlikely given that the News, in defending his publication of his 'Personal' statement on 12 June, had referred to Dickens's well-known 'noble nature' as sufficient grounds for accepting his account of the situation. Not everyone, however, agreed about the 'nobility' of Dickens's nature, as is shown by a spiteful letter in the archives of the Royal Literary Fund written by Newton Crosland, one of the leading opponents of Dickens's vigorous but unsuccessful campaign to reform the administration of the Fund. Dickens appealed in his 'Personal' statement to his own 'known character as some evidence in my favour'. Alluding to this, Crosland writes, 'I must confess I do not feel the weight and importance of your denial, as my general knowledge of your character induced me to believe that certain obnoxious rumours against you were true when I heard them about ten days ago, at the corner of every street and in every social circle'.
Excerpted from The GREAT CHARLES DICKENS SCANDAL by MICHAEL SLATER Copyright © 2012 by Michael Slater. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Slater is emeritus professor of Victorian literature at Birkbeck College, University of London; past president of the International Dickens Fellowship and of the Dickens Society of America; and author of Charles Dickens. He lives in London.
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