Charles Dickens was at the height of his fame in 1858. The 46-year-old author presided over a large brood — nine children, borne by his wife Catherine; a 10th, a girl, died in infancy — and had set up in a delightful country home. By his pen, Dickens rocketed from the poorhouse to riches.His ferocious literary energy extended everywhere, to his public readings, his journalism, the several magazines he edited, plays he produced, and, of course, his magnificent novels.
Dickens’s first-born son, Charley, once said that “[t]he children of his brain . . . were much more real to him at times than we were.” We cherish the children that sprang forth from that brain — Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nell, Pip, and all the rest; but it is much harder now to sentimentalize Dickens the man. This is in part because there is little in his life that has escaped the notice of scholars and biographers. This year marks the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth, and if we celebrate the novelist, we must not naively turn away from less pleasant aspects of the life.
Two new books address Dickens’s complex family life in different ways. In “Great Expectations: the Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens,’’ editor-critic Robert Gottlieb explores the variously difficult lives of Dickens’s children in a series of separate chapters on each, while the eminent scholar Michael Slater outlines, with exacting precision, what Dickens may or may not have done with a (much) younger actress named Nelly Ternan following the dissolution of his marriage. This happened in 1858: He ruthlessly separated from Catherine, whom he sent packing. He denigrated her in the press, hinting she was mad, and said the children did not love her.
It remains one of the most controversial episodes in Dickens’s life, one that set tongues wagging about a family man who personified English domestic cheer. Questions still swirl around the Ternan-Dickens relationship. Was she his mistress? Did she give birth to an 11th Dickens child (Gasp!). Or was Dickens merely a mentor to a young woman making her way in the world of theater?
But more on these questions in a moment. Dickens’s family was a grand production, with all roles subordinate to him. There were two surviving girls, Mamie and Katey, and seven boys. It was perhaps easier to be a Dickens daughter than a son; with few exceptions, the boys disappointed their father. “You don’t know what it is to look round the table and see reflected from every seat at it (where they sit) some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything,” Dickens observed of his sons. Yet this is a grotesquely unfair judgment. Gottlieb takes a gentler line: “[D]ifferent young people take different routes to maturity, and the well-to-do children of one of the most famous men in the world could hardly be expected to confront life head-on in their mid-teens the way he had had to do to survive and prevail.”
Dickens came up from hard times and seemed to resent his boys because they did not. It’s a strange paradox. They certainly could try his patience — several ran up debts that he had to cover. Four were dispatched to the colonies and dominions of the British Empire. Walter, the second oldest son, went to India and served in the British army, never to see England again. Francis, next after Walter, also served in India, and then joined the North-West Mounted Police. (“A good steady fellow . . . but not at all brilliant,” concluded Dickens). Two other Dickens boys ended up in Australia, while Sydney served in the Royal Navy. Charley became a man of letters, editing his father’s magazine “All the Year Round.’’
The longest living of the offspring, Katey, an accomplished artist, and Henry, a distinguished jurist, both played a role in the ongoing mystery of Dickens and Nelly. The custodian of Dickens’s reputation, Henry, by some accounts, concluded there was an affair, as did Katey, who felt “the truth must be told when the time comes — after my death.”
The allegations continue to intrigue researchers. Dickens was a brilliant manager of his public image, and he zealously concealed the true nature of his relationship with Ternan. If anyone can make sense of the trail of innuendo, gossip, and third-hand accounts about French love nests that have trailed Dickens in the matter of Nelly, it likely would be Slater, the dean of Dickens studies and author of an important 2009 biography of the writer.
Though some readers might find the level of detail hard to bear, “The Great Dickens Scandal’’ is a strangely riveting, even haunting book. Slater’s scrupulous rigor verges on the Gradgrindian: What he wants is facts. But such facts have been notoriously hard to come by. Slater shows how successive generations have come to grips with the Dickens mystery. This is a scholarly detective story with precious few eureka moments and a lot of dead ends.
What are we to make of the evidence? In his monumental 1990 biography Peter Ackroyd mused that the relationship with Ternan was “more extraordinary than an adulterous liason and almost bewilderingly odd.” Ternan, for Dickens, was “a surrogate sister, daughter, virgin mother, child,” not a sexual partner. Claire Tomalin, in her superb recent biography, is persuaded that Dickens and Nelly were intimate and that Ternan likely had a stillborn child. Slater is cool on whether or not there was a child; there are plausible scenarios but no smoking gun. His final chapter is titled “Will we ever know?” We probably won’t, which is exactly why the great Charles Dickens scandal will live on.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens
By Robert Gottlieb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 239 pp., illustrated, $25
THE GREAT CHARLES DICKENS SCANDAL
By Michael Slater
Yale University, 215 pp., illustrated, $30
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@ gmail.com.