In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote something along the lines of “to be popular one must be a mediocrity”, or words to that effect (and as Woody Allen said exactly in Annie Hall, “I’m, um, ahem, paraphrasing here”).
While this may be true of certain cultural artefacts (the unfathomably successful musical slush of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor springs immediately to mind), Wilde’s observation is far trickier to apply to a literary giant like Charles Dickens. Dickens was – and still is – phenomenally popular, yet he is certainly not mediocre. His oeuvre transcends mass consumption too, as academics pore over his texts and deconstruct each story and character, giving his work a deserved intellectual credibility.
As a public figure, Dickens was beloved by Victorian society, and was treated by all socioeconomic groups with the utmost reverence (many of the poor who adored him had probably never even read any of his books, if they could read at all). Away from his writing, he earned a virtuous reputation for his work not only as an enthusiastic advocate of social reform – often a key element of his fiction—but also as a generous and conscientious philanthropist. Additionally, his long and seemingly solid marriage, and the ten children it produced, ensured that amidst the largely puritanical social climate of the time, his adoration was complete.
Now, there is a point to using all this exposition in order to illustrate the high regard in which Dickens was held during his lifetime. You see, we first learn from this recently-released DVD of Dickens’ Secret Lover that he was a man extremely keen to perpetuate the public’s highly respectful perception of him. So, when he embarked on a clandestine affair that is the core subject of this programme, he went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his activities, and was more or less successful, too. Until fairly recently, the relationship he shared with his mistress remained a dark personal secret, and it is examined here in detail for the first time on DVD.
In 1857, when Dickens was 45, he met a young woman named Ellen Ternan. Ternan, known informally as Nelly, was an 18-year-old touring actress when Dickens first encountered her, and in stark contrast to Dickens’ already established wealth and reputation, Ternan was struggling around the provinces, barely able to eke out a living as a performer. When Dickens showed a romantic interest in her, she was understandably overwhelmed, and so began a 13-year long love affair. During the intervening years, Dickens would separate from – but not divorce—his wife Catherine, support both her and his mistress financially, and experience the rumoured birth and subsequent tragic death of an illegitimate infant son, fathered with Ternan. Consistent throughout Dickens’ familial drama was one thing though: complete secrecy.
In detailing the complex and covert nature of the illicit relationship, Dickens’ Secret Lover employs a docudrama format that alternates between three perspectives: talking-head interviews with several academics and writers, including Dickens’ erudite great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawksley; segments of dramatic reconstruction, starring David Haig and Amy Shiels as Dickens and Ternan respectively; and on-camera narration by the actor Charles Dance, who recounts key aspects of the Dickens’ life while visiting actual locations pertinent to the subject.
Although the interviews are very informative and articulate, the dramatic reconstructions leave a little to be desired. The actors Haig and Shiels are both excellent, but their characters’ relationship is never really fleshed out in detail (perhaps hindered by the programme’s lean forty-eight minute running time), so the acute affection Dickens and Ternan clearly shared for one another is not conveyed with any great depth or passion. The DVD’s extras, consisting of a basic Dickens biography and bibliography, offer only limited information too.
The suave Dance, however, is a very welcome addition, contributing a deliciously hammy performance (perhaps the production team should have given him a stovepipe hat, stick-on mutton chop sideburns, and a black cape to wear, in order to enhance the Dickensian ambience). He also gives the whole programme a sense of dramatic gravitas, peppered as it is with his frequent pieces to camera, which are delivered - with perfect diction, of course – from within London’s musty townhouses and cobbled streets, and from the green fields and grounds surrounding Dickens’ English country house, Gad’s Hill Place.
In less respectful hands, the programme could have been a tawdry exercise in tabloid-style muckraking, but instead the filmmakers treat their subjects with a welcome deference. Dickens, despite his subterfuge, emerges with his reputation intact, as does the sweet and loyal Ternan.
Dickens’ Secret Lover is ultimately sad rather than salacious, and by avoiding a judgemental stance, the programme becomes an impartial and engaging historical document. As the narrative examines the problems faced by the adulterous couple, we also get, as a consequence, an interesting look at the social and cultural mores of the Victorians, and their attitudes towards monogamy and the sanctity of marriage.
Perhaps most poignantly, the programme also illustrates that had Dickens lived in modern times, any revelations concerning his private life would not have wrought the level of destruction that would have probably occurred in his own day. It’s fair to say that the tender affair was finally stymied by the expectations of social convention, and the expectations of Dickens himself, who experienced tremendous guilt during the relationship. In the end, I suppose it’s all a measure of how far we’ve come since then, for the better of course.
Finally, the notion of social progression, and an extremely strict moral code long-outmoded in England, is perhaps best illustrated by Dance at the conclusion of Dickens’ Secret Lover, when he surmises that “Dickens seemed such a modern man, trapped in a stiflingly moralistic age, and by an image of his own making”.