On the Line Between Legitimate Biography and Gossipy Tell-All: ‘The Great Charles Dickens Scandal’

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal by Michael Slater examines the works of the numerous scholars, colleagues, friends, family members, friends of family members, and people with a Charles Dickens fascination who thought they were qualified to pen an article, book, or screenplay about Dickens and his alleged intimate relationship with Ellen Lawless Ternan.

Slater, a Victorian scholar and author of several other books including The Genius of Dickens, begins by looking at Dickens’s life in the late 1850s—the state of his home life as told to his good friend John Forster, his separation from wife Catherine and the resulting gossip, his alleged relationship with an actress and the resulting gossip—gossip that even crossed the pond to (of all places) Detroit. Slater reports that in June of 1858 The Detroit Free Press published a letter that opened: “I hear that Dickens has for some time been paying attention to an actress at the Haymarket (Amy Sedgwick, it is thought). So charmed was he that he went to Hunt & Roskell’s and bought her a beautiful bracelet…”

Most of the book, though, looks at what has been written about the alleged intimate relationship between Dickens and Ternan. Did they have sexual relations, was their relationship platonic, did they have a secret love child that died at birth or was given up for a adoption? Inquiring minds wanted (and apparently still want) to know.

Slater is an excellent researcher and puts many of his findings into context, enabling the reader to gain a clear picture of how the story of Dickens’s later years has been told and retold, from the first biography published a scant two weeks after Dickens’s death to Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens and the 2008 BBC4 TV documentary described by The Daily Telegraph as a docudrama that “lays bare Charles Dickens’s obsession with a teenaged girl”. From the narratives that declare Dickens “a kindly and generous friend of the Ternan family, a sort of ‘fairy godfather’” to those that paint Dickens and Ternan in a much less favorable light, Slater covers it all.

Slater is not a reporter nor is he a particularly neutral narrator. His contempt for shoddy research and less than literary texts comes through clearly as does his distaste for the more gossipy tales.

Some of the books and articles Slater references appear to be just as well researched and well respected as Slater’s own writings—take Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman. Slater relates “it was published… to universally enthusiastic reviews, became an instant best-seller and went on to win no fewer than three major literary prizes”. Many of the articles described were published in scholarly journals, and it’s only natural to expect a reasonable number of biographies on a celebrity such as Dickens (even though, as Slater points out, some universities, including Oxford, were “still holding out against Dickens as late as 1960”).

Still, the fervor over Dickens and his relationship with Ternan almost seems to be a strange blend of The National Enquirer and an Agatha Christie novel. Some researchers went to amazing lengths when searching out the “truth” of Dickens’s romantic life and any potential offspring with Ternan. The discovery of such a child would be, Slater contends “the Golden Fleece for Dickens biographers”. Perhaps examining pocket diaries and trying to break Dickens’s code of initials and vague references isn’t so strange, but was infrared photography really necessary?

Evidently so: “By means of infrared photography [John D.] Gordan had been able to decipher a paragraph that had been heavily inked out, presumably by Georgiana [Hogarth]”. For others, Dickens’s later years seem to be some sort of mystery waiting to be solved. Slater introduces Katharine Longley, author of “The Real Ellen Ternan” published in The Dickensian in 1985, by stating “Longley was a great aficionado of detective stories and enjoyed referring to her ‘Marplish’ streak” and then suggests this “Marplish” streak continued with her investigation of Dickens.

The books and articles discussed in the The Great Charles Dickens Scandal present a fascinating picture of not only Charles Dickens, but of the people who were (and still are) fascinated by him. But it also raises questions—certainly questions about Dickens and Ternan and their relationship, questions about what kind of people they were, and yes, questions about whether or not they had a child. But it also raises questions of a larger, and perhaps more interesting, sort—questions like where is the line between legitimate biography and gossipy tell-all, and when does an author’s personal life become more important than his or her works?

RATING 7 / 10