Dickens in love is at odds with his books

An infatuation with a teen late in life and checkered relationships with his kids belied his novels' images of home

Charles Dickens fathered 10 children. But his most beloved offspring was David Copperfield.

He dumped his wife for a teenager. But he imagined himself Sydney Carton.

The more you learn about the personal life of the revered author, eminent Victorian and permanent resident of Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, the more he seems worth a serialized novel himself.

Dickens' 201st birthday came on Feb. 7, the culmination of a bicentennial that has been celebrated grandly. And his love life has gotten some attention, too, from three books and a forthcoming film directed by Ralph Fiennes, who plays Dickens.

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"The Great Charles Dickens Scandal" (Yale University Press, $30) by Michael Slater is a sharply focused examination of Dickens' affair with actress Ellen Lawless "Nelly" Ternan. Seventeen when she met the author, Ternan was the age of his youngest daughter.

Slater, a Dickens biographer and emeritus professor of Victorian literature at Birbeck College, University of London, delivers a terse, lively account of the relationship that dominated the last decade-plus of the writer's life — and the intricate cover-up that went with it.

By now, the Ternan tale isn't exactly news. But Slater masterfully tells it, with considerable detail and clarification about what's known and what isn't, what's speculative and what's true. In recent years, the Dickens-Ternan affair has fueled sensational headlines in the London tabloids.

The story is especially juicy and ironic because Dickens remains "our great national celebrant of hearth, home and family love. Radiant domesticity also is the dominant mood at the end of most of his great novels ..." The creator of Oliver Twist, Little Nell and Tiny Tim, however, wouldn't have been at his best at a PTA meeting.

Slater deftly separates the gossip from the research into Dickens' "wild indiscretion." For the record, Ternan wasn't Dickens' first teenage crush. That was Mary Hogarth, his wife Catherine's sister. She died at 17, when he was 25. And her image would haunt Dickens for life. At 18, he was infatuated with Mary Beadnell, a banker's daughter. He pursued her but failed. She'd rekindle his flame with a letter written when she was married.

Ternan's turn apparently went well beyond letters and fantasies. There's ample speculation that the mistress bore him a "short-lived child."

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Dickens' actual children are the subject of Robert Gottlieb's "Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25).

"Why was I ever a father!" Dickens wrote two years before he died. Gottlieb, former editor of The New Yorker and a former editor in chief at Alfred A. Knopf, writes a vivid, entertaining, enlightening story about children never living up to what their driven, domineering, fanatically orderly, self-made father wanted.

"Certainly, their lives, however unfortunate, were far from disgraceful," Gottlieb writes.

One, for example, was a respected editor; another, an admired jurist.

Although Gottlieb notes that the kids loved Dickens despite his "cavalier disposal" of them, you may think otherwise.

Dickens apparently was a good dad when they were toddlers, but that quality didn't extend to their adolescence.

By the time he died, his children were "living their various exiles."

Gottlieb adds, "It's hard not to conclude that, in the grip of the psychodrama involving his marriage and his passion for Ellen Ternan, Dickens wanted to have his life simplified by the dispersal of his children."

They weren't told "anything about why their parents had separated. One day they lived together as a family, the next day their mother was gone."

Dickens' surviving children protected his image. But after his last son died, the revelations about Ternan started to become part of the legacy.

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Robert Garnett's "Charles Dickens in Love" (Pegasus Books, $28.95) covers the Ternan affair as well as the impact of Hogarth and Beadnell. Garnett is a professor of English at Gettysburg College.

Garnett is better at discussing the classic fiction than the elusive facts. That's magnified with Ternan, with whom "he entered the labyrinth." Beadnell "taught him how passionately he could love, and how hard he could work."

"Mary Hogarth, in fact, became his religion." They were his "muses and teachers in the school of love."

Wince away. And when Garnett compares Dickens with Faust or sets a scene with "Let's imagine ...," you'll be ready to write your own ending to his unfinished "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."


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