Charles Dickens and the young actress - Poets & Storytellers
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16-06-2018    817 times
Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens, popularly known as Charles Dickens,(7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) is regarded as the literary colossus of his age. Despite his lack of formal education, he wrote 15 novels, five short novels or novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles. He is one of the few writers, whose works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime. Many critics and scholars recognised him as a literary genius and he is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.

Dickens became engaged with Catherine in 1835 and they married on the 2nd of April 1836. They set up a home in Bloomsbury and went on to have ten children. Apart from being a mother of ten kids, Catherine was an author, a very talented actress, an excellent cook and, as asserted by Dickens, a superb travelling companion. But as the wife of such a famous person, all of that has been eclipsed. At the end, it was not a happy marriage. From a well-matched couple in love, they were derogated to a couple unable to live in the same house. Catherine suffered a nervous collapse in 1851, after the death of her daughter Dora, aged nearly 8 months and she probably could never come out of the trauma. Over the subsequent years, it seemed to Dickens that, she became increasingly incompetent as a mother and housekeeper.

Catherine Dickens
Catherine Dickens

In late November 1851, Dickens moved into ‘Travistock House’ and it was here that he indulged in the amateur theatricals. ‘The Frozen Deep’, an 1856 play written by Wilkie Collins, was initially staged in his home, Tavistock House. Dickens himself took a part in the play and was the stage-manager during the first modest staging. Apart from acting, he also edited the play, altered dialogues and attended to most of the props and sets. As luck would have it, the play earned some good name through a series of outside performances, including one before Queen Victoria at the Royal Gallery of Illustration and a three-performance run at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 21, 22 and 24 August 1857, as a part of fund- raising for the benefit of the widow of Dickens's old friend, English writer and dramatist, Douglas Jerrold.

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Before the Manchester production of the play, the amateur actresses were replaced by professionals and Dickens secured the services of the reputed and highly respected actress Frances Eleanor Ternan (née Jarman), and two of her three daughters, Maria and Ellen Lawless Ternan, who were just beginning in the profession. Ellen, always known as Nelly, took the role which was initially played by Dickens’s daughter, Katey. She was only eighteen, pretty, fair-haired, and intelligent and Dickens seems to have fallen headlong in love with her. He began very much to concern himself with her affairs and with the fortunes of the Ternan family generally. That autumn, accompanied by Wilkie Collins, he visited Cumberland and made an excursion to Doncaster, where Nelly and Maria were acting.

Ellen Nelly Ternan, in 1870
Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, in 1870

In 1857, a middle-aged and madly infatuated Charles Dickens began an adulterous affair with a teenager Ellen Nelly Ternan, but the relationship was carefully kept secret from the general public. Nelly was clever, charming and interested in literature and theatre. Dickens referred to her as his magic circle of one and took enormous risks embarking on his irresistible passion. He was a literary superstar who had set himself up as a paragon of family virtue, a responsible father of nine whose novels erected domestic bliss as the moral ideal and he was loved for his ideal image. Even then, when Dickens helplessly fell for Nelly, a poor, not particularly talented actress, he took the immense risk of losing his prestige and public image and tried his best to keep it in secret.

Tutorial at home
Tutorial at home

Much later, on 9 June 1865, Dickens was travelling with Nelly and her mother on a train which faced an accident and was derailed. As their first class carriage did not fall into the river bed and was hanging from a bridge, Dickens climbed out of the compartment through the window, rescued Nelly and her mother and then, with his flask of brandy and his hat full of water, tended some of the victims, some of whom died while he was with them. Though he was not physically injured, the accident affected Dickens greatly and he lost his voice for two weeks. A week later, an inquest was organized to determine the cause of the accident, and all the passengers of the particular train were invited. However, Dickens did not attend the meeting, because, while expressing his experience and views in the open forum, he would have to reveal that he was traveling with his young mistress and her mother.

However, the affair did not remain in secret for long. In 1858, a packet containing a gold bracelet and a small note from Dickens was wrongly delivered to Catherine Dickens by a London jeweler, instead of Nelly. Naturally, the matter became very much clear to Catherin. Yet, Dickens did not care and the two soon embarked upon a desperate and passionate affair that will continue the next 13 years, and which supposedly resulted in Ellen Nelly giving birth to Dickens’s stillborn child.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

In fact, by the mid-1850s, when his marriage was already 20 years old, Dickens was no longer attracted to his wife, Catherine. There was even a rumour about his having an affair with his sister-in-law, which was later strongly denied by Dickens. When he became involved with Nelly, many considered that during that time Dickens was in the midst of a midlife crisis. He was a man trying desperately to recapture his youth and he was desperate to experience true passion again.

Finally, Dickens moved out of the family home, taking all but one of his children with him. This attitude on his part indicated that, he did at least ensure he was not sleeping with two women at the same time. Now that the secret of Nelly and Dickens’s affair is out in the open, we can judge them less harshly than the Victorians would have done. The story ultimately gave a human tint to the character of Dickens. It proved that, apart from his public image, he was actually a man like any other man, a man with his passion, emotion and weakness. Nelly became his companion for the rest of his life, which he really wanted and finally he had the courage to risk the social disgrace and follow his heart.

Catherine Dickens started to live apart from her husband from May 1858. By the following spring Dickens, not content with having moved into a separate bedroom and having had the communicating door between it and his wife's room boarded up, had decided that he must have a legal separation from her. Then there appeared in the English press, copied from the ‘New York Tribune’ of 16 August 1858, a private letter about the separation written by Dickens to Arthur Smith, manager of his public readings, in which he asserted that Catherine had no real love for her children, nor they for her, and hinted that she suffered from some mental instability. It was about this time that his attitude to Catherine suddenly changed to one of implacable hostility. However, Dickens also asserted her virtues in some of his personal letters and acknowledged her amiable and complying qualities. In those letters he confessed that their temperaments were utterly incompatible.

Catherine Dickens
Catherine Dickens

Catherine and Charles were legally separated in the month of June 1858. Catherine was given a house. Their oldest son, Charley, moved in with her. Dickens retained custody of the rest of the children. While the children were not forbidden to visit their mother they were not encouraged to do so. Dickens and Catherine very rarely wrote to each other after their separation, but she remained attached and loyal to her husband and to his memory until her own death from cancer. In1879, while she was in her deathbed, Catherine gave a bunch of letters that she had received from Dickens in the past, to her daughter Kate, with a request to hand over the letters to the British Museum, so that the world may know that once Dickens loved her.

Nelly left the stage in 1860, and was supported by Dickens from then on. She lived in houses that Dickens took under false names and may have had a stillborn child or a son by Dickens who died in infancy. In his will, Dickens left an amount of one thousand Pounds for her, along with sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again. She married George Wharton Robinson, six years after Dickens's death, in 1876. He was an Oxford graduate, twelve years her junior, who knew nothing about her actual age or about her relationship with Dickens.

Catherine Dickens
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Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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