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March 2007 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

So how is it, you ask, that the last thirteen years of Charles Dickens’s second, secret, and hidden life were shaped to some degree by cannibalism?

Well, it’s interesting that you asked me that question right now. By great good coincidence I happen to have recently embarked upon a novel covering the last five years of Dickens’s life following his near death (and that of his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother, who were traveling with him) during the Staplehurst railway accident of 1865, and it turns out that much of Dickens’s secret life in 1865, an entire second life that he would keep hidden until his death in 1870 (on the anniversary of the Staplehurst accident) and which remains a mystery to this day, can be traced back to events connected to the disappearance of the 1845 Sir John Franklin Expedition.

In October of 1854, all of England was shocked to read Dr. John Rae’s report on what he had discovered during his search for the Franklin Expedition. Rae, an officer in the Hudson Bay Company, quoted testimony from the Inuit – or “Esquimaux” the English called those native peoples then – as well as citing artifacts and human remains found, to prove that Franklin and his men were not only dead but that they’d resorted to cannibalism in their final days.

This idea of cannibalism did not sit well with Lady Franklin who still held out hope for her husband’s rescue, even nine years after the expedition disappeared. Nor did it sit well with one of the most famous and influential Englishmen of his day, Charles Dickens.

Dickens was fascinated with Rae’s reports and facts – as biographer Fred Kaplan writes – “Dismemberment and cannibalism had been powerful images in his life from childhood on and had been direct and indirect motifs in his fiction, the self feeding on itself, the world broken into animistic fragments, the society engorging through the individual.” But actual cannibalism among British officers and gentlemen? Dickens rejected the entire concept.

His first stage was denial, arguing that the report was “hasty . . . in the statement that they had eaten the dead bodies of their companions.” He then told his friends and readers that he had examined “a wilderness of books” to show “that the probabilities are all against poor Franklin’s people having dreamed of eating the bodies of their companions.”

From denial, Dickens quickly moved to anger. In one of his stranger and least-becoming essays, published in the journal Household Words (of which he was an editor and frequent contributor), Dickens launched a scathing attack on the “savage” – i.e. non-white races. Specifically in this case, the Esquimaux tribes that had reported to John Rae that Franklin’s crew had resorted to cannibalism. “. . . we believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel,” wrote Dickens. He went on to deny absolutely that “ . . . any of the members [of the Franklin Expedition] prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions . . . .”

Then, rather than responding point by point to the testimonies and artifacts reported by John Rae, Dickens leaped straight to his childhood reading to corroborate his argument that cannibalism was outside the realm of possibility for Englishmen: “In the whole wide circle of the Arabian Nights, it is reserved for ghoules, gigantic blacks with one eye, monsters like towers, of enormous bulk and dreadful aspect, and unclean animals lurking on the sea-shore . . .”

So there! Englishmen do not eat Englishmen, dead or alive. Only monsters from the deep can do that.

And a year later Charles Dickens entered a new stage of reaction to the Franklin tragedy and mystery – a level of reaction open only to writers and to novelists in particular: he rewrote history. In truth, Dickens talked his friend Wilkie Collins into writing a play about the Franklin Expedition and calling it The Frozen Deep. Wilkie Collins, who will be the not-always-reliable narrator of my own novel about Dickens, was a more dissipated and bohemian friend of the famous writer, a sometimes collaborator and serious student of Dickens. Collins was also laudanum-opium addict and flagrant womanizer who flaunted Victorian society by living with one woman outside of marriage while having a child with another woman, all the while seducing young actresses: in other words, a perfect companion for Dickens at this point in the famous writer’s life where he was fighting the restrictions of domesticity, nine children (with a tenth on the way), and encroaching middle-age.

After months of discussing and outlining the play, Dickens and Wilkie Collins began work on it in earnest in the hot summer of 1856. Collins joined other guests at the crowded Dickens’ household, but the two writers’ habits did not perfectly mesh. Dickens tended to go to bed by midnight most nights and to rise early – breakfast was served no later than nine o’clock no matter who the guest might be – but Wilkie was a creature of the late-night casino and often did not rise until after eleven o’clock. Denied his breakfast by his host, Collins was sometimes found eating pâté de foie gras by himself of a noontime.

But the play, from Wilkie Collins’s pen but with constant direction and rewriting from Dickens, flowed well enough. Dickens was writing the complex novel Little Dorrit at the same time and his themes and obsessions seem to have blobbed over from one project to the next. In a letter to his friend Forster, Dickens comments about “unnatural” heroes and laments the absence in fiction “ . . . of the experiences, trials, perplexities, and confusions inseparable from the making or unmaking of all men! . . .”

Some biographers wonder if Dickens is speaking about his confused hero of Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, or of Richard Wardour – the character Dickens was preparing to play in The Frozen Deep. In either case, even before Dickens and Wilkie Collins had finished the first draft of the play based on the Franklin Expedition, Dickens was able to give precise instructions to painters Clarkson Stanfield and William Telbin about the sets they were to paint for each act.

As Collins’s writing and Dickens’s rewriting and revisions of The Frozen Deep continued through the autumn of 1856, the main character of Richard Wardour – played by Charles Dickens, of course –changed completely. Collins had envisioned Wardour, the leader of the fictional expedition based on Franklin’s, as older, not very competent, and more or less a villain. Perhaps even a maniac. Dickens rewrote and played Wardour as a complex and angry – but in the end, totally self-sacrificing – character: “perpetually seeking and never finding true affection” were Dickens’s notes on the revised character.

Dickens had always been a fiend for rehearsing. (When he created a new form of performance art by doing dramatic author readings for hundreds and then thousands of people at a time, he would rehearse each reading himself at least 200 times before attempting it in public.) Now he drove his little amateur troupe of players hard and himself harder. A marathon walker – (as many writers have attested over the centuries, long walks help one to think out plots and pages) – Dickens would rehearse his Wardour part during one of his 20-mile walks through the county fields of Finchley and Neasden – “Young, with a fair sad face, with kind tender eyes, with a soft clear voice. Young and loving and merciful. I keep her face in my mind, though I can keep nothing else. I must wander, wander, wander – restless, sleepless, homeless – till I find her!”

He did not mutter these words; he shouted them into the air, just as he would do on stage when the play opened in his large home called Tavistock House in London on January 6, 1857 -- Twelfth Night and his oldest son Charley’s 20th birthday. His special Wardour-monologues, Dickens had kept to himself – rehearsing in private, not even sharing them with his collaborator and fellow-actor Wilkie Collins. Charles Dickens may have been the stage’s first modern Method Actor; he disappeared so completely into his roles (including the role of “famous writer Charles Dickens”, I would argue) that many of his contemporaries – including veteran professional actors and stage managers such as Macready – thought him temporarily demented during and immediately after performances.

One example of Dickens’s Method was a scene in the last act where, rushing in anguish from the stage, “Wardour” tosses the other men on stage aside like a raging bull, leaving them bruised for days. His son Charley, who played one of those men, later wrote of the “realism” –

“ . . . in his demented condition in his last act he had to rush off the stage, and I and three or four others had to try and stop him. He gave us fair notice, early in the rehearsals, that he meant fighting in earnest in that particular scene, and we very soon found out that the warning was not an idle one. He went at it after a while with such a will that we really did have to fight, like prize-fighters, and as for me, being the leader of the attacking party and bearing the first brunt of the fray, I was tossed in all directions and had been black and blue two or three times before the first night of the performance arrived.”

That first performance had about a hundred people crowded into the little schoolroom at Tavistock House that Dickens had converted into a theater. A small orchestra played an overture and incidental music that Dickens had paid the young musician Francesco Berger to compose. Before the lights came up, Dickens’s dear friend John Forster intoned the Prologue written by Dickens – a prologue setting out the theme of the play in which the hidden deeps of the human heart are compared to the terrible and frozen depths of the Arctic North –

      “that the secrets of the vast Profound
Within us, an exploring hand may sound,
Testing the region of the ice-bound soul,
Seeking the passage at its northern pole,
Soft’ning the horrors of its wintry deep,
Melting the surface of that ‘Frozen Deep’”

The play opens in Devon. Clara Burnham – played by Dickens’s daughter Mamie – is haunted by fears for her fiancée Frank Aldersly (played by Wilkie Collins) who has been away for years on a polar expedition. On the same expedition is its commander, Richard Wardour, who is Clara’s rejected lover. Wardour does not know the identity of the rival who succeeded him, but has sworn to kill the man if they ever meet. Now, Clara knows, Wardour and her Frank are in two ships – the HMS Wanderer and HMS Sea-mew – frozen tight in the Arctic ice near each other in their attempt to force the North-West Passage. Frank Aldersly is totally ignorant of Wardour’s love for his fiancée.

Clara is agonized at the thought that some accident will reveal her two lovers’ identities to each other, terrified for her fiancée’s fate not only at the hands of the Arctic but at the hands of Wardour, when her nurse Esther – who has the Second Sight – shares her bloody vision in the crimson sunset (Dickens had taken great pains to create lighting that realistically depicted sunlight at all hours of the day for this play) –

“I see the lamb in the grasp of the Lion . . .” gasps Nurse Esther in the trance of her Second Sight, “ – your bonnie bird alone with the hawk – I see you and all round you crying, Bluid! The stain is on you – Oh, my bairn, my bairn – the stain of that bluid is on you!!”

The second act is in the Arctic regions where Dickens-Wardour and Wardour’s second in command, Lieutenant Commander Crayford are discussing their slim chances of survival in the face of cold and starvation. “Never you give in to your stomach, and your stomach will end in giving in to you,” the veteran explorer Wardour advises Lt. Crayford. Wardour goes on to explain to Crayford that he, the commander of the expedition, loves the Arctic precisely “because there are no women here.” In the same act he will exclaim “I would have accepted anything that set work and hardship and danger, like Ramparts, between my misery and me . . . Hard work, Crayford, that is the true Elixir of our life!” And finally -- “the only hopeless wretchedness in this world, is the wretchedness that women cause.”

Here speaks a writer and a man not happy in his marriage.

At the end of Act II, the remaining officers and crew decide that their only chance for survival is to send two men – selected by chance – to head out across the frozen depths to seek relief for the stranded expedition. The two men chosen, of course, are Wardour the jilted lover and his successor in love, Frank Aldersly. The second act ends with Wardour discovering that Frank is his rival.

Act III opens with Clara Burnham traveling to Newfoundland searching for news (much as the real Lady Franklin had hired her own ships and gone to the North with her niece Sophia Cracroft). Into a remote ice-cavern along the coast staggers a starved, exhausted man just escaped from an ice floe. Clara sees that it is Wardour and there are hysterical accusations that he has murdered – and perhaps eaten? – Aldersly. Dickens rushes out and returns with Aldersly in his arms, alive. “Often,” gasps Wardour, “in supporting Aldersly through snow-drifts and ice-floes, have I been tempted to leave him sleeping.”

Collapsing now from exhaustion, starvation, and the exertion of keeping his rival alive on the ice for so long, Dickens-Wardour manages to say, “My sister, Clara! – Kiss me, sister, kiss me before I die” and then dies in Clara’s arms, with her kiss upon his lips and her tears streaming down upon his face.

Sentimental crap, you say? Perhaps. But the Victorians were emotionally and psycho-sexually primed for sentimental crap. The little schoolroom-theater was awash in tears and not just from the women in the audience. Reviewers invited to the first performance (there were a total of four performances from this troupe) recorded the audible sobs not just from the audience but from fellow actors on the stage. Wilkie Collins himself, standing there in costume and make-up, was heard to whisper, “This is an awful thing!”

Since Collins was weeping at the time, we have to assume it was not a criticism.

Professional reviewers were deeply impressed by Dickens’s performance and by his immersion in the role. (After one performance, Dickens fainted. In his last years this would become a more common reaction to his exertions in violent readings he performed of Bill Sikes’s murder of Nancy, ending in the author too drained to stand or speak.) William Makepeace Thackeray attended one of the four performances and remarked, “if that man would now go upon the stage, he would make his £20,000 pounds a year.”

That was wild hyperbole in 1857, but within a few years Charles Dickens would be making almost that much during his exhausting reading tours, which were comprised as much of Method Acting as of reading. Dickens himself was pleased with the effect immediately after the play, writing to friends who hadn’t been there that the audiences were “excellent” and he had never seen any audience so “ . . . strongly affected by theatrical means.” In other words, they blubbered like children with their toys snatched away, which was always the effect that Charles Dickens most wanted to achieve.


But what, you ask after showing much patience, does this have to do with a cascade of events leading to Dickens’s second, secret, and hidden life?

Well, it turns out that though Dickens thought he was finished with The Frozen North – the author wrote of the sad sounds of workmen “battering and smashing down” his school room theater -- The Frozen North was not finished with him. And events following his next series of performances would change his life, and the life of his family and most of those around him, forever.


The author had turned down many entreaties to revive The Frozen Deep for paying customers – neither he nor his players liked the idea of acting for money – but in June of 1857 Dickens was shocked to hear of the sudden death of his writer-friend, Douglas Jerrold. Dickens knew that Jerrold’s family would be left in dire financial circumstances and, always the Tom-Sawyerish organizer and leader of his band of literary friends, he came up with the idea for a benefit series of performances – T.P. Cooke in revivals of Jerrolds Black-Eyed Susan and Rent Day, Thackeray and Russell giving lectures, and Dickens himself giving both day- and night-readings.

Also, of course, since there had been such a clamor for more showings of The Frozen Deep, the play would be revived with proceeds going to the Jerrold fund. The goal was to raise £2,000.

The Gallery of Illustration on Regent Street was rented for the series of performances. The Queen not only gave her name in support of the effort but acknowledged that she was intensely eager to see The Frozen Deep and suggested that Mr. Dickens select a room in Buckingham Palace in which he could provide a private performance.

Dickens refused. (Never one to pay attention to protocol that bound all other men, Dickens had airily turned down an invitation to dinner with the President of the United States during his visit to America, saying “perhaps lunch instead.”) In this case, Dickens objected because he thought that his daughters – who had not been introduced at court – should not make their first appearance there as actresses. He proposed that the Queen should come to a private performance at the Gallery of Illustration a week before subscription night, bringing her own gallery of guests. This Queen Victoria agreed to do, but after the July 4 performance of both The Frozen Deep and its following farce, Uncle John, when she sent word backstage that he be presented to her, Dickens refused again. His reason this time – “I could not appear before Her Majesty tired and hot, with the paint still upon my face.”

Actually, it was more than grease paint. The romantic farce of Uncle John, which – in the English theater tradition that went back to Shakespeare – was offered as immediate relief to the tragedy that had come before, a sort of theatrical sorbet, left Dickens in his costume of a floppy dressing gown, a silly wig, and a red nose. There was no way on Earth that Charles Dickens, one of the proudest and most status-conscious men who ever lived, was going to be introduced to the Queen in that regalia.

“The Queen politely gave way.”

Even though Wilkie Collins’s and Dickens’s play had earned the vast majority of the money for the Jerrold fund, it hadn’t reached the £2,000 mark by the end of the third and final performance, so Dickens finally gave in to the suggestion of John Deane (manager of the Great Manchester Art Exhibition) to perform at that city’s New Free Trade Hall.

Rushing up to Manchester to read A Christmas Carol there, Dickens inspected the huge hall that could hold two thousand people. It would work well for the staging of the play, he knew, but it was much too large for his troupe of amateur performers – including his sister-in-law Georgina and children. They simply didn’t have the voices or proper stage training for such a venue. (It never occurred to Dickens that he might not be up to the professional requirements of such a huge hall.) He would need to hire and rehearse some professional actresses. He was assisted in finding these actresses by Alfred Wigan, manager of the Olympic Theater. Wigan had already hired two promising young actresses at his theater – Fanny and Maria Ternan – and with Dickens’s approval, he approached them to see if they would be interested in appearing in The Frozen Deep. They agreed to do so.

Along with Fanny and Maria, Wigan suggested, Dickens might consider the young women’s mother, Frances Elearnor Ternan, and the youngest member of the acting family – just 18 – Ellen Lawless Ternan.

And thus Charles Dickens’s life changed forever.


And here, with your kind permission, I shall segue from biographical summary to a bit of my novel-in-progress. The narrator here, I should remind you, is the rather mysterious and slightly shadowy Wilkie Collins – writer, rake, laudanum addict, frequent sufferer of drug-induced paranoia, and friend to Charles Dickens during the older author’s most rebellious period. While everything Wilkie will tell you below is true – or at least reported by various biographers, which is far from the same thing as being “true” – it needs to be remembered that one of the great pleasures in this coming novel, for me, is that Wilkie Collins, because of his own weaknesses (not the least of which include jealousy) is what we call in this trade an unreliable narrator

     “But in 1865, the year of his Staplehurst Disaster, Charles Dickens had reason to be very satisfied indeed with his own personal history.
     He was the most popular novelist in England, perhaps in the world. Many people in England and America considered my friend to be – outside of Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer and Keats – the greatest writer who had ever lived.
     Of course, I knew this to be nonsense, but popularity, as they say (or as I have said), breeds more popularity. I had seen Charles stuck in a rural, doorless privy with no paper to wipe his arse and his trousers down around his ankles, bleating like a lost sheep for some help, and you will have to forgive me if that image remains more true to me than “the greatest writer who ever lived.”

     But on this June day in 1865, Dickens had many reasons to be smug.
     Seven years earlier, the writer had separated from his wife Catherine, who obviously had offended him in their twenty-two years of marriage by uncomplainingly bearing him ten children, suffering several miscarriages, all the while generally putting up with his every complaint and catering to his every whim. This endeared his wife to him to the point that in 1857, during a walking trip we were taking in the countryside during which we had sampled several bottles of local wine, Dickens chose to describe his beloved Catherine to me as, “Very dear to me, Wilkie, very dear. But, on the whole, more bovine than entrancing, more ponderous than feminine . . . an alchemist’s dull brew of vague-mindedness, constant incompetence, shuffling sluggishness, and self-indulgent idleness, a thick gruel stirred only by the paddle of her frequent self-pity.”

     I doubt if my friend remembered telling me this, but I had not forgotten.
     Actually, it was a complaint that did Catherine in, domestically speaking. It seems (actually, it does not “seem” at all – I was there when he purchased the blasted thing) that Dickens had bought the actress Ellen Ternan an expensive bracelet after our production of The Frozen Deep, and the idiot jeweler had delivered the thing to the Dickenses’ home in London, Tavistock House, not to Miss Ternan’s flat. As a result of this mis-delivery,Catherine had given forth several weeks’ worth of bovine mewlings, refusing to believe that it was merely her husband’s token offering of innocent esteem to the actress who had done such a wonderful (well, I would say competent) job in our . . . no, my . . . play about unrequited love in the Arctic.
     It is true, as Dickens continued to explain to his deeply hurt wife in 1858, that the author had the habit of showering generous gifts on his fellow players and participants in his various amateur theatricals. After The Frozen Deep he had already distributed bracelets and pendants, a watch, and one set of three shirt studs in blue enamel to others in the production.
     But, then, he wasn’t in love with these others. And he was in love with young Ellen Ternan. I knew that. Catherine Dickens knew that. No one can be sure if Charles Dickens knew that. The man was such a convincing fictionalist, not to mention one of the most self-righteous fellows ever to trod the Earth, that I doubt if he ever confronted and acknowledged his own deeper motivations, except when they were as pure as spring water.

     In this case, it was Dickens who flew into a rage, shouting and roaring at the soon-cowed Catherine – I apologize for any inadvertant bovine connotation there – that his wife’s accusations were a slur on the pure and luminously perfect person of Ellen Ternan. Dickens’s emotional, romantic, and, dare I say it, erotic fantasies always revolved around sanctified, chivalric devotion to some hypothetical young and innocent goddess whose purity was eternally beyond reproach. But Dickens may have forgotten that the hapless and now domestically doomed Catherine had watched “Uncle John,” the farce that we had put on (it was the tradition in our century, you see, always to present a farce along with a serious drama) after The Frozen Deep. In “Uncle John,” Dickens (age 46) played the elderly gentleman and Ellen Ternan (18) played his ward. Naturally, Uncle John falls madly in love with the girl less than half his age. Catherine must have also known that while I had written the bulk of the drama, The Frozen Deep, about the search for the lost Franklin Expedition, it was her husband who had written and cast the romantic farce, after he had met Ellen Ternan.
     Not only does Uncle John fall in love with the young girl he should be protecting, but he showers her with, and I quote from the play’s stage directions, “wonderful presents – a pearl necklace, diamond ear-rings.”

     So it is little wonder that when the expensive necklace, meant for Ellen, showed up at Tavistock House, Catherine, between pregnancies, roused herself from her vague-minded shuffling sluggishness and bellowed like a milk cow with a Welsh dairyman’s prod between her withers.
     Dickens responded as any guilty husband would. But only if that husband happened to be the most popular writer in all of England and the Americas and perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived.
     First, he insisted that Catherine make a social call on Ellen Ternan and Ellen’s mother, showing everyone that there could be no hint of suspicion or jealousy on his wife’s part. In essence, Dickens was demanding that his wife go publicly apologize to his mistress – or at least to the woman that he would soon choose to be his mistress when he worked up the courage to make the arrangements. Weeping, miserable, Catherine did as she was bid. She humiliated herself by making a social call on Ellen and Mrs. Ternan.

     It was not enough to assuage Dickens’s fury. He cast the mother of his ten children out.
     He sent Charley, his eldest son, to live with Catherine. He kept the rest of the children to live with him first at Travistock House and eventually at Gad’s Hill Place. (It was always my observation that Dickens enjoyed his children until they began to think and act for themselves in any way . . . in other words, when they ceased behaving like Little Nell or one of his other fictional constructs . . . and then he quickly grew very bored with them.)
     There was more to this scandal, of course – protests by Catherine’s parents, public retractions of those protests forced by Dickens and his solicitors, bullying and misleading public statements by the author, legal maneuverings, much terrible publicity, and a final and irrevocable legal separation forced on his wife. He eventually refused to communicate with her at all, even about the well-being of their children.
     All this from the man who epitomized, not just for England but for the world, the image of “the happy home.”

     Of course Dickens still needed a woman in his house. He had many servants. He had nine children at home with whom he did not wish to be bothered except when he was in the mood to play with them or dangle them on his knee for photographs. He had social obligations. There were menus and shopping lists and florists’ orders to prepare. There was much cleaning and organizing to oversee. Charles Dickens needed to be freed from all these details. He was the world’s greatest writer.
     Dickens did the obvious thing, although it might not have seemed so obvious to you or to me. (Perhaps in this distant 20th or 21st Century to which I consign this memoir, it is the obvious thing. Or perhaps you have, if you are smart, abandoned the quaint and idiotic institution of marriage altogether. As you will see, I avoided matrimony in my time, choosing to live with one woman while having a child with another, and the populace, to my great pleasure, called me a scoundrel and a cad. But I digress.)
     Dickens did the obvious thing. He elevated Catherine’s spinster sister Georgina to the role of surrogate wife, mistress of his household, discipline-mistress of his children, hostess at his many parties and dinners, not to mention Sergeant Major to the cook and servants.

     When the inevitable rumours began – centred on Georgina rather than on Ellen Ternan, who had receded, one might say, from the gas lights to the shadows – Dickens ordered a doctor to Tavistock House. The doctor was told to examine Georgina and then was ordered to publish a statement, which he did, declaring to all and sundry that Miss Hogarth was virgo intacta.
     And that, Charles Dickens assumed, would be that.

     His youngest daughter would later say to me, or at least say within my hearing, “My father was like a madman. This affair brought out all that was the worst – all that was the weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.”
     If Dickens was aware of their unhappiness, or if it mattered to him if he was indeed aware, he did not show it. Not to me, nor to his newer and now closer friends.

     And he was correct in his assumption that the crisis would pass without his readers abandoning him. If they knew of his domestic irregularities at all, they had obviously forgiven him. He was, after all, the English prophet of the happy home and the world’s greatest writer. Allowances must be made.
     Our male literary peers and friends also forgave and forgot – with the exception of Thackeray, but that is another story – and I must admit that some of them, some of us, tacitly or privately, applauded Charles’s freeing himself of his domestic obligations from such an unattractive and perpetually dragging sea anchor. The break gave a glimmer of hope to the bleakest of married men and amused us bachelors with the thought that perhaps one could come back from that undiscovered matrimonial country from which it has been said that no man could ever return.
     But, I pray you, Dear Reader, remember that we are speaking of the man who, sometime earlier, shortly before his acquaintance with Ellen Ternan, as he and I cruised the theaters for what we called “the special little periwinkles” – those very young and very pretty young actresses we found to our mutual aesthetic satisfaction – had said to me, “Wilkie, if you can think of any tremendous way of passing the night, in the meantime, do. I don’t care what it is. I give, for this night only, restraint to the Winds! If the mind can devise anything sufficiently in the style of Sybarite Rome in the days of its culminating voluptuousness, I am your man.”
     And I was his.”


Your more reliable narrator (I hope) speaking again here.

We know that 46-year-old Charles Dickens pursued Ellen Ternan even before the incident of the necklace (which has various tellings and which may be apocryphal.) We know that he was in the midst of some sort of major mid-life crisis centering around his feelings toward the 18-year-old actress. We know that Dickens enlisted Wilkie Collins in the charade of researching a fictional travel piece called “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” in order to pursue the Ternan women to Doncaster where they were appearing in a play. We know that Dickens wrote to Collins, “I have never known a moment’s peace or content since the last night of The Frozen Deep.”

In Doncaster (this is still 1858) something happened. We don’t know what. We are almost sure that he saw Ellen alone there for the first time. Perhaps his affections were rebuffed. Perhaps he was reminded of their age differences. Perhaps young Ellen perceived something other than innocent idolatry in Dickens’s approaches. At any rate, in a letter afterward he wrote, “The Doncaster unhappiness remains so strong in me that I can’t write, and (waking) can’t rest one minute.”

For a man who had always been hyperactive and unable to relax in one place for long, this was almost an understatement. His coming months and years became an incessant cascade of motion, moving, projects, professional reorganizing, readings, travel, sleepless nights, laudanum, opium, and – of course – turning his back forever on Catherine, his wife of 22 years.

Our age sees clearly what a hypocritical male-chauvinist pig-dog Charles Dickens was during that entire separation (and in the scandal that accompanied it), but even our easy modern analysis of such things needs to appreciate the complexities of the time, the couple, and most of all, of the man named Charles Dickens.

Novelist Jane Smiley, in her short and fascinating Charles Dickens 2002 contribution to the Penguin LIVES editions, writes –

“We also see a pattern in his behavior that is more familiar in our divorce culture than it was in Dickens’s time – a man filled with conflicting passions, resentments, and needs transfers his allegiance from one object to another. The situation with the new woman requires him to suppress his demands or resentments with her in order to court her, so he displaces his anger onto the former object, changing entirely from the protective, considerate husband he had once been into a thoughtless tyrant, completely unable to dissemble, as he had been doing when the probable continuation of the marriage required it. More and more anger requires more and more self-justification, until the man literally comes to seem either ‘mad’ or ‘wicked,’ which is what Dickens seemed to his daughters . . . .

“It is also true that the evidence of Dickens’s vast canvas of characters, which includes Uriah Heep as well as David Copperfield, and Rigaud as well as Arthur Clennam, and Carker the manager and Joey Bagstock and the dwarf Quilp as well as John Jarndyce and Nicholas Nickleby and Sam Weller, indicates that Dickens was entirely at ease imagining anger, manipulation, and evil. Whatever the inspiration for any character, each receives life from the author’s empathetic imagination, which is quickened through its sense of kinship with the idiosyncrasies of the character. Dickens’s evil characters are often remarkable and riveting in their energy. They show that the powerful anger and longing Dickens expressed at the time of his divorce [(sic) – legally it was not a divorce but a separation: DS] were not at all unknown or unfamiliar to him. Their eruption into his normally well-conducted life was possibly to be deplored, but also to be expected. Some of his contemporary authors were horrified at how he was behaving and did not themselves behave with a similar lack of control or degree of passion, but neither do their works explore the negative passions so deeply or so repeatedly. Once again, Dickens did not fit in and showed himself both freer and broader in his passions than those around him. But it is this very freedom and breadth that causes us to mention Dickens and not, say, Thackeray or Eliot, along with Shakespeare.”

Dickens may have been “freer and broader in his passions” than his Victorian contemporaries, but he was also far more secretive. The cliché of the era among men of means was the upright family man with his long-term mistress on the side, known by all (including, often silently, by the wife), but for various reasons – Dickens’s truly unprecedented fame (he was the first celebrity, by modern standards), his association with the image of the happy English family that he had created through his early novels, and his complex personality – Dickens could not and would not go that route.

Many modern readers know that as a boy, Dickens suffered a serious trauma that changed his personality, determined his behavior, and formed his writing for the rest of his life. At the age of eleven, due to his parents’ reckless dealings with money, the happily middle-class young Charles Dickens was jerked out of school and set to work in a blacking factory – filling bottles with shoe-blacking solution. It was demeaning work, set in a slum, and Dickens was suddenly set to work amidst young ruffians and uneducated youths whose future in the underclass was all but determined for life. Dickens himself was set into a window where his job was to paste on labels and then tie a string with a clever knot around the label and bottle. The boys doing this were exhibited in the window because the owners of the shop knew that passersby would be amused by the waifs’ rapid work and manual dexterity.

While Dickens was to become the defender of childhood for the rest of his life – not just through his powerful novels but through his charity work and support of Reform bills that attempted to give some dignity to the young and poor – what had truly scarred him during these nightmarish months in the blacking factory was being exhibited in the window for everyone to gawk at and to laugh at.

Never again.

From 1861 onward, Dickens lived two lives. Pruning his life of the close friends who had not supported him during his dastardly separation from Catherine and the scandal that he had helped create around it (assuming that everyone knew what was going on, he published strident and self-justifying letters and announcements that left the majority of his readers – who knew little or nothing about Dickens’s domestic problems – wondering if he had lost his mind or if he was simply a cad), Dickens continued to live one very visible public and private life – with Georgina Hogarth (Catherine’s sister) and his nine children at Gad’s Hill Place – and another secret, sacred, hidden life that no one knows about to this day.

He continued to see Ellen Ternan – leasing a nearby cottage for her under an assumed name, meeting her privately in France and elsewhere, even sending her coded messages as to whether it would be politic for her to join him on his second (and more triumphant) visit to America (he quickly realized that the uptight Americans would be scandalized and the coded message told Ellen not to come) – and we know through hints in his fiction and letters to his most intimate friends that the relationship evolved and changed in various ways, most biographers believing they became lovers and Ellen Ternan’s single biographer and one of Dickens’s own children stating flatly that she had a child of his who died.

From 1857 until his death in 1870 at age 58, there were two Charles Dickens – one the famous and much-loved superstar of a novelist, whose public readings packed in thousands in both England and America and which created an entire new form of performance art – and the other a man pursuing the romantic and perhaps erotic dream of his entire lifetime: one that involved finding the true life’s companion whom he had never had as well as sharing innocence, intelligence, compassion, and – perhaps – passion on a level that he had never found it.

This secret life and secret arrangement might have continued implacably on for decades if it had not been for the Staplehurst accident on the ninth of June, 1865.

Here I will return you to our narrator of my fictionalized Wilkie Collins –


     “I have not forgotten 9 June, 1865, the true beginning of this cascade of incredible events.
     Dickens, explaining to friends that he was suffering from overwork and what he had been calling his “frost-bitten foot” since mid-winter, had taken a week off from his work of finishing Our Mutual Friend to enjoy a holiday in Paris. I do not know if Ellen Ternan and her mother went with him. I do know they returned with him.
     A lady whom I have never met nor much wish to, a certain Mrs. William Clara Pitt Byrne (a friend, I am told, of Charles Waterton – the naturalist and explorer who reported his bold adventures all over the world but who had died from a silly fall at his estate of Walton Hall just eleven days before the Staplehurst accident, his ghost later reported to be haunting the place in the form of a great, grey heron), loved to send little bits of malicious gossip to the Times. This malevolent morsel, reporting the sighting of our friend on the ferry from Boulogne to Folkestone that day of the ninth of June, appeared some months after Dickens’s accident:
     “Travelling with him was a lady not his wife, nor his sister-in-law, yet he strutted about the deck with the air of a man bristling with self-importance, every line of his face and every gesture of his limbs seemed haughtily to say – ‘Look at me; make the most of your chance. I am the great, I am the only Charles Dickens; whatever I may choose to do is justified by that fact.”
     I am told that Mrs. Byrne is known primarily for a book she published some years ago titled Flemish Interiors. In my modest opinion, she should have reserved her vitriolic pen for scribbling about divans and wallpaper. Human beings are clearly beyond her narrow scope.
     After disembarking at Folkestone, Dickens, Ellen, and Mrs. Ternan took the 2.38 tidal train to London. As they approached Staplehurst, they were the only passengers in their coach, one of seven first-class carriages in the tidal train that day.
     The engineer was going full speed – about fifty miles per hour – as they passed Headcorn at eleven minutes after three in the afternoon. They were now approaching the railroad viaduct near Staplehurst, although “viaduct” – the name given the structure in the official railways guide – is too fancy a word for the web of girders supporting the heavy wood beams spanning the shallow river Beult.
     Labourers were carrying out a routine replacement of old timbers on that span. Later investigation – and I have read the reports – showed that the foreman had consulted the wrong timetable and did not expect the tidal train for another two hours. (It seems that we travelers are not the only ones to be confounded by British railway timetables with their infinite holiday and weekend asterisks and confounding parentheses.)
     A flagman was required by railway policy and English law to be stationed 1,000 yards up the rails from such work – two of the rails had already been lifted off at the bridge and set alongside the track – but for some reason this man with his red flag was only 550 yards from the gap. This did not give a train traveling at the speed of the Folkestone-London tidal express any chance of stopping in time.
     The engineer, upon seeing the red flag so tardily waved and – a much more soul-riveting sight, I am sure – upon seeing the gap in rails and beams in the bridge ahead, did his best. Perhaps in your day, Dear Reader, all trains have brakes that can be applied by the engineer. Not so in our day of 1865. Each carriage must be braked individually and then only upon the instructions from the engineer. He madly whistled for the guards along the length of the train to apply their brakes. It did little good.
     According to the report, the train was still doing almost thirty miles per hour when it reached the broken line. Incredibly, the engine jumped the forty-two foot gap and leaped off the track on the other side of the chasm. Of the seven first-class carriages, all but one flew free and plummeted to their destruction in the swampy river bed below.
     The surviving coach was the one carrying Dickens, his mistress, and her mother.
     The guards’ van immediately behind the engine was flung to the other track, dragging the next coach – a second-class carriage – with it. Immediately behind this second-class carriage was Dickens’s coach and it jolted partially over the bridge as the other six first-class carriages flew by and crashed below. Dickens’s carriage finally ended up dangling over the side of the bridge, now being kept from falling only by its single coupling to the second-class carriage. Only the very rear of the rest of the train remained on the rails. The other first-class carriages had plummeted and crashed and rolled and buckled and generally been smashed to matchwood and splinters on the marshy ground below.”


And there, as they say, doth begin my tale.




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