Star rating – 9/10
Before celebrated biographer Claire Tomalin publishes her eagerly awaited book on Charles Dickens this autumn, I thought I would check out her earlier book from 1990, which looks at a particular part of his life, and more specifically, a particular relationship within it. For the biggest celebrity of his age and many afterwards had a dark secret that he painstakingly kept secret for many years, that was his mistress, Nelly Ternan.
Tomalin is an excellent biographer, and in this work is very sympathetic to the plight of Nelly, who was a young woman of eighteen when, as a budding actress, she met the forty five year old writer. Her description of life in the theatre, and explanation of just what a disreputable line of employment that was for women in those days is fascinating and revealing. And as a pleasant aside, I was pleased to learn that Dickens and Nelly met when they appeared in a play together at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall (R.I.P.).
It must have been reminiscent of the famous question of Mrs. Merton to Debbie McGee about what attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels for Nelly. She was young, and with her mother and sisters, had to tour the country in any production that could get to appear in, and money was very tight. And then along came Dickens - debonair, dashing, famous, wealthy, and unhappy in his marriage. Nelly’s beauty, innocence and youth attracted him immediately, and he took little time in pursuing her. None of this is particularly remarkable, but what is remarkable is the lengths to which he and Nelly both went to make sure that their 13 year relationship was kept secret.
Tomalin is excellent at piecing together the bits of the story like a detective. She does use conjecture at certain points in the story to fill in the gaps, through lack of firm evidence, but makes it clear when she is doing so, and urges the reader to judge for themselves. Dickens does not come out of the book in a great light, but then neither is he painted as an absolute villain.
This great book reveals so much about the economic position of women in this country at that time, and also about the evolution in the theatre to the very respectable institution we all know and love today. But it is at heart the story of a relationship which the participants felt had to be concealed, and in which Dickens very much had the upper hand. It is easy to see why it has attracted the attention of Hollywood and is currently being turned into a film. And it has certainly whetted my appetite for Tomalin’s forthcoming fuller Dickens investigation, and indeed for seeing her at the Manchester Literature Festival next month.