I’ve always enjoyed reading Charles Dickens. Some of his novels I liked more than others, but he remains one of my favorite classic authors. What opening line is more classic than: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”? (A Tale of Two Cities, in case you didn’t know.)
It’s odd though, every time I research him as a writer, I lose a bit of my respect for him. In this case, a lot of respect.
Charles Dickens wrote about everything classically Victorian. Orphans, sweatshops, debtor’s prisons, boarding school, old widows, unrequited love, war… pretty much anything that struck the fancy of the people of that time. He was often serially published, where he would publish a chapter a week in the newspaper. He had a huge following, and plays were even created based on unfinished works of his. He was a god (of sorts).
He wrote of domestic bliss, and was lauded as a wholesome man. So imagine my surprise when doing research for a short story I was writing, to find out that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress… Wait, what? Her name was Nelly Ternan, and she was a born-and-raised actress. If you weren’t aware, actors and actresses were not thought of as well as we think of actors today. In fact, acting was a step above prostitution, with many of the females being solicited as though they were prostitutes by their audience members and fans.
However, that was only the first surprise. Let’s face it, Dickens was famous. He did a lot of travel, probably had a lot of women fawning over him due to his fame…he was a celebrity. There are always people who flock to celebrities and are more than willing to be the homewrecker.
But what really surprised me was how Dickens dealt with said mistress. He denied her (she denied him as well, keeping that secret unto her death), and actually put aside his faithful wife of 22 years and mother to his 10 children. To the public, Dickens announced that he and his wife separated amicably, although he maintained custody of all but one child, and Catherine Dickens was all but stripped of her title as wife and mother. An amicable separation was far from the truth. Dickens did not forbid, but did not encourage his children to see their mother ever again. Instead, he pulled Georgina Hogarth, Catherine Dickens’ sister, to his side of the marriage, separating sister from sister, and having Georgina run the Dickens’ household post separation.
It seems he became a bit of a tyrant with this separation, having a falling out with his publishers of humorous works when they refused to print his separation statement.
I suppose that, given Nelly’s profession and how acting was thought of at that time, it seems more excusable for Dickens to deny his mistress. However, given that he left his wife due to this affair, it also seems especially low.
Although I’ve lost respect for the man, Charles Dickens, I still enjoy some of his novels. However, now that I know more about his past, I’ll be reading his novels with an eye for his personal demons.
What about you? Do you enjoy learning about an author or prefer to leave them a mystery and just enjoy their books?