The Secret Life of Charles Dickens

This Wednesday sees the launch of our Charles Dickens London Walking Tours which look at Dickens life and works and visit places that featured in both. 

One of the intriguing things about the tours is the glimpse they provide into the troubled last 10 years of Dickens life as he struggled to suppress a secret that, had it been made public, would probably have destroyed his reputation.

In 1857 Dickens had taken the part of the heroic and self-sacrificing Richard Wardour in the play The Frozen Deep, written, with Dickens’s encouragement, by his friend Wilkie Collins. It was for this role, incidentally, that he grew the beard that would become and remains his most recognisable feature to later generations.

During the play’s London performances the female parts were played by Dickens daughters. But when he was offered the chance to transfer the play to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall Dickens was worried that his daughters, who were not professional actresses, would not be up to the challenge of performing in such a huge venue.

So he began casting around for professional actresses to take the roles and approached his friend, theatre manager Alfred Wigan, to see if he could suggest any. Wigan had recently employed actress Fanny Ternan who came from a family of actresses that included her mother, Frances and her two sisters Maria and Ellen (known to the family as Nelly). Wigan recommended them and Dickens was, evidently, sufficiently impressed  to offer them roles in the production.

The play proved a huge success, but his meeting with the Ternan’s, in particular with eighteen year old Ellen Ternan proved a pivotal point in Dickens life. 

By 1857 he was already becoming restless about his domestic situation. His wife, Catherine, having born him 10 children, had put on a considerable amount of weight and, evidence suggests, was prone to bouts of depression. 

No sooner had he met Ellen Ternan than he appears to have become besotted with her and, shortly afterwards, he brought down the curtain on his marriage to Catherine. Thereafter he excised her from his life and, even more cruelly, from the lives of their children with only their son, Charley, opposing his father and living with his mother.

Thereafter his private life became very shadowy as he embarked upon a relationship which, had it become public knowledge, could have ruined the career of the author who, more than any other, was generally perceived as the very embodiment of Victorian family values and Christian virtue.

He and Nelly spent time at various locations even, at one stage, moving to France, where, according to a later account given by his son Henry, they had a child but it died.

There were occasions when word of their relationship came close to leaking out, such as when they were travelling back to London aboard the Folkestone to Charing Cross train and were involved in the Staplehurst rail disaster in 1865.

But on the whole his secret life was well guarded by his friends and colleagues, even in the aftermath of his death in 1870, and news of it didn’t become widely known until many years later.

You can join our new Dickens Walk this Wednesday at 11.30am.