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A Debatable Case
on March 20, 2013
This books starts promisingly with a shrewd analysis of the virtues that made Dickens to most popular Victorian novelist and the faults-- hidden from his adoring public-- that made one of his daughters describe him as a "very wicked man." Then it unfortunately goes into soft focus with its notion that women (actually two women, his teenage sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth and much later his twenty-something mistress, Ellen Ternan) were Dickens' "religion." That he idolized the two young women is certainly true. That the situation with the mistress was as pious as the author makes it seem is debatable. The author portrays the mistress, Ternan, as more or less an innocent, but that is not how Edmund Wilson portrays her in his seminal essay, "Dickens: The Two Scrooges." Wilson describes Ternan as "neither so fascinating nor so gifted as Dickens thought her," in fact, something of a gold-digger, a model for the cold-hearted, mercenary Estella in Great Expectations. Wilson adds that after Dickens' death, Ternan confided to a "Canon Benham" that "she had loathed her relationship with Dickens and deeply regretted the whole affair."
If Dickens made a religion of his mistress, then what did he make of the wife, Catherine, whom he callously discarded after decades of marriage and nine children? Dickens must have thought he loved her at SOME point. But the reader gets little notion of that since this book largely ignores Catherine, which is perhaps the greatest problem with it. A lot of what the author writes about Ellen Ternan is conjecture since little is known about her. He could have been on firmer historical ground with Catherine Dickens, and thus provided the the book with more substance.