From Publishers Weekly
Sixty-five years after Charles Dickens's death in 1870, it became public knowledge that he had been involved in an affair with actress Ellen Lawless Ternan. Barely 18 when they met, Ternan is now thought to have been a source of both inspiration (Helena Landless of The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and consternation (Stella in Great Expectations) to the beloved novelist. Though the extent of the couple's closeness remains unknown, Rackham, building upon the few undisputed facts, has achieved a stellar piece of fiction. Beginning at the height of Dickens's fame, the novel is told in alternating chapters by three very different narrators, none of whom hesitates to deride the others: popular mystery writer Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone, portrayed here as an addict and sensualist; Georgina Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law; and Ternan herself. After casting three of the Ternans to act in a play, Dickens long unhappy with his obese, childlike wife is soon smitten, not by Maria as the Ternans expect, but by the quiet, attentive Ellen. Complications, of course, ensue. Though this is not the first time this relationship has been portrayed in a novel see, for instance, William Palmer's The Detective & Mr. Dickens this tale truly cap- tivates, moving from the bawdy fun of the Collins chapters through Georgina Hogarth's unrequited longing to the elegiac moods of strong-willed Ellen. Thorough research is in evidence throughout, and this portrayal of Dickens hardworking and honest, charitable and charming is well in line with the man readers know from books and from history. But it is with his vibrant narrators that Rackham's inventiveness shines brightest. Readers will certainly never think of Wilkie Collins in quite the same way.
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Rackham has set his first novel in the 1850s and 1860s, in the later years of novelist Charles Dickens' career. Victorian England is mad for Dickens; he's a gentleman and a celebrity who draws crowds to his readings and is viewed as a benevolent father figure. His good friend, the mystery writer Wilkie Collins, constantly tries to tempt Dickens with sumptuous prostitutes, but Dickens remains faithful to his wife, Catherine. It isn't until actress Ellen Ternan, an 18-year-old slip of a girl, comes into his life that Dickens is tempted to stray. The two embark on an affair, and Dickens leaves his wife. Although Dickens continues his affair with Ellen, he is always very conscious of the public's perception of him, and this ultimately comes between them. Rackham has chosen Collins, Ellen, and Dickens' hopelessly devoted sister-in-law, Georgina, to tell the story, and their characters are skillfully revealed through their interactions with Dickens and each other. Dickens never narrates, and thus he remains the complex, private, closed-off figure one imagines he was in life. Kristine HuntleyCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved