3 books examine Dickens’ love life

Peter M. Giantotti / Newsday /

Charles Dickens fathered 10 children. But his most beloved offspring was David Copperfield.

He dumped his wife for a teenager. But he imagined himself Sydney Carton.

The more you learn about the personal life of the revered author, eminent Victorian and permanent resident of Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, the more he seems worth a serialized novel himself.

Dickens’ 201st birthday was Feb. 7, the culmination of a bicentennial that has been celebrated grandly. And his love life has gotten some attention, too, from three books.

“The Great Charles Dickens Scandal” (Yale University Press, $30) by Michael Slater is a sharply focused examination of Dickens’ affair with actress Ellen Lawless “Nelly” Ternan. Seventeen when she met the author, Ternan was the age of his youngest daughter.

Slater, a Dickens biographer and emeritus professor of Victorian literature at Birbeck College, University of London, delivers a terse, lively account of the relationship that dominated the last decade-plus of the writer’s life — and the intricate cover-up that went with it.

By now, the Ternan tale isn’t exactly news. But Slater masterfully tells it, with considerable detail and clarification about what’s known and what isn’t, what’s speculative and what’s true. In recent years, the Dickens-Ternan affair has fueled sensational headlines in the London tabloids, from “Dickens’s Romps with Naughty Nelly” to “Dickens Kept a Keen Eye on Fallen Women.”

The story is especially juicy and ironic because Dickens remains “our great national celebrant of hearth, home and family love. ... Radiant domesticity is also the dominant mood at the end of most of his great novels ...” The creator of Oliver Twist, Little Nell and Tiny Tim, however, wouldn’t have been at his best at a PTA meeting.

Slater deftly separates the gossip from the research into Dickens’ “wild indiscretion.”

Dickens’ actual children are the subject of Robert Gottlieb’s “Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25).

“Why was I ever a father!” Dickens wrote two years before he died. Gottlieb, former editor of The New Yorker and a former editor in chief at Alfred A. Knopf, writes a vivid, entertaining, enlightening story about children never living up to what their driven, domineering, fanatically orderly, self-made father wanted.

“Certainly, their lives, however unfortunate, were far from disgraceful,” Gottlieb writes. One, for example, was a respected editor; another, an admired jurist.

Dickens’ surviving children protected his image. But after his last son died, the revelations about Ternan started to become part of the legacy.

Robert Garnett’s “Charles Dickens in Love” (Pegasus Books, $28.95) covers the Ternan affair as well as the impact of Hogarth and Beadnell. Garnett is a professor of English at Gettysburg College.

His account is exceedingly earnest and unduly sympathetic, as well as repetitive, equivocating and, to use one of his favorite words, “vexing.” Garnett is better at discussing the classic fiction than the elusive facts. That’s magnified with Ternan, with whom “he entered the labyrinth.” Beadnell “taught him how passionately he could love, and how hard he could work.”

“Mary Hogarth, in fact, became his religion.” They were his “muses and teachers in the school of love.”

Wince away. And when Garnett compares Dickens with Faust or sets a scene with “Let’s imagine ...,” you’ll be ready to write your own ending to his unfinished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”