The Great Charles Dickens Scandal by Michael Slater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Slater is perhaps the greatest living Dickens scholar. That isn't to say he's Dickens' best biographer -- a title I would still give to the late Edgar Johnson, if anyone -- or even that I much liked his magisterial life of Dickens from a few years back. It was a factual wonder: summarizing and condensing all the best Dickens research of the past fifty years, indisputably accurate in every detail, no doubt, and as true a record of the great man's life as we are likely to ever see, two centuries out from his birth. If it was not a very diverting or stimulating book, and if critically it lacked the sharp edges and enthusiasm of earlier lives, such as Johnson's, Pope-Hennessy, Steven Leacock or the more recent and readable biography by Claire Tomalin, Slater's book was also free of many, even most of the critical eccentricities and or speculative inventions of the rest. The best biographies, particularly critical biographies of great artists, at least for the common reader, are not quite so dryly reportorial, so determinedly objective as was Slater's. Specially when reading the life of a man of such profound and influential emotions as Dickens, one wants some clear sympathy, some humor, some joy. Even John Forster's classic biography, for all Forster's supposed Victorian reserve, was suffused with what can only be described as love for biographer's great subject and friend. Likewise, later, Chesterton's brilliant little book, and even to a lesser extent, Leacock's life, or the recent short life by the actor, author and Dickens reader, Simon Callow. For a man who has devoted a good span of his professional life to reading and writing about Dickens, Professor Slater would seem to allow himself precious few pleasures in the task, at least precious few he's felt fit to share. (There were many familiar and not a few fresh and wonderfully new anecdotes of Dickens' fun in the biography, quoted presumably with Slater's full intent to amuse, but rather as an unfunny man might relay the story of a party at which he abstained from the punch.)
Curiously, the very deficits in Slater's full-length biography; the cool, not to say cold detachment, the dry reliance on accumulated evidence, no matter the reader's willingness to accept such authority as might have been already sited, the over-fastideous refusal to comment directly on anything but in deadpan, can prove real virtues when, as here, the literary historian's task is to sort, sift and present rather than revivify the past. Slater hasn't any interest in reviving past controversies, or in disputing the dead or the living. What he does do, and do extremely well in a brief span, is tell a somewhat sorry story straight.
I could not imagine why he should want to tell this story at all until I'd read his book. Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, The Invisible Woman, and again, if with less emphasis in her biography of Dickens, rather conclusively and quite brilliantly made the case not just for Dickens' last "scandalous" love for a much younger actress, but also definitively restored Ternan to her full dignity as an interesting and sympathetic person and personality in her own right. So why then should the great scholar, Michael Slater choose to follow up his weighty biography with this considerably more sleight review of the whole history of the scandal? Why rake over yet again Dickens' disastrous end to his long and fruitful marriage, his not so secret fascination with Ternan and their life together and apart to the time of his untimely death?
What Slater does here, and does so well, is painstakingly trace the evolution and detection of that well known and yet little recorded story. His interest is strictly and quite cleverly confined, again, to the facts, and most interestingly, how they were concealed, revealed, suppressed and finally brought most fully to light. The book is more the story of the many Dickensians -- amateur detectives and enthusiasts mostly, with a few professional hacks and hatchet-men among them --who down the years made it their business to winkle out the many small details; an address here, the name on a lease there, a letter, a confession, an otherwise lost conversation and or half-forgotten encounter, from which one of the few truly private episodes in Charles Dickens' very public life might be reconstructed. Slater's command of not only the facts but the personalities involved is masterful. Even with the end now a forgone conclusion for most readers, the good professor manages to make this teapot tempest genuinely exciting, even suspenseful in part because of the scholar's dry, distance survey. Slater looks into it all from a very great height and surprisingly, with very little disdain for any but the very worst characters involved, nay, with even what I feel safe in characterizing as amusement and affection.
Imagine. Such a surprise for the reader of his earlier biography. (Though that's not altogether fair. Slater's entry for Dickens in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, later reproduced as a very short book, was a wise and almost witty thing, smart as paint, and his even earlier critical volume, Dickens and Women was a very clever analysis, free from all the more usual psychological and political cant to be expected from an academic on such a subject, replete as it would seem to be with opportunities for scoring points for and against current theories of sexual and literary politics.)
This book then would seem to have been exactly the sort of exercise the great scholar was meant to take, so late in his labors; an almost brutally clear-eyed review of some the last messy materials left over from more than a century of gossip, rumor and pedestal-rocking. The reader would be hard-pressed to think how anyone coming after might still make much more of the business.
(This also answers some of the more naggingly lazy references to the scandal, and the rather shabby uses to which it is still put in even quite recent books, like Robert Gottlieb's otherwise entertaining and informative book, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, where that author too easily reproduces one or two of the least attractive opinions of Dickens' behavior to both Nelly Ternan, his wife and daughters without properly tracing the origins, as Slater does so definitively here, of those judgements against Dickens' character and affections.)
If finally my own interest in both the relationship between Dickens and Nelly Ternan and the resulting scandal remains next to nothing, even after this book and the rest, That, I happily confess is because my awe of and delight in Dickens achievement as a writer, and my admiration of him as a man, remains all but undimmed by the unhappy end of his marriage and or his personal failings as either a husband or father. I am myself then a Dickensian, I suppose, and proud to so say. Perhaps it is just my own thoroughly modern disinterest in saints, sin and personal scandal as a determining factor in appreciating great literature. Perhaps it is my ever deepening appreciation in this, Dickens' bicentennial year, of his unparalleled artistry as the greatest comic novelist in English that makes me, if always curious as to the details of his life, unwilling to judge him by any other standard. Perhaps it is as simple as saying that I love him, as best as I am able to say, as he was, that makes this book of such keen if passing interest. Whatever I think of this book then, and I think it quite good, it is still Dickens I believe to have been great.
Of that, I am more sure with every word by, rather than about him that I read.
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