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13 November 2014

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You are in: Berkshire > Entertainment > Arts features > A twist to the Dickens tale

A twist to the Dickens tale

Charles Dickens extolled the virtues of family life in his novels, but in reality he jeopardised his own flawless reputation by indulging in an affair with a teenage actress in Slough.

Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens

Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, as well as a world-famous author, was also much-loved as the archetypal Victorian family man, upholding solid wholesome values with his wife Catherine and nine children.

But Slough plays a large part in the little-known underbelly of his life. It was a part of his life he'd taken great pains to keep hidden from public view: his affair with actress Ellen Ternan.

By 1857, the Dickens' marriage was allegedly a loveless one when he met the 18-year-old Shakespearean actress. He was 45.

He'd visited Slough many times before as his publishers, the Bentley family, lived at The Mere at Upton Park.

"He was an author for the Bentleys and they commissioned him to write Oliver Twist," says Berkshire Dickens expert Jeffrey Griffiths.

Ellen Ternan

Ellen Ternan was only 18 when she met Dickens

"They fell out over that actually because they paid him £1000 but he was growing in literary fame and wanted more money. Eventually they upped the money to £4000".

Oliver Twist was serialised in Bentley's Miscellany, a literary magazine started by Richard Bentley in 1836.

Dickens, at the time a novelist on the rise, became its first editor but quit in 1839 over editorial control.

"Eventually Dickens bought back the rights to Oliver Twist," says Jeffrey, "and he was probably commercially right to do so."

Only a few minutes walk from his now former publisher, Dickens indulged in his murky secret with Ellen, whose nickname was Nelly.

"She was from a theatrical family," says Jeffrey, "the three sisters and the mother were all on the stage.

"In 1857 he spots her on the stage at the Haymarket in London and casts her in a play by Wilkie Collins in Manchester.

"As a 45-year-old married man with a whole brood of children he falls passionately in love with an 18-year-old blonde blue-eyed actress.

Charles Dickens the family man reading to one of his daughters and her companion.

Dickens the family man

"He rented Elizabeth Cottage in Slough High Street under an assumed name - John or Charles Tringham - for her during that time and he later moved her down to Peckham.

He adds: "Of course he was taking quite a chance because he was conducting this affair almost on the doorstep of his former publishers who were living only a few minutes' walk away."

His public image would have been ruined if any reports of his extra-marital affair were published. After all, he was a literary hero whose novels depict family life as a moral ideal.

So a plan for Nelly to accompany him on a tour America was aborted for fear of the American press outing them, and he went to great lengths to omit her from press reports of a famous train crash they were both in.

"He was very careful to cover his tracks," says Jeffrey. "Dickens himself, the family, friends and later on Ellen Ternan's son all did a very good job in burning all correspondence."

Ternan left the stage in 1860, and was supported by Dickens from then on. All the while the pair kept their affair clandestine, and it would have remained so if the novelist had kept a closer eye on a notebook.

"Dickens happened to lose a pocket diary in New York," says Jeffrey, "and fortunately for us the date of it was 1867 and there are various annotations of 'going to Sl' - as in 'going to Slough'.

The affair only ended at Dickens' death of a heart attack at 58 in 1870.

He provided his Nelly with a £1,000 legacy and sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again.

last updated: 06/08/2009 at 11:39
created: 05/08/2009

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