Charles Dickens had an early breakfast before leaving on one of his secret weekly visits to his mistress, Nelly Ternan.
Small, sleek, punctually neat, the 58-year-old whiskey figure would be instantly recognized in almost all major cities in the world.
The most famous novelist was also one of the most famous living people.
Dickens is pictured above with two of his daughters in 1865. In the week before his fateful last trip to his mistress Nelly in Peckham, Dickens and his daughter Katey were talking until 3am. Relaxing after a pleasant dinner, followed by cognac and cigars, he entrusted her with his relationships and his regrets
The fact that Dickens – a leading champion of Victorian family values - did not want the world to know he had a mistress required a life of constant excuses and deception, which has been the pattern of his existence for the past 13 years since he first met first met Nelly when she was just 18 and acted on the West End stage.
Dickens’ journey on the morning of June 8, 1870, from his home near Rochester in Kent to the house he rented for Nelly in Peckham, South London, was made by train and taxi.
Once reunited with his mistress, he paid £ 15 for the household. Then suddenly he collapsed.
The fact that Dickens – a leading champion of Victorian family values - did not want the world to know he had a mistress required a life of constant excuses and deception, which has been the pattern of his existence for the past 13 years since he first met first met Nelly when she was just 18 and acted on the West End stage. She is pictured above
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize what had caused his attack.
Dickens, the father of ten children – nine of whom were alive – was a man of strong sexual desire who brought his love life to life with the same hyper-exuberant energy he used for all his other favorite activities: acting, traveling, journalism , writing, charity work, entertaining his literary friends and fatherhood.
Nelly was quickly confronted with a crisis. If Dickens died – and it seemed he could – it would be catastrophic for his reputation if it turned out that he had suffered a fatal collapse in the arms of his lover.
Nelly enlisted the help of a nearby church caretaker and a taxi driver with a hackney cab and arranged for Dickens’ half-conscious body to be lifted onto a horse-drawn carriage. Within minutes, the vehicle with the loved ones on board was on its way to Kent.
What happened next is not entirely clear. Accounts vary, but the next thing we know for sure is that the novelist was at home on the floor of his dining room, with his housekeeper and children at his side.
Nelly had left by then, although two records indicate that she was with his family when Dickens, who had never fully regained consciousness, died the next day, June 9, at 6:10 PM.
The official version of the events would always be that England’s greatest novelist had died peacefully at home, surrounded by his children, who had worked on his next book to the end. Indeed, there are scholars who still believe that this happened and that the visit to Peckham never took place.
And yet the mystery remains.
Was his downfall caused by a frenzy of passion with the woman who had been his muse for so long? Or was the story nothing more than a scandalous Victorian tinsel?
As the 150th anniversary of his death approaches next month, the exact details of Dickens’s last hours remain uncertain. It is just one of many mysteries surrounding this extraordinarily complex man.
Nowhere were these complications and contradictions more apparent than in his attitude to women.
From the extreme cruelty he showed to his long-suffering wife Catherine to his penchant for the company of very young and offerable women, his need to control and manipulate members of the opposite sex was a defining characteristic of his life.
Verbal abuse, an obsession with cleanliness and even what women wore were all aspects of his complex personality. His need for control was ultimately expressed in one of his most bizarre interests: hypnosis.
Of all the women in his life, Dickens seems to have reserved his bitterest hatred for his mother, Elizabeth. As a child, Charles had lived an idyllic life, much of it in the Kent countryside.
But when he was 12 years old, disaster struck. His father John was sent to the debtor’s prison, the South London Marshalsea – later the setting for the novelist’s masterpiece Little Dorrit – over a series of unpaid bills, taking his wife and some of his children with him.
To help support the family, Charles was taken out of school and sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory near Charing Cross Station, where he stuck labels onto jars of shoe polish and lived alone in shelter. It was a traumatic experience that left him with scars forever, but also inspired some of his best writings.
John’s incarceration lasted only three months, but the damage was done. Charles returned to school, but from then on blamed his mother – especially for apparently rejecting him – and later poured all his anger and disgust at the hideous, negligent mother figures who inhabit his novels.
At the end of their honeymoon, Catherine (above) had realized that while she would share his bed and, if he wanted to, his spare time, she would be mostly alone while indulging in hectic activities
“I never forgot it after that. I will never forget it. I can never forget it, ”he told his friend and biographer John Forster. Dickens’s mother had been unable to give him the love he was looking for, although she had shown her other children very kindly. By the time she died in 1863, Dickens hadn’t seen her for months.
His quest to bridge the emotional divide involved his late teens and early twenties. He finally found what he was looking for in blonde, pretty 19-year-old Catherine Hogarth, his boss’s daughter in The Morning Chronicle on Fleet Street, where he worked as a reporter.
The courtship was quick and intense, and the couple married in St Luke’s, Chelsea, in April 1836. Dickens already had the idea of fame in his grip.
Towards the end of their honeymoon, Catherine realized that while she would share his bed and, if he felt like it, his spare time, she would be alone for the most part while indulging in hectic activities. It was to prove a recipe for misery.
Intriguing – and illuminating – details of marriage remain. Apparently, Dickens was unable to trust that his wife would do the family’s shopping well, and often accompanied her to the butcher, fruit merchant, or fishmonger.
In January 1857, he wrote to his friend William Wills, a colleague of the Household Words magazine that Dickens edited, saying, “I am going to Newgate Market with Mrs. Dickens after breakfast to show [sic] its where to buy chickens’.
This can be interpreted as loving company – or simply over control.
For Dickens, cleanliness was an obsession. His daughter Mamie wrote after his death: “He made it a point to visit every room in the house once a morning and if a chair was out of place, or a blind man not completely straight, or a crumb on the floor, woe to the perpetrator! “
But despite such quirks and eccentricities, several accounts suggest the couple had happy times for part of their marriage, traveling together to the United States, Italy, and France.
That said, by the time Catherine was in her forties – and sulky, red-faced and with bad teeth – marriage had started to crack. Dickens started to punish her for feeling the need to punish his mother.
The couple’s relationships were so strained that Dickens’ ex-publisher Frederick Evans and colleague William Wills refused to go to his house. This, Evans said, was because they “couldn’t resist his cruelty to his wife.” When asked by a friend what he meant, Evans explained: “Swearing at her in the presence of guests, children and servants – swearing often and violently. He’s downright outraged. ”
According to Victorian essayist Harriet Martineau, “Dickens was terrified and depressed [Catherine] in a dull state. ‘
As Dickens herself became more and more energetic, Catherine collapsed into “indescribable listlessness”.
The last divorce, when it came, was callous and relentless.
In the summer of 1857, Dickens wrote a letter to the servant of his wife, Anne Cornelius.
“My dear Anne,” he said, “I want to make some small changes to my dressing room and bathroom layout. And since I would rather not have them discussed by comparative strangers, I will be very grateful to you, my old friend, if you see them completed.
“I also want to make the bathroom my washroom. So it will be necessary to carry the bathroom inside, to stay there, the two sinks from my dressing room. Then, to get all the way off the dresser into the dressing room, I want to fit the recess of the doorway between the dressing room and Mrs. Dickens’ room with plain white deal shelves and closed with a simple light deal door, painted white. The sooner it is finished, the better. ”
Without consulting his wife, Dickens literally built a barrier between them.
It is especially horrifying that in his pincer movement he confirms his friendship with the maid to force everyone in the household – both servants and children – to his side in the domestic war he was planning.
In May 1858, Dickens decided that it was impossible for him and Catherine to stay in the same house together.
In a letter to his Christian philanthropist friend Angela Burdett-Coutts, he wrote, “I believe my marriage has been as miserable as ever for years. I believe that no two people have ever been created, with such an impossibility of interest, sympathy, confidence, sentiment, tender union of any kind, as there is between my wife and me. ‘
He concluded his letter accusing Catherine of “the most miserable weaknesses and jealousy … Her mind has certainly been confused at times.”
Such a language – the kind that would make Catherine question her own mind – suggests that we are on the territory of the 1940 psychological thriller Gaslight.
It was at this point, according to their daughter Katey, that Dickens went “crazy.” An example of his turbulent state of mind was, she said, his decision to post in several national newspapers an announcement of the breakup of his marriage, referring to the “quirk of her” [Catherine’s] character’.
In later years, Katey suggested it would have been a disaster who her father had married. “He didn’t understand women,” she said. ‘This one [episode] brought out all the worst – everything that was weakest in him. He didn’t care what happened to any of us. ‘
In Dickens’s mind, Catherine had taken the place of the mother he could never forgive.
The only escape was to find a nymph dream, a girl-woman of the kind who leafed through the pages of his novels incessantly and always appealed to him — someone who could never turn out to be his disguised mother.
Nelly Ternan, young, malleable and beautiful, was that person. The years of their relationship would prove most productive and successful. And yet, as so often with Dickens, those surprising contrasts and contrasts played out.
Once a champion of social justice and champion of the underdog, he had proposed a refuge in 1847 and helped set up “fallen women,” including many prostitutes. His idea was that after they were rescued they would be able to travel to Australia to start a new life.
Despite the other heavy demands on his time, Dickens had embarked on the project with gusto. It was he who spoke to the builders about changes to the property he chose in West London. It was he who went to buy the furniture, the bookcases and the books.
He bought the linen, the carpets and curtains; it was he who even chose the woman’s clothes.
“I made them as cheerful as they could reasonably be – and at the same time very neat and modest,” he wrote. The distinction between a desire to be in control and a desire to help the young women involved is beautiful.
Once a champion of social justice and champion of the underdog, he had proposed a refuge in 1847 and helped set up “fallen women,” including many prostitutes
More than his novels, his home for fallen women would be a world in which he could take full charge. It turned out to be a huge success, establishing a number of women in happy marriages and giving them exactly the new start he had in mind.
Here is once again the paradox of Charles Dickens: half good agent, half bad.
As if he were not busy enough, Dickens had become fascinated by the new craze of Mesmerism in the late 1830s.
A relatively new concept in Britain, it was the brainchild of German physician Anton Mesmer, who suggested that a trance-like condition brought on by an expert practitioner can be used to cure a variety of conditions.
Dickens was captivated and befriended London’s leading mesmerism specialist, John Elliotson, a professor of medicine. From Elliotson and others, Dickens learned to perform the movements of Mesmerism. On a trip to Boston, USA during happier times with his wife in 1842, he tried it out for two witnesses.
Within six minutes of wrapping his hands around her head, Catherine became hysterical. Then she fell asleep. However, a somewhat shocked Dickens noticed that he could easily wake her up by moving his thumbs over her eyebrows and blowing her face gently.
It had been a shock, but he soon hypnotized Catherine and other family members and friends. He even tried his hand at a Frenchwoman named Madame de la Rue whom he met in Italy looking for a cure for tics and hallucinations.
Although it is not entirely clear whether he slept with her, Dickens’ intimacy with Catherine caused enormous suffering. Indeed, she was so disturbed by the amount of time Dickens spent at all hours of the day and night in Mme de la Rue’s bedroom to cause the mesmerism that he had to take his wife for a few days to calm down what he her claim was “unreasonable behavior.”
A sexual element of control was undoubtedly strong in all of this, with contemporary reports suggesting that Dickens found it most exciting to perform his hypnotic tricks on women.
It was not the last time that his overwhelming desire for control was expressed in a public and very dramatic way.
Because in 1858, Dickens had started touring Britain with one-man performances of his most famous novels. It was these shows that brought him worldwide stardom and increased his already considerable wealth.
His favorite depiction was that of the brutal death of the prostitute Nancy at the hands of her lover, Bill Sikes, from his novel Oliver Twist. In 1863, he confessed that he had privately performed an imaginary reenactment of Nancy’s murder, “but it is so terrible that I am afraid to try it in public.”
His manager George Dolby strongly opposed the plan to shoot the murder scene in public, because it was inappropriate for a show intended for all ages, and because of its likely effect on Dickens’ health.
Dickens’s family was also against. His son Charley later shared how he worked in the family home library when he heard the sound of violence outside in the garden. It sounded like a vagabond hit his wife.
While the sound continued – alternating between brutal screams and feminine screams – Charley decided to intervene, but found his father outside on the lawn and killed an imaginary Nancy with fierce gestures.
When Dickens asked his son what he thought, Charley replied, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. But don’t do it. ‘
But Dickens had made a decision. He went on to perform 28 renditions of Nancy’s murder. It became an obsession for him.
He told his friend William Wills that his performance had a transformative physical effect on him. “My regular heart rate is 72 and it goes up to 112,” he wrote. “Besides, it takes me ten or twelve minutes to come all the way back: I’m like the man who lost the fight.”
After the scene, there would be total silence in the hall. Dickens then went backstage, often with difficulty, and would be forced to lie on a couch for a few minutes before he could speak again. He recovered and “after a glass of champagne returned to the stage for the final reading.”
It is almost as if Dickens had taken a ghost out of the bottle of whose sexually violent existence he had been barely aware. Indeed, he liked to joke about his “murderous instincts” and his reenactment of the murder. “I have a vague feeling,” he said, “because I’m” wanted “as I walk the streets.”
The inevitable happened in Chester in April 1869 when Dickens suffered a minor stroke on stage. A doctor was summoned and ordered the tour to be canceled immediately.
But Dickens’s obsession with the scene refused to leave him. Months after the shows ended, and shortly before his death a year later, he was discovered killing Nancy again in the privacy of his own garden.
The week before his fateful last trip to his mistress Nelly in Peckham, Dickens and his daughter Katey were talking until 3am. Relaxing after a pleasant dinner, followed by cognac and cigars, he entrusted her with his relationships and his regrets.
“He wish he had been a better father, a better man,” she later recalled.
Many of those who knew him may have agreed. A flawed genius perhaps – but one whose writings continue to fascinate and delight a century and a half after his departure.
© A.N. Wilson, 2020
The Mystery Of Charles Dickens will be released on June 4 by Atlantic and costs £ 17.99.