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Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens

John Simkin

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1857 Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens wrote The Frozen Deep. The inspiration for the play came from the expedition led by Rear-Admiral John Franklin in 1845 to find the North-West Passage. Dickens offered to arrange its first production in his own home, Tavistock House. Dickens also wanted to play the part of the hero, Richard Wardour, who after struggling against jealousy and murderous impulses, sacrifices his life to rescue his rival in love.

Dickens, who grew a beard for the role, also gave parts to three of his children, Charles Culliford Dickens, Kate Dickens, Mamie Dickens and his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. Dickens later recalled that taking part in the play was "like writing a book in company... a satisfaction of a most singular kind, which had no exact parallel in my life". Dickens invited the theatre critic from The Times to attend the first production on 6th January, 1857 in the converted schoolroom. He was very impressed and praised Kate for her "fascinating simplicity", Mamie for her "dramatic instinct" and Georgina for her "refined vivacity".

The star of the play was Charles Dickens, who showed he could have had a career as a professional actor. One critic, John Oxenford, said that "his appeal to the imagination of the audience, which conveyed the sense of Wardour's complex and powerful inner life, suggests the support of some strong irrational force". The Athenaeum declared that Dicken's acting "might open a new era for the stage". William Makepeace Thackeray, who also saw the production, remarked: "If that man (Dickens) would go upon the stage he would make £20,000 a year."

The temporary theatre held a maximum audience of twenty-five, four performances were given. A private command performance, with the same cast, was also given for Queen Victoria and her family on 4th July and three public benefit performances were given in London in order to raise money for the widow of Dickens's friend, Douglas Jerrold.

Dickens approached his friend, the actor and playwright, Alfred Wigan, about putting on a production of The Frozen Deep in Manchester. This time Dickens wanted the women to be played by professional actresses. Wigan suggested the names of Frances Jarman and her three daughters. The play was given three performances in the Free Trade Hall with Ellen playing the part that was originally performed by Kate Dickens. During the production Dickens fell in love with the eighteen-year-old Ellen Ternan.

The author of The Invisible Woman (1990) has argued: "A bright, penniless girl of eighteen who found herself admired by a rich older man had good reason to be excited. The role laid down by her society were suddenly reversed: having been always powerless, she now began to be in command. In Nelly's case the man she might command was also brilliant and famous, a charming and entertaining companion, and in a position to transform her life, which in any case held few counter-attractions." Dickens wrote to Wilkie Collins claiming that "there never was a man so seized and rended by one spirit".

Two months later Dickens moved out of the master bedroom and now slept alone in a single bed. At the same time he wrote to Emile De La Rue in Genoa, saying that Catherine was insanely jealous of his friendships and that she was unable to get on with her children. He wrote to other friends complaining of Catherine's "weaknesses and jealousies" and that she was suffering from a "confused mind".

Rumours began to circulate at the Garrick Club that Dickens was having an affair with Georgina Hogarth. As Dickens, biographer, Peter Ackroyd, points out: "There were rumours... that he was having an affair with his own sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. That she had given birth to his children. More astonishing still, it seems likely that these rumours about Georgina were in fact started or at least not repudiated by the Hogarths themselves." George Hogarth wrote a letter to his solicitor in which he assured him: "The report that I or my wife or daughter have at any time stated or insinuated that any impropriety of conduct had taken place between my daughter Georgina and her brother-in-law Charles Dickens is totally and entirely unfounded."

The author of The Invisible Woman (1990) argues: "The idea of a member of the Garrick Club so distinguished for his celebration of the domestic virtues being caught out in a love affair with a young sister-in-law was certainly scandalous enough to cause a stir of excitement." William Makepeace Thackeray, who was a close friend of Dickens, claimed that he was not having an affair with Georgina but "with an actress".

In May 1858, Catherine Dickens accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ellen. Her daughter, Kate Dickens, says her mother was distraught by the incident. Charles Dickens responded by a meeting with his solicitors. By the end of the month he negotiated a settlement where Catherine should have £400 a year and a carriage and the children would live with Dickens. Later, the children insisted they had been forced to live with their father.

In June, 1858, Dickens decided to issue a statement to the press about the rumours involving him and two unnamed women (Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth): "By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart... I most solemnly declare, then - and this I do both in my own name and in my wife's name - that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble, at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth."

Dickens also made reference to his problems with Catherine Dickens: "Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it."

The statement was published in The Times and Household Words. However, Punch Magazine, edited by his great friend, Mark Lemon, refused, bringing an end to their long friendship. William Makepeace Thackeray also took the side of Catherine and he was also banned from the house. Dickens was so upset that he insisted that his daughters, Mamie Dickens and Kate Dickens, brought an end to their friendship with the children of Lemon and Thackeray.

Dickens also wrote to Charles Culliford Dickens insisting that none of the children should "utter one word to their grandmother" or to Catherine's sister, Helen Hogarth, who had also been accused of talking falsely about his relationship with Ternan: "If they are ever brought into the presence of either of these two, I charge them immediately to leave their mother's house and come back to me." Kate Dickens later recalled: "My father was like a madman... This affair brought out all that was worst - all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home."

On 16th August, The New York Tribune, published a letter from Dickens that stated that the marriage had been unhappy for many years and that Georgina Hogarth was responsible for long preventing a separation by her care for the children: "She has remonstrated, reasoned, suffered and toiled, again and again to prevent a separation between Mrs Dickens and me."

In the letter Dickens suggested that Catherine had suggested the separation: "Her always increasing estrangement made a mental disorder under which she sometimes labours - more, that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better far away." The letter goes on to boast of his financial generosity to his wife. He then went onto praise Georgina as having a higher claim on his affection, respect and gratitude than anybody in the world."

Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "Yet the bare facts of the matter can hardly suggest the maelstrom of fury and bitterness into which the family, now divided against itself, had descended. And what of Dickens himself? From the beginning he had tried to keep everything as neat and as ordered as everything else in his life, but it had spiralled out of control. The case for an informal separation had degenerated into a series of formal negotiations which in turn threatened to lead to public exposure of his domestic life; he, the apostle of family harmony, had even been accused of incest with his own wife's sister. He reacted badly to stress and now, during the most anxious days of his life, he ceased to behave in a wholly rational manner."

Dickens raised the issue of Mrs Hogarth and her daughter Helen and the comments they had supposed to have made about Ellen: "Two wicked persons who should have spoken very differently of me... have... coupled with this separation the name of a young lady for whom I have a great attachment and regard. I will not repeat her name - I honour it too much. Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady. I know her to be as innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters."

Elizabeth Gaskell and William Makepeace Thackeray believed that publicizing his domestic problems was as bad as the separation itself. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was appalled by his behaviour: "What a crime, for a man to use his genius as a cudgel against his near kin, even against the woman he promised to protect tenderly with life and heart - taking advantage of his hold with the public to turn public opinion against her. I call it dreadful." Kate Dickens later recalled that her father stopped speaking to her for two years when he discovered she had visited her mother. Catherine wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts: "I have now - God help me - only one course to pursue. One day though not now I may be able to tell you how hardly I have been used."

In August 1858, Ellen returned to London and the following month she started a season at the Haymarket Theatre. Ellen and her sister Maria found lodgings in Berners Street, just north of Oxford Street. Her mother and other sister, Fanny, with the help of Charles Dickens, went on holiday to Italy.

Kate Dickens later told her friend, Gladys Storey: "She (Ellen) had brains, which she used to educate herself, to bring her mind more on a level with his own. Who could blame her... He had the world at his feet. She was a young girl of eighteen, elated and proud to be noticed by him."

Between 1862 and 1865 there is no evidence that Ellen Ternan lived in England. She did not even attend her sister's wedding. We do know that Charles Dickens spent a lot of time during this period travelling between London and Paris. His son, Henry Fielding Dickens, claimed that Ellen was taken to France when she became pregnant and had "a boy but it died". This is supported by Kate Dickens who said that Ellen had a son "who died in infancy". It is impossible to check this story as the birth records for the 1860s were destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1871.

Charles Dickens kept his relationship with Ellen Ternan a secret. She went to Paris to have their child and she does not appear in the official record until 9th June 1865, when she was with her mother and on a train that crashed at Staplehurst. Ellen was in the front coach, which was the only one that did not leave the tracks. The rest of the coaches rolled down the bank and ten people were killed and 40 injured. The following day Dickens wrote to the station master at Charing Cross: "A lady who was in the carriage with me in the terrible accident on Friday, lost, in the struggle of being got out of the carriage, a gold watch-chain with a smaller gold watch-chain attached, a bundle of charms, a gold watch-key, and a gold seal engraved Ellen. I promised the lady to make her loss known at headquarters, in case these trinkets should be found."



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