Life After Dickens: The Mistress Who Hid Her Previous Life

Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors. He so easily describes a version of the Nineteenth Century that has become cemented as fact. Despite his genius in novel writing, like us, he was still only human and was as complicated as the next person. As Claire Tomalin so nicely describes, “everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens… the angry son, the good friend, the bad husband the quarreller, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father, the brilliance in the room.”[1] For me, this sums Dickens up as really, he was all of these things. He was two parts of the same self: the charitable, kind and imaginative man but also the hardworking manic who lived a double life after causing a lot of pain to his family during the separation from his wife, Catherine. I do not think any person with a heart could deny the way he separated her was unfair and deeply horrible. Dickens openly blamed Catherine for his behaviour in a public justification for the marriage breakup in his own magazine, Household Words.[2] Sadly, other than the oldest son, Charley, none of the children were allowed to see their mother, although Katey did see her mother regularly. Katey later wrote that her father caused a lot of pain by not allowing them to visit, but also honestly realised that Dickens would have done the same, no matter who it was he had been married to at the time. The real reason for this was not just marital unhappiness, but Dickens had met Ellen Ternan, a much younger actress, and wished for her to become his mistress.

Bryant, H. C., Charles Dickens (c. 1870), Credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Ellen, also known as Nelly, Ternan had only been 18 when she first met Dickens as part of a play called The Frozen Deep, of which Dickens was a co-author and actor in. She was the youngest of three sisters, all actors, who were associated with the production, under the supervision of their mother, who also an actress. Two years after this meeting, Dickens would separate from Catherine, surrounded by rumours that he was having an affair with a younger woman. Whilst this part was true emotionally, it is uncertain as to when their relationship officially became physical. During this time, the rumours falsely involved Georgiana Hogarth, Dickens’ sister-in-law, who acted as housekeeper and nanny.[3] Despite the break up of the family home, Georgiana carried her role as housekeeper until Dickens death in 1870, and continued a friendship with Ellen, hoping this would help preserve the author’s posthumous legacy from scandal.

The relationship with Ellen was described by Dickens at the time as being purely paternal. However, his love of small and young women was known, and can be seen in some of his characters. He often referred to these types of women as a “little mother”, possibly to rekindle a lost sense nostalgia from his traumatic childhood working in the blacking factory.[4] However, he viewed his wife in the last years of their marriage is totally against this angelic image of his ideal woman, viewing her as idle and uncompromising. Holbrook argues that this shows the two-sided part of himself, where he could easily change his attitudes towards women, compartmentalising them into different stereotypes depending on how useful they were to him.[5]

Maclise, D., Catherine Dickens (1847), Credit: Charles Dickens Museum, London

Whatever Dickens reasons were for choosing Nelly over Catherine, there is no denying the fact she did profit from his attention. When the affair was first made public in a newspaper article written by Thomas Wright in 1934, Ternan was branded as a cold-hearted gold digger.[6] Personally I do find this assessment unfair as there is no direct evidence about the personal feelings of Ellen towards Dickens. However, as the Ternans were given houses by Dickens and Ellen herself was left £1,000 (£62,600 in today’s money) in Dickens will, the evidence that survives does unfortunately provided a very one-sided view.[7] Three novels written by Ellen’s sister, Frances, were also published in Dickens’ periodical, All Year Round, again showing that Dickens was willing to advance not just Ellen, but her family too.[8]

Despite a thirteen-year relationship, Dickens was to die in June 1870, surrounded by his family following a stroke after a hard writing session in his Swiss chalet at Gads Hill Place in Kent. This death followed all the Victorian ideas of the perfect death. I myself had never questioned this version, until I recently read A. N. Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which was recently published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Dickens death. In it he puts forward a rather convincing case of what really caused the stroke that killed the author. Instead of writing causing the stroke, Wilson argues it was actually one of Dickens’ illicit visits to Nelly in her home in Peckham.[9] She used this house for these visits as it would have been too noticeable to have him visit the family home in Camden. Peckham was also easily reachable by train from Kent in just under an hour. He had had to be helped onto a train and safely delivered to Gads Hill so he could receive his acceptable death surrounded by his children.[10] Whether this is true or not, life would certainly change for the Ternans following Dickens death.

Photograph of Ellen Ternan, Wikimedia Commons

They moved to Oxford and that is where Ellen met her future husband, George Wharton Robinson, who was studying theology at the university. When the pair met, George was 18 and Ellen was 30, pretending to be 20.[11] They finally married in 1876. By the 1881 census, Ellen was claiming to be 28 but was in fact 42. Their married life revolved around their two children, Geffrey and Gladys, and the school they ran in Margate. Ellen was heavily involved in the social side of it, teaching French and even doing public readings of the works of Charles Dickens.[12] It’s unknown whether George really knew the type of relationship Ellen had had with her favourite author, but her son, Geffrey, apparently found out following her death from breast cancer in 1914, apparently burning any incriminating papers.[13] He stayed remarkably quiet on the matter following the accusations in the newspapers. Gladys however, commented on her disbelief. She denied the association and suggested if it had existed “it could only be because her love for him was so strong it swept aside all other considerations”.[14]

Dickens giving the last reading of his Works. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Whilst we may never know Ellen’s thoughts in her own words, it is the opinions of others that have followed that remains the dominant narrative. There are those that do believe they had a full-blown affair, which is now considered fact. Still, some historians and biographers do not consider this an option, as they continue to argue that it was an entirely platonic relationship or only invested in on Dickens’ part.[15] Nelly’s legacy will always be connected to Dickens in whatever form that relationship took. Sadly there is little know about the real woman behind the mistress, but she was said to have enjoyed politics, books, music and theatre for much of her life.[16] The gold digger version of her does still persist, but after her husband died in 1910, she could no longer afford to life alone. If she did have that nature, surely, she would have known how to maintain her money.

[1] C. Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life cited in Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, The Hudson Review, 64.4 (2012), p. 653.

[2] Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices: Dickens and the Failure of Atonement’, South Atlantic Review, 68.2 (2003), p. 60; Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, p. 660.

[3] Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices’, pp. 59-60.

[4] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women (New York: New York University Press, 1993), p. 170.

[5] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 168.

[6] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 213.

[7] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens (London: Atlantic Books, 2020), pp. 12-13.

[8] Bowen, J., ‘The Life of Dickens 2: After Ellen Ternan’ in Ledger, S. and Furneaux, H. (eds), Charles Dickens in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 12.

[9] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, pp. 12-13.

[10] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 13.

[11] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 21.

[12] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 211; Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 21.

[13] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 22.

[14] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, pp. 211-212.

[15] Pruitt, S., The Secret Relationship That Charles Dickens Tried to Hide,

[16] Spartacus Educational, Ellen Ternan,

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