TTwo years after Charles Dickens’ death in 1870, his closest friend, John Forster, published the first volume of his Life of Charles Dickens. Based on the letters Dickens wrote to her and the stories he told her, it was in fact an authorized biography. For Dickens fans, he has always been both an incomparable source and an unreliable account. According to Helena Kelly’s account, this is more misleading than even the most skeptical biographer supposes. Far from being Dickens’s hagiographer, he was his dupe. We always knew that Dickens sought to manage his reputation; according to Kelly, this led him into deeper deception than anyone had previously imagined.
So, for example, Forster was the first to make public what Dickens described as the most upsetting experience of his life: being sent, at the age of 12, to work in a blackening warehouse. It’s an experience he passed on to David Copperfield’s young protagonist. “It is wonderful to me how I could be so easily rejected at such an age,” Dickens wrote in the account cited by Forster. However, Kelly notes certain inconsistencies regarding the dates to assume that it was all fiction. Dickens wanted us to believe that he had been neglected and mistreated: it was a great story of triumph over adversity.
At its core, this book is an example of something familiar to 21st century readers: a celebrity case history. These “lies” appear in its title because, for Dickens, the price of fame was “the ability to be honest with oneself.” Kelly is right that the great novelist was obsessed with “brand management,” as she calls it, and that he “liked to control how others perceived him.” More questionable is his belief that duplicity was essential to his character. She believes her childhood was “the perfect training for a liar.”
First, she clings to the fact that her sister Harriet did not die as a baby, as previously thought, but at the age of nine, as researchers recently discovered. The silence on this truth is apparent evidence of Dickens’ deep trauma and his need to lie about it. Kelly also speculates that Dickens’s father, John, was involved in embezzlement. His boss at the Navy payroll office, one John Slade, committed suicide when auditors began investigating him. Surely Dickens Sr knew all this? This becomes a hidden truth that haunts Dickens for the rest of his life, emerging indirectly in his novels whenever the subject of shady dealings comes up.
The key words in Kelly’s narrative are ‘perhaps’, ‘perhaps’ and ‘perhaps’, which, supported by his sense of Dickensian slyness, allow him to make all manner of speculations. In middle age, Dickens met Maria Beadnell, now married with two children, whom he had courted more than 20 years earlier. He wrote to her flirtatiously, but was then horrified to find her fat and matronly. Cruelly, he used it for the character of Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. But Kelly claims it was a smokescreen. “It seems perfectly possible that there was an affair.” The representation of Flora Finching was only “a blindness, a distraction”.
His Dickens is so steeped in deception that even the greatest mistakes of his life can be reinterpreted as deeply buried schemes. After he publicly announced his estrangement from his wife, rumors began to circulate about his relationship with his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, who had sided with Dickens and become, in effect, his governess. The rumors were always thought to mortify them both, but Kelly believes that Dickens let them circulate because they distracted from his relationship with Ellen Ternan, the young actress with whom he was in love and who became his mistress. .
It has long been assumed that Ternan gave birth to their baby in France, where Dickens began traveling in the early 1860s. The story of Dickens’ biggest secret has often been told, so Kelly must add something new. His theory is that one of Ternan’s cousin Frances Cleveland’s two sons was actually the child of Dickens and Ternan. Born after the death of his sailor father, he could have been “a little cuckoo in Cleveland’s nest.” Dickens’s trips to France were for him a “false trail”.
Kelly ultimately deduces that Dickens wanted to spread rumors about his relationship with Ternan in order to hide a more shameful truth. In a final flurry of speculation (“Perhaps…could be…perhaps…”), she explains various misfortunes in Dickens’s life (and the “resolutely retroussed nose” of his younger children) with the theory that he developed syphilis in his early thirties and infected his wife. Or perhaps Catherine Dickens, blameless in all previous accounts of the writer’s life, was the source of the infection. “It’s not impossible that Catherine contracted syphilis during her own affair – it’s not like she doesn’t have an excuse to be unfaithful.” Not impossible, no. But if this is the only standard that conjectures about Dickens’s life must meet, where does that leave the truth?