A review of “The Life and Lies of Charles Dickens” by Helena Kelly – insightful analysis.
In 1870, two years after Charles Dickens passed away, his dear friend John Forster published the first installment of his Life of Charles Dickens. This biography was based on letters and stories shared between the two, and was considered an authorized account. However, for avid fans of Dickens, it has been both a valuable resource and a questionable narrative. According to Helena Kelly, this biography is even more misleading than previously believed, as Forster was not simply a devoted admirer but rather a naive follower who fell for Dickens’ deception. While it was already known that Dickens took great care in managing his public image, Kelly reveals that his tactics were far more deceitful than previously thought.
For example, Forster was the initial person to disclose what Dickens described as the most devastating event of his life: being sent to work in a blacking warehouse at the age of 12. This experience was later depicted in the character of the young protagonist in David Copperfield. In the account shared by Forster, Dickens wrote, “It is astonishing to me how I could have been so easily disregarded at such a young age.” However, Kelly raises doubts about the accuracy of certain dates and suggests that it may have been entirely fabricated. Dickens wanted to portray himself as neglected and mistreated, as it made for a compelling narrative of triumph over adversity.
At its heart, this book is an example of something familiar to 21st-century readers: a case history of celebrity. Those “Lies” are in its title because, for Dickens, the cost of fame was “the ability to be honest about himself”. Kelly is right that the great novelist was obsessed with “brand management”, as she calls it, that he “loved to control how others viewed him”. More questionable is her conviction that duplicity was essential to his character. She thinks his early life was “the perfect training for a liar”.
Initially, the author focuses on the revelation that Dickens’ sister, Harriet, did not pass away as an infant as was previously thought. Instead, new research has uncovered that she died at the age of nine. The silence surrounding this truth suggests that Dickens was deeply affected by this event and felt the need to conceal it. Additionally, the author suggests that Dickens’ father, John, may have been involved in embezzlement. Evidence of this can be seen through the suicide of his superior in the Navy Pay Office, John Slade, when auditors began investigating him. It is likely that Dickens Sr. was aware of these actions. This becomes a hidden truth that continues to haunt Dickens throughout his life and is subtly reflected in his novels whenever the topic of illicit dealings arises.
Kelly’s narrative contains significant words such as “perhaps”, “maybe” and “possibly”, which, influenced by her belief in Dickens’s cunning nature, allow her to form various theories. In his middle age, Dickens reconnected with Maria Beadnell, now a married mother of two, whom he had previously courted over two decades ago. He initially wrote to her in a flirtatious manner, but was disappointed to discover that she had become stout and matronly. In a cruel move, he used her as inspiration for the character of Flora Finching in his novel Little Dorrit. However, Kelly argues that this was all just a facade. She suggests that there may have been an affair between Dickens and Beadnell. The portrayal of Flora Finching was simply a cover-up, a way to divert attention from their relationship.
Dickens’s reputation for deceit runs so deep that his major mistakes can even be seen as carefully planned schemes. When he made a public announcement about separating from his wife, there were rumors spreading about his connection with his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. She had sided with Dickens and essentially become his housekeeper. While it was believed that these rumors were embarrassing for both of them, Kelly argues that Dickens may have purposely allowed them to circulate to divert attention away from his affair with Ellen Ternan. He was enamored with the young actress and she eventually became his mistress.
For a long time, it has been speculated that Ternan gave birth to their child in France, which is where Dickens began making frequent trips in the early 1860s. The tale of Dickens’s major secret has been recounted many times, so Kelly aims to provide a new perspective. Her hypothesis suggests that one of Ternan’s cousin’s two sons, Frances Cleveland, was actually the child of Dickens and Ternan. This child was born after the death of his father, a sailor, and may have been “hidden away” in the Cleveland family. Dickens’s trips to France were possibly a diversionary tactic.
Kelly has come to the conclusion that Dickens deliberately spread rumors about his relationship with Ternan in order to conceal a more shameful reality. In a final burst of speculation, she offers possible explanations for various misfortunes in Dickens’s life, including the suggestion that he contracted syphilis in his early thirties and passed it on to his wife. Alternatively, she considers the possibility that Catherine Dickens, previously portrayed as blameless, may have been the one to contract the disease. While it is not impossible that she had an affair and contracted syphilis, this low standard for conjectures begs the question of what is actually true about Dickens’s life.