This book is inspired by my interest, not just in Charles Dickens and his friends, but also in Ellen Ternan whose name is so connected with his. So, who was Ellen Ternan? A huge majority of the English-speaking population of the world would probably say that she was an actress who became Charles Dickens’ mistress, but I am convinced that she was not his mistress, but his daughter.
Oddly, I originally came to this opinion from what one might call the internal evidence. I was rereading A Tale of Two Cities and for the first time was suddenly struck by the enormous force of the emotion in the scenes where an adult daughter and father meet for the first time. And Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities was physically almost the exact image of Ellen Ternan: ‘A short, slight, pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a puzzled expression and a pair of blue eyes . . .’
Dickens, I’ve always felt, writes poorly about love between a man and a woman – Lucy’s relationship with Charles Darnay is cardboard sentimentality – but he writes with great intensity about this relationship of a father and newly-found daughter. Dickens, himself, states that the idea of writing A Tale of Two Cities came to him in 1857 which was the year when he first took over the role of protector of the Ternan family, Mrs Frances Ternan and her three girls, Fanny, Maria and Ellen.
‘Young enough to be his daughter’ say various reproving voices of biographers.
But could Ellen Ternan, in fact, be his daughter? Do dates make it possible, or even feasible?
Ellen was the youngest of three children. Her mother, Frances, married Thomas Ternan in 1834 but he died of syphilis in 1846. The link between Frances Ternan and Dickens was an actor called Macready. He was one of Dickens’ best friends and a very good friend and patron of Frances Ternan who had acted with Macready since her earliest years playing opposite to him in many Shakespearean plays – Ophelia to his Hamlet when she was younger and then Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother in the same play many years later.
In May 1837 Catherine Dickens suffered a miscarriage after the tragic and sudden death of her seventeen-year-old sister, Mary Hogarth. Dickens took his wife to Broadstairs seaside to recuperate but he himself travelled up and down to London, staying overnight in order to visit the theatre and see his friend Macready. He would certainly have met Frances Ternan at that time.
The following January Dickens resolved to keep a diary. He went to Yorkshire to investigate schools and began to write Nicholas Nickleby, which is suffused with a sense of theatre throughout. The Crummles theatrical family, along with that memorable character ‘The Infant Phenomenon’ (the two elder Ternan girls had been on the stage since the age of two), has now become a household name, but it probably shows the influence that the Ternan family had upon him. Dickens writes in his diary about attending a banquet in honour of the actor Macready and it is very likely that the Ternans were there, also. The interesting thing is that three pages have been torn out of this diary in January 1838. Could it have been something about Frances Ternan, which in view of later events, he decided to get rid of?
Ellen Lawless Ternan was born in March 1839, so where was Dickens nine months earlier, in June 1838? On 6 March 1838 Catherine, Mrs Dickens, gave birth to her second child Mamie and was plunged for months into that condition of physical debility and post-natal depression which had afflicted her after the birth of her first child, Charley.
This was possibly a time when Dickens, as a very vital and active young man, could potentially stray. Mrs Dickens was recuperating in the countryside in Twickenham where Dickens spent all his weekends, but he was up and down to the city of London on an almost daily basis. There are many recorded meetings with the actor Macready during the next few months and doubtless there would have been opportunities to meet Frances Ternan, a gifted actress from early childhood and an extremely beautiful woman, married to a bad-tempered, untalented failure of a man, who was now ill with syphilis. Dickens was an obsessive theatre fan, went two or three times a week. During that winter, in Drury Lane Theatre, Mrs Ternan had played Desdemona to the famous Kean’s Othello, while her husband played Iago – to extremely poor reviews. Dickens undoubtedly saw these performances and would have been sorry for Frances Ternan.
On 29 October 1839 Kate Macready Dickens was born, six months after the birth of Ellen. Portraits, I feel, show a resemblance between them, especially the ears and the nose. Kate was supposed physically and otherwise to resemble her father more than any of his other children.
In 1846 Thomas Ternan died of syphilis when Ellen was only six. He had been confined to a hospital for the insane for many years previously.
In 1857 Ellen Lawless Ternan was eighteen when she and her sister played parts, with Dickens, in the play The Frozen Deep which took place at the end of August 1857. At the end of the performance, Dickens gave Ellen Ternan a piece of jewellery – a brooch or bracelet. This came to Mrs Dickens’ notice and there was a huge row. Kate Dickens said her father ordered his wife to see Mrs Ternan – and this is odd, because it almost appears as though Dickens wants to make recompense to Mrs Ternan as well as to care for Ellen Ternan and to take her from the life on the stage which she hated.
In May 1858 Dickens decided to separate from his wife. He was an emotional man, but his fits of fury at the imputation that he was having an affair with Ellen Ternan seem excessive – if she were really his mistress. However, if she were his daughter, this would be more understandable, would make his almost hysterical behaviour much more reasonable. In my opinion, he behaved like a man who has been much wronged.
In 1858 Dickens set Ellen Ternan up in an establishment with her mother. It is now that he began writing A Tale of Two Cities – a story about a father and daughter who meet for the first time when the daughter is eighteen years old. Later he took a house for Ellen and her mother, in Slough and then in France. At the railway crash at Staplehurst, both Mrs Ternan and Ellen were present. In fact, right through the Dickens and Ellen years, Mrs Ternan appears to have been a constant presence.
In 1859 A Tale of Two Cities was published. It is a rather over-sentimentalized portrait of fatherly and daughterly love where the heroine bears a strong physical resemblance to Ellen Ternan.
Interestingly, it appears as if several people were in on the secret of the relationship. To one lady friend (a highly respectable Victorian lady, according to the biographer Peter Ackroyd) Dickens wrote that ‘Nelly would be distressed and embarrassed if she knew that you knew the secret of her history’. (NB not her position – her history. I think there is a significant difference.) Another lady, Mrs Fields – an extremely strait-laced American lady – wrote rhapsodically to Dickens about how he was going to see his beloved. (She was unlikely to refer to a mistress in those terms). She also hoped that despite ‘mistakes that he had made in the past’ (perhaps having an affair as a young man) that he would now be happy.
One of things that struck me, and partially led me to this conclusion, was that Peter Ackroyd, a meticulous and tireless biographer, was totally puzzled about the relationship that Dickens had with Ellen Ternan and eventually came to the conclusion that it was a non-consummated relationship – something he deemed as very odd! Interestingly enough, he didn’t take that sideways step, which I have taken; less odd, I think, than the guess that a highly sexed man like Dickens would live with a pretty young girl in a ‘non-consummated’ relationship.
No, I think Dickens was the father, not the lover, of Ellen Ternan, and didn’t want to destroy his relationship with his public (and Queen Victoria) by confessing to the affair with an actress. He also didn’t want to attract shame on to Mrs Ternan, but otherwise wanted to make it up to his illegitimate daughter. It is somewhat overlooked, I feel, that in making provision for Ellen, he also cared for Mrs Ternan.
I am fairly sure that he confided the secret to his sister-in-law, Georgina and to his daughters, Kate and Mamie before he died. They summoned Ellen to his deathbed. Afterwards they were very friendly with Ellen Ternan who went on to make a good marriage with a clergyman. She had children with him, although she was then in her late thirties which makes one wonder why, if she were Dickens’ mistress, she did not have children by him. Despite much research no one has ever found any evidence that there was a child.
Henry Dickens, Dickens’ youngest son, had children who went to a birthday party held for Ellen’s children, which, once again, makes me think that the Dickens family all knew of the relationship. All that nonsense about Kate saying that there was a child and it died is just hearsay. It was quoted ten years after Kate’s death by a friend, an elderly woman (suffering from the early stages of dementia), who wrote, with the help of a journalist, a book called Dickens and Daughter and perhaps wanted to beef it up; probably she knew nothing as Dickens’ children and sister-in-law guarded his reputation with great care. Moreover, a scandal may have injured the huge sales of his books in this Victorian era.
Of course, no one will ever know for sure, but I do think that it is feasible that Dickens was Ellen Ternan’s father.
I would be so interested to know what others think of that and would love to hear from you on my website: www.coraharrison.com
SUMMER OF SECRETS by Cora Harrison is published by Severn House