From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro
Several times a week a friend of mine hosts a film and discussion group at his house. On one of these rare occasions when I was able to attend, he showed the film based on this book. It was during the credits that I noticed that it was based on a book, and it piqued my interest. The film was exceptionally well done, and I knew that the book would probably answer many of my questions, filling in the gaps that inevitably a 2-hour movie would leave from a 280-page book.
This is a biography, a history of not only Charles Dickens’ life, but also of Victorian England and the life of actresses and writers in this time period. It does not read like a novel or even a historical novel. It is very heavy on facts and dates and very specific details of the lives of these characters and their families. It is not for the faint of heart! However, I found it fascinating.
Charles Dickens was at the peak of his career when he met Nelly, and the relationship between them, due to its nature, could have ruined them both. The fact that they managed to keep it under wraps for the most part was pure magic. It may seem commonplace now, but in Victorian England, having a relationship with an actress was cause for scandal and could ruin a reputation and a career. This being said, actresses found themselves in possession of an enormous amount of freedom as compared to the women of their time. Nevertheless, going from actress to almost any other form of employment was rarely done, but Nelly and her sister Fanny seemed to manage to escape that fate, likely because of Dickens’ help.
What I was hoping the book would answer but cannot was whether they were truly in love, especially Nelly. The fact is, we do not get any of the story from her. There is no letter from her to him or from him to her left. Dickens had a regular habit of destroying letters and journals and went to great lengths to destroy any trace of their relationship in the hopes of saving her reputation and his. They did, and we know this from bits and pieces recovered after many years of research, have a relationship for 13 years until his death. From these bits, it seems that he was madly in love with her. For her part, was it admiration? Was it the life she believed he could offer her, to escape the strain and rigors of acting life, especially considering it was not really her talent? Was it a surrogate father she sought, since hers died when she was still quite young? Or could it in fact be love that kept them together for so long? I think we will never know. The film tends to suggest either that she loved him or maybe admired him, a kind of intellectual relationship. We know he showed her many of his manuscripts for her approval and feedback. There was a connection there, at least that is what I choose to believe.
In any event, the book is a fascinating peek into Victorian England and a great introduction to Charles Dickens. I must say that it has made me interested in reading his work, which I am currently doing now. I do not want to think of him in a negative light, just simply because he had a relationship outside of marriage. The fact is that he dissolved his marriage of many years before starting a relationship with Nelly. He said he and his wife were not made for each other and that he did not love her. It may have been cold, but it was the truth. Dickens was not a cruel man. He was very supportive of women’s rights, helping many women of his time to pull their lives together, put an end to their lives walking the streets, their lives of prostitution, and help them find ways to support themselves and their children in a healthier way, even helping some to make their way to America or France for a better life. That does not sound like the behavior of a cruel man.
All in all, a brilliant work of research and a great history and biography. Perfect for anyone interested in this time period, or Dickens and his contemporaries in particular. A very enthusiastic 5 stars!!