'I don't handle divorce business.' In general, scholarly investigators should follow Philip Marlowe's rule. One feels degraded when Dickens's private letters are subjected to infra-red photographic analysis (as they were in the 1950s). Beneath the crossings-out are references to Ellen Ternan, his mistress - or perhaps not his mistress. It is only by chance that any incriminating letters survive: Dickens's son Henry and Ellen Ternan's son Geoffrey Robinson destroyed all such correspondence. Dickens himself burned any personal letters that he could come by. He also destroyed his diaries at the end of every year. One diary - that for 1867 - was lost or, more likely, stolen in America. It resurfaced in 1943. 'Since then,' as Claire Tomalin puts it, 'scholars have been squeezing it like a tiny sponge for every drop of information it can yield.' Scholars justify their curiosity on the grounds that anything which throws light on Dickens's art is justified, however faint that light may be. But it looks very like keyhole-peeping. One of Tomalin's achievements is that she investigates the private recesses of Dickens's life without prurience and without making the reader feel prurient. One comes away with a sense that justice has at last been done.
LRB 8 November 1990 | PDF Download