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  • Gossip and Fiction in Summer 1858: the Dickens Scandal and The Gordian Knot
  • William F. Long (bio)

This paper draws attention to a contemporary fictional context of the Dickens marital breakdown in the summer of 1858.


The breakdown of the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens in May 1858 provoked speculation about the involvement of a “third party.” Dickens addressed the gossip on 25 May in a letter seemingly intended only for private circulation among the London literati and clubmen to whom the gossip was then largely confined. Locating the origin of the breakdown solely in differences between himself and his wife, and highly critical of Catherine, he referred to “a young lady” whose name had been “coupled with this separation” and who he knew “to be innocent and pure.” In August, the account found its way into public print and thereafter was referred to by Dickens as the “Violated Letter.”

He also composed a more guarded “Personal” statement directed to his public. In it he wrote of “Some domestic trouble of mine […] of a sacredly private nature” and “misrepresentations, most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel” which implicated “innocent persons.” The statement appeared on 7 June in The Times and elsewhere and was widely reproduced. Mainstream London newspapers, operating in a culture restrained when it came to printing unsubstantiated scandal and mindful of British libel law, published Dickens’s statement with little if any explanatory gloss. More explicit accounts of the rumors, supplied by London correspondents, appeared in contemporary American, provincial British and Irish, and Australian newspapers. (Leary “Viral”; Long “Miss Ternan”, “Third Party”) Several reported that the gossip included reference to a young actress with whom Dickens had acted in Manchester the previous year.1 [End Page 207]

An Author and a Novel

Denied accounts in their newspapers of commentary on the Dickens scandal, readers in London were nevertheless able in the summer of 1858 to follow the sensational progress of another contemporary marital breakdown. The hit novel of the season, issued in monthly numbers from late December 1857, was an eminently readable story written “with more than the usual refinement.”2 Its opening number received almost universally positive notices.3 Such enthusiasm did not, in general, diminish. By the seventh installment the reviewer in the Era was writing of its author:

we linger over every word of his pages with a keen sense of intellectual enjoyment. His characters are not the mere reflections of external life, they are the shadowings of the inward spirit, and it augurs a high order of merit to so represent them. In this graphic and admirable story […] the reader will find something more than the surface manners of society; something above the superficial tone of life and events, with which popular authors usually regale us; and we have no hesitation in saying, that from this work [… the author] will take a literary status, second to no writer of the day.4

The author of this remarkable work was a former Morning Chronicle reporter and soon-to-be editor of the Literary Gazette. He was a contributor to, salaried staff member of and future editor of Punch. (Some said in the 1850s that he wrote all–or at least all the best–letterpress of that comic journal5). As such, he was an intimate of Thackeray, John Leech and Mark Lemon (the then editor of the magazine) among many others, and participated prominently in the gossipy “table talk” at the weekly dinners attended by its staff. He contributed to a wide range of other periodicals and wrote for the theater. A former parliamentary reporter, he wrote entertainingly on (among many other things) topical political matters. He was a member of [End Page 208] the Garrick Club. He was witty, had a bitingly sharp way with words both orally and in print, and was erudite, sociable and hardworking. He moved in the world of the newspaper and periodical office, the private dinner party and the formal gentlemen’s dinner, the green room and the gentleman’s club. In short, he inhabited the circle in which the rumors about Dickens’s marital troubles were then circulating, and to which Dickens had addressed his...


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pp. 207-223
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