Michael Slater’s book has an epilogue entitled ‘Will We Ever Know?’ No need, in this year of Dickens, to ask what the question is. Nelly, of course. His mistress? Mother of his deceased or living offspring? A young actress whom he helped through some difficult years from purely avuncular motives?
Slater has spent fifty years with Dickens at a supreme scholarly level. He has edited volumes of the letters, conducted The Dickensian journal, gathered the authoritative multi-volume collection of Dickens’s journalism and produced a monumental biography. He is, in short, a critic you can trust with the Dickens legacy. If there is one person you wouldn’t trust it’s a journalist. Slater’s book opens with a quote from Victoria Coren in The Observer from 2005:
Charles Dickens, the man who committed what was in his lifetime considered incest with his wife’s young sister. Poor Mrs Dickens was banished to a separate bedroom while her husband conducted many affairs, until he finally abandoned her and took their children with him. Nice guy.
Slater follows this with a