an intelligent girl, of an old theatrical family reports speak of her as having “a pretty face and well-developed figure” or “passably pretty not much of an actress.” She left the stage in 1860; after Dickens death she married a clergyman and helped him run a school. The affair was hushed up until the 1930s, and evidence about it remains scanty, but every addition confirms that Dickens was deeply attached to her and that their relationship lasted until his death. It seems likely that she became his mistress, though probably not until the 1860s; assertions that a child, or children, resulted remain unproved. Similarly, suggestions that the anguish experienced by some of the lovers in the later novels may reflect Dickens own feelings remain speculative. It is tempting indeed, to associate Nelly with some of their heroines (who are more spirited and complex, less of the “legless angel,” than most of their predecessors), especially as her given names, Ellen Lawless, seemed to be echoed by those of heroines in the three novels Estella, Bella and Helena Landless but nothing definite is known about how she responded to Dickens, what she felt for him at the time, or how close any of these later love stories were to aspects or phrases of their relationship.
“There is nothing very remarkable in the story,” commended one early transmitter of it, and this seems just. Many middle-aged men feel an itch to renew their emotional lives with a pretty young girl, even if, unlike Dickens, they cannot plead indulgence for “the wayward and unsettled feeling which is part of the tenure on which one holds an imaginative life.” But the eventual disclosure of this episode caused surprise, shock or piquant satisfaction, being related of a man whose rebelliousness against his society had seemed to take only impeccably reformist shapes. A critic in 1851, listing the reasons for his unique popularity, had cited “above all, his deep reverence for the household sanctities, his enthusiastic worship of the household gods.” After these disclosures he was, disconcertingly or intriguingly a more complex man; and, partly as a consequence, Dickens the novelist also began to be seen as more complex, less conventional, than had been realized. The stimulus was important, though Nellys significance, biographically and critically, has proved far from inexhaustible.
In the longer term, Kathleen Tillotsons remark is more suggestive: “his life-long love affair with his reading public, when all is said, is by far the most interesting love-affair of his life.” This took a new form, about the time of Dickens separation from his wife, in his giving public readings from his works, and it is significant that, when trying to justify their enterprise as certain to succeed, he referred to “that particular relation which subsists between me and public.” The remark suggests how much Dickens valued the public affection, not only as a stimulus to his creativity and a condition for his commercial success but also as a substitute for the love he could not find at home. He had been toying with the idea of turning paid reader since 1853, when he began giving occasional readings in aid of charity. The paid series began in April 1858, the immediate impulse being to find some energetic distraction from his marital unhappiness. But the readings drew on more permanent elements in him and his art: his remarkable histrionic talents, his love of theatricals and of seeing and delighting an audience, and the eminently performable nature of his fiction. Moreover, he could earn more by reading than by writing, and more certainly; it was easier to force him to repeat a performance than create a book.
Tired and ailing though he was, he remained inventive and adventurous in his final novels. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was an experiment, relying less than before on characterization, dialogue and humour. It was well for him, at any rate, that the people raised in France. It was well for him, at any rate, that the guillotine was set up in the Place de la Concorde. Unconsciously, but not accidentally, Dickens was here working out the whole true comparison between swift revolutionism in Paris and slow evolutionism in London. Sidney Carton is one of those sublime ascetics whose head offends them, and who cut it off. For him at least it was better that the blood should flow in Paris than that the wine should flow any longer in London. And if I say that even now the guillotine might be the best cure for many a London lawyer. An exciting and compact narrative, it lacks too many of his strength to count among his major works. Sydney Cartons self-sacrifice was found deeply moving by Dickens and by many readers; Dr. Manette now seems a more impressive achievement in serious characterizations. The French Revolution scenes are vivid, if superficial in historical understanding. Great Expectations resembles Copperfield in being a first person narration and in drawing on parts of Dickens personality and experience. Compact like its predecessors, it lacks the panoramic inclusiveness of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, but though not his most ambitious, it is his most finely achieved novel. The hero Pips mind is explored with great subtlety, and his development through a childhood and youth beset with hard tests of character is traced critically but sympathetically. Various “great expectations” in the book found ill founded a comment as much on the values of the age as on characters weaknesses and misfortune. Our Mutual Friend, a large inclusive novel, continues this critique monetary and class values. London is now grimmer than ever before, and the corruption, complacency, and superficiality of “respectable” society are fiercely attacked. Many new elements are introduced into Dickens fictional world, but his handling of the old comic eccentrics are sometimes tiresomely mechanical. How the unfinished Edwin Drood would have developed is uncertain. Here again Dickens left panoramic fiction to concentrate on a limited private action. The central figure was evidently to be John Jasper, eminent respectability as a cathedral organist was in extreme contrast to his haunting low opium dens and, out of violent sexual jealousy, murdering his nephew. It would have been his most elaborate treatment of the themes of crime, evil, and psychological abnormality that had recurred throughout his novels; a great celebrator of life, he was also obsessed with death.
How greatly Dickens personally had changed appears in remarks by friends who met him again, after many years, during the American reading tour in 1867-68. “I sometimes think…,” wrote one, “I must have known two individuals bearing the same name, at various periods of my own life.” But just as the fiction, despite many developments still contained stylistic and narrative features continuous with the earliest work, so, too, the man remained a “human hurricane” though he had aged considerably, his health had deteriorated, and his nerves had been jungled by traveling ever since his being in a railway accident in 1865. Other Americans noted that, though grizzled, he was “as quick and elastic in his movements as ever.” His photographs, wrote journalist after one of the readings, “give no idea of his genial expression. To us he appears like hearty, companionable man, with a deal of fun in him,” but that very day Dickens was writing, “I am nearly used up,” and listing the afflictions now “telling heavily upon me.” His pride and the old-trouper tradition made him conceal his sufferings. And, if sometimes by an effort of will, his old high spirits were often on display. His fame remained undiminished, though critical opinion was increasingly hostile to him. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, noting the immense enthusiasm for him during the American tour, remarked: “One can hardly take in the whole truth about it, and feel the universality of his fame.” But in many respects he was “a sad man” in these later years. He never was tranquil and relaxed. Various old friends were now estranged or dead or for other reason less available; he was now leading a less social life and spending more time with young friends of a caliber inferior to his former circle. His sons were caused much worry and disappointment, “all his fame goes for nothing,” said a friend, “Since he has not the one thing. He is very unhappy in his children.” His wife was not all dreary, however. He loved his country house, Gads Hill, and he could still “warm the social atmosphere wherever he appeared with that summer glow which seemed to attend him.” T.A. Trollope, who wrote that, despaired of giving people who had not met him any idea of
The general charm of his manner….His laugh was brimful of enjoyment….His enthusiasm was boundless….He was a hearty man, a large-hearted man….a strikingly manly man.
Only a week before his death he was at the theatre,
In high spirits, brim-full of joie-de-vivre. His talk had all the sparkle of champagne, and he himself kept laughing at the majesty of his own absurdities, as one droll thought followed another….at times still so young and almost boyish in his gaiety. (Lord Redesdale, Memories, 1915)
His health remained precarious after the punishing American tour and was further impaired by his addiction to giving the strenuous “Sikes and Nancy” reading. His farewell readings tour was abandoned when, in April 1869, he collapsed. He began writing another novel and gave a short farewell season of readings in London, ending with the famous speech, “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore…” words repeated, less than three months later, on his funeral card. He died suddenly at Gads Hill on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. People all