The "great Charles Dickens scandal" is, of course, Dickens' alleged affair with Ellen Ternan. You would think we would know by now exactly what happened between the middle-aged Dickens, disillusioned by his 20-year marriage to Catherine Hogarth, and "Nelly", the shy teenaged actress who first caught his eye in 1857 - but far from it. We cannot even be sure that the relationship was consummated. She may, suggests the renowned Dickens scholar Michael Slater, have reminded him of Mary Hogarth, the pure-hearted sister-in-law who died in his arms, 20 years earlier, at the age of 17. Claire Tomalin's 1990 biography of Nelly, The Invisible Woman, and her return to Dickens with her 2011 biography of the writer, might have been expected to establish the plain facts of the case but, as Slater demonstrates in this highly readable reconstruction of the mystery, it is the facts themselves that are still impossible to verify.
For all the rich documentary evidence we have of the Victorians - all the letters, diaries, train timetables, eyewitness accounts, memoirs, autobiographies, censuses, photographs - Nelly Ternan has somehow given everyone the slip. Those who have tried to piece together her history include a Church of England canon, countless venerable Dickensians, a slew of Americans, a famous actor, a medievalist-turned-Nelly-investigator, and numerous friends and relations. Slater considerately provides biographical summaries of the key players to help the reader keep up but even this isn't always enough: "Storey's mention of Peckham confirmed, as Dexter reminded Suzannet, Wright's last Ternan discoveries as presented in his posthumous biography" is an example of Nelly gossip at its densest, with Peckham one of her many possible habitations. Even now, we still cannot be sure whether Dickens and Nelly ever lived together. Disguised as "Mr Tringham", Dickens visited her in numerous locations; he rented cottages; he dashed over to France; he had reasons for being in Slough. But whether they ever cohabited as man and mistress remains matter for speculation - as does the high point of the scandal: whether they had a child.
If they did have a child he probably died but even here we have little to go on. Triumphant scholars who thought they had traced the birth of a "Fitz-Dickens" (or Tringham) son, on the strength of a single-word diary entry - "Arrival" - or on the evidence of similar names on a birth certificate, have been forced to back down. No new leads have emerged since the 1990s. The bottom line, says Slater, is that we will probably never know.
What we have instead is a succession of investigators, and a series of tableau-like episodes: Dickens' first meeting with Nelly as a modest young actress ashamed of having to wear a revealing costume; the "misdirected gift" episode when jewellery intended for Nelly was sent instead to Catherine; Sir Henry Dickens' shocked realisation that his father and Nelly must have been lovers. If so, the signs are that Nelly succumbed reluctantly and felt guilty about it for the rest of her life. She married a clergyman, gave Dickens readings, held children's parties. There was nothing joyous (apparently) about her 12-year relationship with her famous lover. As for him, as several Dickens critics have noticed, his reputation as the great Victorian champion of domesticity somehow survives, not least through stubborn disbelief in the scandal's grubbier details. There is no great revelation at the end but this in itself will doubtless persuade many more to continue the chase where Slater is obliged to leave off.
Valerie Sanders is professor of English and director of the Graduate School, University of Hull.
The Great Charles Dickens Scandal
By Michael Slater
Yale University Press, 224pp, £20.00
Published September 2012