REVIEWED BY PENELOPE DEBELLE
12 volumes of Dickens’ letters (minus Nelly Ternan’s which she burnt).
The Ternan affair is ultimately a sideshow; the meat of the book is the lively and brilliantly informed story of Dickens’ life and work, from his poor beginnings in Portsmouth, where he spent time in a debtor’s prison and was sent to work in a shoe blacking factory at the age of 12. The poverty and lack of love made him cruel and bitter and he never quite recovered, calling himself “a misplaced and mis-married man; always, as it were, playing hide and seek with the world, and never finding what Fortune seems to have hidden when he was born”. But it also taught him compassion. Dickens visited alms houses and hospitals throughout his life and with a rich benefactor set up a home for prostitutes which sent the reformed girls to Australia.
He was a complex, charismatic man who lit up a