Meeting Report January 2014
The New Year got off to a very pleasant start not only by the quality of the talk we heard but also because we had an unexpected visit from Thorsby Society member Tony Stevens. Tony came along to donate over 700 slides of East Leeds in the 20th century to the society. We were delighted to receive them, and look forward to going through them all and adding them to our photo collection. They will no doubt be put to good use in subsequent presentations and displays.
Our speaker for the evening was Pat Osborne, retired civil servant and 'speaker and story teller', and what a story she had to tell. The topic was the secret life of Charles Dickens, and Pat had the audience engrossed as she described firstly Dickens impoverished early life and then his rise, through his writings to become one of the most popular and wealthiest men in England.
She then went on to describe how the 12 year old Dickens was forced to work for 6d a week in a blacking factory. Whilst this might seem a harsh fate it was better than what befell his younger brothers and sisters, who had to endure a spell in a debtor's prison accompanying their Mother and Father. Dickens' early experiences coloured his views and led in later life to campaigns for neglected children and the setting up, in partnership with Angela Burnett Coutts of Urainia House, a home for street women. Whilst the audience found Pat's tales of the young Dickens fascinating, what really grabbed the attention was the story of his 13 year affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan.
Dickens met her when she was a struggling 18 year old and he was an influential and prosperous man of 45. She became the love of his life, and almost led to his downfall. Because Dickens had created an image of moral superiority and was afraid of offending his adoring public, he went to great lengths to keep the affair secret. However this did not prevent him from discarding Catherine his wife of twenty years.
Pat's description of how, before he eventually banished her to a separate home in London, he actually had a brick wall built in the marital bedroom in order to separate himself from her. This raised gasps of disbelief from the audience. Although the affair was not acknowledged until after his death, there were many rumours of his association with someone. The vilest of these was that he was in a relationship with his wife's unmarried sister, Georgina. Such a relationship was regarded as incestuous and an offence in Victorian times. In order to refute this Dickens forced his unfortunate sister in law to undergo a virginity test and made the results public. That he should put someone who he was fond of through such ignominy only showed how his infatuation ruled his life. During the time of the affair, Nelly spent four years in Paris, and it is widely thought that she bore him a child during this time.
Pat concluded her talk by explaining that in Victorian times it was generally accepted that middle class gentlemen had mistresses. She theorised that had Dickens not been so afraid of being regarded as a hypocrite he could, like many others, have lived a double life and saved many people a great deal of sorrow and heartache. We thoroughly enjoyed Pat's entertaining speaking style and were amazed at the amount of information she managed to pack into her one hour talk.