[The following passage comes from the eleventh chapter of Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, “The Year of the Diary 1867” — George P. Landow]

Nelly was kept hidden by an expert, but even Dickens could not prevent accidents like Staplehurst or the loss of his diary; and it's because of this that we have, for one only of the twelve hidden years, a document which gives a clear picture of the pattern of their lives. The year is 1867, and the information is contained in a very small memorandum book which he used as a pocket diary from 1 January to 7 November, when he set off for America and stopped making notes. The diary escaped destruction, the annual fate of Dickens's pocket books, only because it was lost or stolen, and someone thought it worth preserving. It went missing at the end of December 1867, when he was in New York; he reported its disappearance to Georgina in a letter, and though he was jocular about it, he was obviously slightly worried, too, saying the loss was one '"which", as Mr Pepys would add, "do trouble me mightily"'. . . . He was right to be perturbed, because the diary is pervaded by the One person he wished to keep out of sight. Here is 'N' - her illness and recovery, the possibility of her joining him in America, her presence in Slough, her visits to the theatre, her walks with him, their joint search for a house and move to Peckham. Once a few notations are understood, it offers a key to the private existence he guarded so carefully.

The diary surfaced in a New York auction-room sale in 1922, billed as coming from an unnamed private collector. The catalogue description suggested that its importance lay in the fact that it covered the period in which Dickens was preparing his American reading tour. It was bought by the brothers Berg with other Dickensiana, and then lay unremarked in their collection until the curator drew attention to its importance in 1943. Since then scholars have been squeezing it like a tiny sponge for every drop of information it can yield. It is a very small booklet - 10 x 5 1/2 centimetres - printed with meteorological and other information, bound in faded red leather and written in a cramped but mostly legible hand; some of the ink has weathered to brown, some is blue.

What it reveals with perfect clarity is a man intent on a split life; a man almost demented in his determined pursuit of it, despite the exhaustion and illness we know of from his letters and the reports of friends. It shows how he used the growing railway system as an essential component of that split life, putting up with as much pressure and discomfort as any commercial traveller in pursuance of his elaborate system of divided days and weeks, hurrying between Gad's Hill and Wellington Street, between Wellington Street and Slough; how Paddington, Waterloo, Windsor, Slough and Datchet stations were almost as familiar to him as his office and his home. He would go straight back to Slough from giving a reading in Bath before setting off to give another in Birmingham, and fit in four secret days there between readings in Cheltenham and his departure for Ireland. On at least two occasions he sent notes to Georgina making excuses about not coming to Gad's Hill, putting it down to pressure of work or ill health, when in fact he was planning to spend the time with Nelly. He would leave a dinner at Forster's decorous establishment to take the late-evening train back to Slough. He would travel from Gad's Hill to London with his married son Charley and then straight on by another train to see Nelly. Whenever possible he fitted in two or three days, sometimes mid-week, sometimes at weekends, usually making it appear as if he were at his office. During the ten months covered by the diary, he spent one third of his time with, or near, Nelly; one third at Gad's Hill; and one third serving his other love, the public. His perfect punctuality and grasp of timetables stood him in brilliant stead. [167-68]

Related Material


Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan (1990). Reprint. N.Y.: Vintage, 2012. [Review]

Charles Dickens Biography

Last modified 14 January 2014