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Charles Dickens at Park Cottage

February 7, 2012
by the gentle author

This is the front door where Charles Dickens walked in

Two birthdays will be remembered at Park Cottage in Canonbury on this day, one is of Joan Atkins the current owner – whose age discretion prevents me disclosing – and the other is Charles Dickens whose two hundredth birthday is celebrated today. Yet the connection extends further than the shared birthday, as Joan revealed to me when she kindly invited me round for tea recently.

Joan’s parents’ background was in the theatre, encouraging her curiosity to learn about her nineteenth century predecessors at Park Cottage, the Ternans – a theatrical family of mother and three daughters who attracted the interest of Charles Dickens. He came here in 1857 to pay visits upon the youngest daughter Ellen Ternan, after she and her sisters had acted with great success in two performances that he organised of Wilkie Collins’ play “The Frozen Deep” in Manchester. And it was Dickens’ growing fascination with the eighteen year old Nelly – as she was commonly known – that led to a meeting over tea in the living room at Park Cottage which signalled a turning point in his personal life and the separation in the following year from Catherine, his wife and mother of his ten children.

Coming upon Park Cottage at the corner of Northumberland Park, you might assume that this plain single storey edifice was merely an extension stuck onto the end of the 1835 terrace in St Paul’s Place, but in fact it is a 1790s dwelling that once stood alone here, built as the estate cottage when the surrounding fields were turned over as a plant nursery by Robert Barr. Climbing the worn stone steps to walk through the narrow front door with its decorative fanlight – suggesting an aspiration to greater things – you enter the raised ground floor of the cottage built originally as four rooms – two up, two down – that was extended shortly after construction to make six. These spaces are divided by wooden-panelled partitions in the familiar eighteenth century pattern, creating rooms of a generous height and proportion upon the ground floor with attractive fireplaces and large shuttered windows, while below in the semi-basement, where the flagged kitchen remained until the 1970s, the rooms are more modest and receive less daylight. It would have been a crowded house for the four Ternans and their servant to occupy.

The Ternans came to live here in the spring of 1855 while the mother and two elder sister were performing at the Princess Theatre. Mrs Ternan, the widow of Thomas Ternan the tragedian, struggled to maintain her family and protect the reputation of her daughters in the capricious world of show business. She was conscientious at first to ensure propriety in the relationship between the famous novelist and her youngest daughter. Though whether this supervision was due to moral concern or the better to manipulate Dickens obsession with her daughter to their advantage is open to question. Dickens’ nineteen year marriage to Catherine had already turned sour and he sentimentalised the virginal Nelly Ternan, confessing, “I do not suppose there ever was a man so seized and rendered by one Spirit.”

Years later, Dickens third daughter Kitty recalled the tense domestic atmosphere at this time – “This affair brought out all that was worst and all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.” Yet Dickens stubbornly protested his innocence in the face of Catherine’s accusations and sought to humiliate her for maligning Nelly, the idealised object of his infatuation. Kitty’s version of events is reported thus, “Entering the room, she found her mother seated at the dressing table in the act of putting on her bonnet, with tears rolling down her cheeks. Inquiring the cause of her distress, Mrs Dickens – between her sobs – replied,“Your father has asked me to go and see Ellen Ternan.” “You shall not go!” exclaimed Kitty angrily stamping her foot. But she went.”

Who can only imagine what conversation might have passed over the tea table in the course of such a bizarre encounter in the narrow room at Park Cottage with two arched windows giving onto St Paul’s Place? We shall never know if civility was preserved or if feathers flew. Did Catherine attend out of subservience to her husband or did she wish to confront the reality of his obsession? There is a story that Dickens ordered a bracelet for Nelly from a jeweller who sent it to Catherine by mistake, delivering the arbitrary event which brought the situation to crisis.

It was the end of Dickens marriage. “If you dislike me so much it might be better if we were to separate,” Catherine wrote to him. Afterwards, he made a financial settlement upon Nelly and, insisting that the crowded dwelling at Park Cottage was unwholesome, he established the mother and her daughters in a more central and better appointed dwelling on Berners St. In just eighteen months, the precarious existence of the Ternans had been transformed to one of stability and wealth. On her twenty-first birthday, Nelly became the owner of a house in Ampthill Sq, Mornington Crescent. And later, Dickens arranged an extended sojourn in France for her and visited regularly, leading the the suggestion that she was pregnant with his child

For the most part unchanged inside, Park Cottage retains the appealing rural quality of a workaday eighteenth century cottage where the nursery workers once came to collect their wages in the kitchen. If we cannot ever know exactly what happened when Dickens courted Nelly in these shadowy rooms, what we understand of the circumstances that led him to her, and of the outcome, permit us to speculate. At forty-five years old, Dickens sought renewal, describing Nelly in terms that exalt her as a totem of the life he craved - “There is not on earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady.”

We may be assured that Joan Atkins, the current inhabitant of Park Cottage, celebrates her birthday with a relaxed tea party attended by her loving family. And at today’s gathering, Joan’s shared birthday with the greatest of British nineteenth century novelists will be the only point of comparison with that mythic tea party which once took place in her house one hundred and fifty years ago.

Ellen (Nelly) Ternan in 1858.

Maria, Ellen and Fanny Ternan.

The parlour at Park Cottage where Ellen Ternan once entertained Charles Dickens and his wife.

Ellen Ternan – Dickens described her as his “magic circle of one.”

Looking out towards the walled garden.

Charles Dickens by William Powell Frith 1859.

You may also like to read about

Charles Dickens In Spitalfields

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 2 – The Silk Warehouse

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 3 – In the Streets

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 4 – The Silk Weavers

Charles Dickens in Spitalfields 5 – The Young Artist

Charles Dickens at the Eagle

The Brick Lane Temperance Association

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Judy Poleg permalink
    February 7, 2012

    Wonderful article!
    Thank you!

  2. Ree permalink
    February 7, 2012

    Such a charming house and article…All the drama must have been difficult for everyone involved…Would make an interesting period drama film/tv series…”Dickens In Love”…or whatever…

  3. jeannette permalink
    February 7, 2012

    i was hoping you’d remember.
    thank you for such access to another one of the great city’s secret gardens and a clear-eyed, well-tempered encapsulation of the nelly mystery.
    happy birthday to the doyenne of the lovely house, too.

  4. Julia permalink
    July 30, 2014

    I’m reading ‘The Invisible Woman’ by Caire Tomalin and had to see if I could find any info. on Park Cottage – as she said it was still in existence – thanks for the article and photos of Nelly

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