Little Nell by Simon Gray

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BBC Radio 4, 23 August 2008

Broadcast as a tribute to Gray in the month of his sad death, Little Nell told of the love-affair between Charles Dickens (Michael Pennington) and Ellen Ternan (Monica Dolan), and its consequences for their respective families. The play was constructed as a series of historical flashbacks, interspersed with dialogue between Dickens’s son Henry (Philip Voss) and Nelly Ternan’s son Geoffrey (Crispin Redman). Henry and Geoffrey met in the early 1920s, just after the end of the First World War, when Geoffrey wanted to find out more about his mother (who had never told him anything about her relationship with Dickens.)


This 2006 production told us a lot about Victorian attitudes to marriage and adultery, as Dickens was forced to deny Nelly Ternan’s existence as a lover, and made her live in a variety of locations – for example, Slough – under several aliases. Nelly herself never felt that she had any significance in Dickens’s life, as a lover or as an influence in his life. The two of them constructed a fantasy world in which they gave one another animal-names (‘Monkey’) but they could never extricate themselves from it, to address the inherent problems of their relationship. This was chiefly due to Dickens himself, who knew he was a great storyteller, adored by his public, and saw no reason to listen to Nelly’s advice. After all she was but a child in his mind, an actress twenty-five years younger than himself. Whenever Nelly tried to reprimand him, Dickens offered insincere apologies and re-invoked the fantasy world. The implication was clear: great writers often lead complicated lives, using their imaginative talent to take refuge from the uncomfortable realities of their relationships.


Having said this, I cannot say that Little Nell was a particularly engaging piece of work. Too often the flashback structure seemed mechanical, permitting Geoffrey and Henry to voice the dramatist’s criticisms of Dickens. In spite of Pennington and Dolan’s vocal skills, the central relationship lacked passion: we did not really find out why Dickens fell for Nelly, or why their affair lasted so long, in spite of the threats it posed to the author’s public reputation. Perhaps this could be attributed to the rather clichéd explanation offers for Dickens’ falling in love in the first place – a middle-aged man tiring of his wife and numerous children who simply fancied a bit on the side. Such material has formed a staple part of melodramas ever since the mid-nineteenth century; we might have expected a playwright of Gray’s stature to have offered something more plausible. As a result, Little Nell sagged rather in the middle, before moving to its conclusion. Nelly never told her son about her affair; he learned about it from Henry, which him against his mother. Meanwhile Henry remained sympathetic but unhelpful; like his father, his life revolved exclusively around himself.


As a tribute to Gray’s work, Little Nell was something of a disappointment. I hope the BBC will present something more substantial in the near future.