I came to this after ploughing through Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, intrigued by the shadowy figure of Nelly Ternan and her possible inolvement in Dickens' appalling behaviour concerning the break-up of his marriage. Tomalin has done an impressive job teasing out a story that was never intended to be revealed, and probably never will be in its entirity. Though she refuses to be drawn into speculation, she builds a convincing case for the probability that Dickens did pursue a serious, long-term affair with Nelly, that they may well have had at least one child and, perhaps most controversial of all, that his friends and his family closed ranks to conceal the fact that he was with her on the day he died.
But the book isn't just about Dickens. It takes you deep into the the alluring yet harsh world inhabited by "theatricals", despised and feared by respectable society, and whatever prejudices you begin the book with are likely to be challenged before you reach the final page. Tomalin is to be congratulated for bringing to life a woman who clearly brought Dickens comfort and joy as well as guilt and anguish and showed a remarkable dignity, independence and capacity for self-reinvention.