On the 200th anniversary of his birth, Charles Dickens is more of an enigma than ever. Did this great Victorian moralist really conduct an adulterous fling with a young actress, driving his middle-aged wife to the bottle in the process?
Why would a public figure who had spoken out so movingly about the mistreatment of the young and vulnerable conceal his own past as a child labourer?
And was he simply in it for the cold, hard cash? For many decades, Dickens's reputation was surrounded by a rosy halo.
The author of 'Oliver Twist', 'Bleak House' and 'Great Expectations' -- sprawling yarns that held a mirror up to a society convulsed by the Industrial Revolution -- was lauded as crusader first, storyteller second.
Lately, however, an increasingly nuanced portrait has emerged.
Without question, Dickens's firebrand opinions were genuinely held. But he could be as materialistic as the most infamous baron, demanding huge sums for his writing and public addresses.
He also campaigned relentlessly for an international copyright law so that the lucrative trade in pirated copies of his books could be stymied, especially in the US.
His personal life, too, has come under renewed scrutiny.
Biographers have uncovered strong evidence that, in his mid-50s, he had an affair with a theatre star nearly 30 years his junior named Ellen Ternan, an assignation that broke the heart of his wife, who had borne him 10 children, and caused the end of his marriage.
To cope with the trauma, it is said that his wife turned to gin and whiskey.
While a number of his literary peers openly pursued affairs, Dickens zealously guarded his image.
To be seen as anything less than an upstanding family man would, he feared, cause terrible damage to his reputation.
He and his lover were almost unmasked on at least one occasion -- due to an 1865 train accident between Folkestone and London, in which both nearly perished.
Before rushing to help the wounded and to seek medical treatment for himself, Dickens arranged for Ellen to be spirited away, so that he wouldn't be found in her company when newspaper men arrived on the scene.
But one thing that isn't in doubt is his abiding love for Ireland.
He was a bone-fide superstar in this country, drawing sell-out crowds to his public readings and prompting scenes of hysteria as he proceeded through the countryside.
At a time when Ireland was divided between the destitute and the obscenely wealthy -- and bitterly split along religious lines -- perhaps the only thing the entire population could agree on was their adoration of Dickens.
A man who knew the value of a strong personal brand, Dickens was one of the first authors to take this work directly to the people.
Before rapturous attendances he would read, and often enact, his best-loved stories, bringing the characters to life and ratcheting up the tension with his delivery.
An actor in his youth, dramatic flair came naturally to him.
Such readings commanded hefty appearance fees, to say nothing of encouraging those who had come to his shows to immediately dash out and snap up his latest novel.
At one such performance in Belfast, he's said to have earned the modern equivalent of €20,000, not counting the royalties from what was sure to be a subsequent surge in sales of his books.
Dickens was an enthusiastic traveller and would go wherever there was a audience, even as far afield as American and India.
He toured Ireland on three occasions, prompting a public pandemonium that arguably wouldn't be repeated until the Papal visit 120 years later.
His first trip to the country was in August 1858, shortly after he and his wife had separated for good. Leaving the 'great stink' of London, he sailed from Holyhead to Dublin and spent an evening at Morrison's Hotel, a first-class establishment on Nassau Street.
An enthusiastic sight-seer, Dickens devoted several hours to familiarising himself with the grimy metropolis, travelling by horse and carriage through the Phoenix Park, all the while remarking on the beauty of the surroundings.
For all his celebrity, Dickens could be plagued with insecurities. In Dublin, he fretted that nobody would turn up to hear him read. He may have been famous in Britain, but Ireland was an unknown quantity. He had no inkling of his popularity.
His nerves were put to rest as he made his way towards the top of O'Connell Street and what is now the Ambassador Theatre.
The entrance to the venue was mobbed and, like a rock star trying to get to his own concert, Dickens had to be escorted through the hordes to the front door.
Within, some 3,000 devotees waited to hang on to his every word.
At precisely 8pm, he stepped up to the small lectern and read from his most popular work, 'A Christmas Carol'.
Under the glow of gas lamps, he gave a riveting performance, assuming the mannerisms of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, cowering Bob Cratchit and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
His voice booming across the room, he pounded the wood for effect, gesticulating enthusiastically at moments of high drama. When finally he fell silent, the applause threatened to go on longer than his talk.
The next morning, he woke up to a breakfast of muffins and coffee -- and swooning write-ups in the press. According to the 'Freeman's Journal', a speaker had never received adulation "more spontaneous, general or enthusiastic" in the history of Dublin.
Dickens was beseeched to give further readings in the capital. Weighed down by a heavy schedule, he demurred.
Departing Amiens Street Station (later Connolly Station), he took the train to Belfast, marvelling at the unspoiled loveliness of the countryside and the simplicity of the white-washed cottages.
Did he realise, you wonder, that the landscape's haunting emptiness was a result of the Famine of a little over a decade earlier?
Further hysteria marked his appearance at the Ulster Hall, where the police had to be called to control the crowd.
Not a man to tinker with a successful set list, Dickens reprised his reading of 'A Christmas Carol'. As in Dublin, the standing ovations seemed to last half the night.
With a few days off, he thought he might indulge his passion for rambling. On a clear Saturday morning, he walked the 16 miles from Belfast to Carrickfergus. That afternoon, he was invited to give another presentation in Belfast, where he was astonished to see onlookers moved to tears by his prose.
While he judged Belfast more enthusiastic than Dublin, he was struck, too, by the differences between the two cities.
If Dublin had felt like a foreign country, on the banks of the Lagan he found much that was familiar.
The natives were rather 'curious', he remarked -- "they seemed all Scotch but in a state of transition".
On Monday, August 31, he arrived in Cork, where he was booked into a suite at the Imperial Hotel. Again, he was astonished by the reception.
Some 1,000 flocked to the Opera House (then known as the Athenaeum) for a reading from -- what else? -- 'A Christmas Carol'.
He had planned on visiting Cobh (then Queenstown) the following day. So hurried was his itinerary, he had to make do with a trip to the Blarney Stone, which he naturally kissed.
The final stop was Limerick. He stayed at the Royal Hotel and spoke at the Theatre Royal on Henry Street. The reading was well attended, but without the mania witnessed elsewhere.
Dickens, always a man with an eye for the bottom line, was heard to lament that he made a paltry £40 from his night's work.
Though Dickens would return for further tours in 1867 and 1869, Ireland never featured in his writings, notwithstanding the horrific poverty he surely witnessed on his travels.
Still, there is reason to believe the country exerted a subtle yet crucial influence on his work.The inspiration for Miss Havisham, the reclusive old lady in 'Great Expectations', is said to have been one Augusta Magan, the eccentric descendant of an Anglo-Irish family who lived in decadent isolation at Shankill, Dublin.
As with many facets of his life, it appears there was far more to Dickens's relationship with Ireland than was suspected at the time.