What the Dickens, Dickens?

Ah, marriage. Those sacred vows to love, honor, and cherish (or, if you were a Victorian female, to love, honor, and obey), until death do us part. My mother always called marriage a promise that two people make, and said that real promises shouldn’t be broken, even when it stops being convenient to do so. Marriage is special; marriage is sacred. Marriage is forever, in this life and the next.

Wait,wait, wait, wait, wait, Kat! The title promised these people Charles Dickens. Why are you waxing philosophical about marriage? Especially when you have fundamental issues with the concept as it existed in the past, when it was a contract rather than a genuine profession of love? Okay, switching gears for a moment, then.

These are my mental gears…

Charles Dickens: household name, wordy author, guy you were forced to read in school and never want to read again, author of stories you love anyway, crusader for social reform, complete asshole to his wife.

Wait, what?

Oh,yes. Everything you think you know about Charles Dickens is probably true, but many modern people are unfamiliar with his treatment of his wife. He was a wonderful writer. He brought widespread attention to the plight of London’s poor. He helped rouse widespread public sympathy towards a marginalized group that hadn’t received much sympathy prior to that. He loved his children, in the way a Victorian gentleman did. And he treated his wife like crap. Human beings are complicated. Everyone has traits you admire. And traits that make you want to smack them upside the head. Dickens was no exception.

So let’s talk about the man, and his wife. And about the teenage actress who would eventually supplant her.

Catherine Hogarth (later Catherine Dickens) was not “The One.” Dickens had been very much in love before ever meeting Catherine, with a young woman named Maria Beadnell. He was, at the time (1830), a struggling journalist with a father who had spent time in debtor’s prison. Hardly an ideal match for a young woman of good family. Maria’s parents quickly quashed the possibility of marriage by sending Maria to live in France.

It would be another five years before Dickens met Catherine Hogarth and more than a year after that before they would marry. And, although she was not his first choice, Dickens and his wife seemed to have been quite happy together. For the first several years of their marriage, they lived quite comfortably and happily.

Catherine Hogarth Dickens
(Samuel Lawrence — 1838)
Public Domain in the US

In that time, Dickens wrote constantly, and published any number of works we still know and admire today (among other works published during the first 5 or 6 years of his marriage were Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop).

Dickens was a strong believer in the traditional family, and the role of males in that family. As a child of 12 or 13, with his father in debtor’s prison, his mother sent him to work to help support the family (a common practice in the time although one few modern mothers would consider). Dickens hated both the job and the whole situation,and never forgave his mother. The whole situation helped cement his belief that a woman should be limited to the domestic sphere while a father’s job was to support the family financially. As early as 1841, when his popularity was already taking off, it was noted that Dickens had a tendency to portray his female characters in a rather one-dimensional light in accordance with this model.

Catherine was a good little homemaker to her traditional husband, keeping house, playing hostess, and obediently producing 10 living children (not including miscarriages). These children would later become a point of contention, as Dickens blamed her for producing such a financially-draining brood. Of course, he didn’t have any role in creating all those children…

Perhaps the first strain on the relationship was the death of Catherine’s sister (Mary, who had lived with them since the wedding) and Catherine’s miscarriage a few months later. The deaths affected the couple so profoundly that they ended up leaving the house they had shared with Mary. But, despite the strain of her death, the marriage remained a happy one and letters from Dickens to friends indicate that he still loved his wife, and greatly enjoyed his domestic life with her, their children, and their close friends. Certainly, he was fond enough of her to keep getting her pregnant.

Writing was his second favorite pastime. The first seems to have been getting his wife pregnant.

Eventually, financial and professional stresses started creeping into his life. He was getting older and losing energy, but there was still a great deal of pressure to produce as prolifically as he had in his early 20s. Fans bombarded him with requests for speeches, appearances, attention, etc. He had a wife, several children, and a household (one that frequently entertained company, which was not cheap in the Victorian era) to support, in addition to being pressured to support his brothers and parents. When he bought his parents a home in the English countryside, his father complained that it wasn’t in Paris or London. His father was also constantly demanding “loans” from Dickens, his bankers, and his publisher.

Life was starting to be stressful and Dickens would not be the first, or the last, person to feel discontent and anxious with his life and blame it on his marriage. In 1855, complicating matters, Maria Winter (formerly Maria Beadnell) wrote to Dickens. This led to a correspondence that was to culminate in Dickens proposing a clandestine meeting. This may be the first clear proof we see that the Dickens marriage was in trouble. If he’d been happy and secure in his marriage, he would have been unlikely to suggest a meeting kept secret from his wife and Maria’s husband.

Not an accurate representation of Mr. and Mrs. Dickens

Maria was no longer young and beautiful (she was several years older than a wife that Dickens was already accusing of having let herself go and, in Maria’s own words, Maria had turned “toothless, fat, old, and ugly”). After a single meeting, Dickens excused himself from seeing Maria again. Whatever he’d expected from the meeting, he clearly hadn’t gotten it. He was disillusioned:

Clennam’s eyes no sooner fell upon the subject of his old passion, than it shivered and broke to pieces.”
Charles Dickens, “Little Dorrit”

He later said of the female character (Flora) mentioned in the quote above: “We all have our Flora (mine is living and extremely fat).” He obviously had a difficult time accepting that women, too, aged and became less beautiful as they did. He was restless, unhappy, angry, and felt that his unsatisfying personal life was stifling his creative flow. It’s hard not to feel that Dickens was beginning to enter a stage of life marked in this century by buying a sports car and dating a girl young enough to be your daughter.

Meanwhile,in the past 16 years, Catherine had given birth to 10 children, and suffered a number of miscarriages. All this had taken the obvious toll on her; she was heavy, no longer young-looking, and simply out of energy. Dickens expected certain things that she was simply not capable of: industry, rigid household discipline, animation, a mental equal in an era where women were seldom educated to be anything but housewives, and someone to keep pace with him socially.

Dickens began to grow cold and indifferent to his wife, then openly irritated with her. She kept popping out financially burdensome children despite the fact that he had considered 4 quite enough to be getting on with. She was clumsy, dull (unintelligent), lacking energy, and in every other way unsuitable to be the wife of such a great man. He wrote to a friend in 1857, “Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other… What is now befalling, I have steadily seen coming.” By that stage, he was very frequently writing to friends about how unhappy he was in his marriage, and what a truly unsuitable wife Catherine was. Very few of Catherine’s letters survive, but we know that she was confused by her husband’s sudden hostility and discontent. It’s notable that Dickens criticized Catherine for not being his intellectual equal when one of their children would later write:

My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion – never allowed to say what she felt.”
– Kate Dickens

Dickens would channel his restlessness into the theater, collaborating actively on stage adaptations for many of his more popular novels.Enter Ellen Ternan, stage left.

Ellen Ternan, “the other woman”
(unknown phot0grapher — 1858)
Public domain

She was an actress, aged only 18 in comparison to the 45 year old Dickens, and they admired each other greatly (he was admired for his writing and her for her acting, wit, and vivacity). It’s hard to say when the affair began but, in 1858, Catherine was accidentally sent a package containing a piece of jewelry meant as a gift to Ellen, along with a hand-written note to Ellen from her husband.

Divorces have been initiated over less, but this was the Victorian era. In 1857, Parliament was only just beginning to consider the idea of making divorces legal. After 22 years and 10 children, things were clearly over, but the two continued to live together for a time. Even before the incident with the bracelet, Dickens had told the servants to remove his things from the shared bedroom into the next room, which was to be turned into his new, private bedroom. As if to make a point, he then had the door adjoining the bedrooms walled over, and the walls covered with shelves. Was the misdirected package an accident, or just one more way to make a point? Was he, in fact, trying to force her into the position of being the one to end things between them?

For a time, Catherine held out hope that the marriage could be saved, but the bracelet seemed to be the last straw for her. Catherine was rightly humiliated and angry, but Dickens tried to turn that natural reaction against her, claiming it as proof of her irrational jealousy and inability to be reasoned with. When Catherine accused him of having an affair, Dickens forced Catherine to visit Ellen Ternan and apologize to her for having insulted a Lady by voicing such suspicions. Catherine’s parents were adamant, on finding out about this final insult, that Catherine must seek a separation.

She was allowed to take their oldest child with her when she left. Her nine other children remained with their father. In those days, there were no custody battles. Wives were not legally distinct from their husbands (except insofar as they were considered his property rather than an extension of himself) and, even when separated, they were expected to bend to the will of their husband. The disposition of the children was entirely in his hands, and she had no choice but to obey. Dickens actively discouraged the other children from seeing their mother and, in later years, at least a few of those children expressed guilt over cutting her out of their lives so completely.

With Catherine out of his life, Dickens undertook a conscientious campaign to make her appear the guilty party in the separation, painting her as lazy, ill-tempered, a neglectful mother, a bad wife, unpleasant, pathologically jealous, and the only person he’d ever failed to get along with. He not only spread these sentiments in his own private circle of friends, but wrote a lengthy defense of his own conduct, having it published in the London Times,and in his own magazine, Household Words.

A few months later, he would write another letter, this one directly attacking Catherine, discussing an alleged mental disorder and her dereliction of her motherly and wifely duties. This letter was sent to a friend, who had it published in the New York Tribune. Dickens claimed he had never intended that letter to be published, and called the action a betrayal and violation. Yet he maintained close ties with the gentleman who arranged for its publication, highly suggestive of collusion between the two.

The public was not convinced of his innocence. It was hard to see such a brilliant, famous, outspoken man as a victim, especially when his extramarital affair was such common knowledge. Shortly after he had removed Catherine from the picture, Dickens was supporting Ellen and her family. The man who had painted such widely-appreciated pictures of the joys of domestic harmony, had failed to live up to the ideals he presented.

Jane Carlyle, former a close family friend, jokes that the best description for his treatment of his wife was to say that he had “played the Dickens with her.” (It should be noted that, well prior to this times, the use of the term dickens, as in “what the dickens?” or “playing the dickens,” referred to a slang term for the devil, rather than referencing the author, making Mrs. Carlyle’s joke a rather clever pun on an existing turn of phrase.)

Dickens seemed, according to his friends, to be quite happy with Ellen. But he would not allow her to be seen with him in public, no doubt for the sake of what was left of his image.

Catherine lived for 20 years after the separation, a quiet life, which must have been quite lonely for her, cut off from the friends she’d made while married, and isolated from her own children. When her son Walter died, Dickens did not even inform her of the tragedy. When Dickens died, a few years before her, no one bothered inviting her to the funeral.

 Years after her mother’s death, their daughter Kate Dickens would write Dickens and Daughter, a memoir which, among other things, offered the first concrete proof of the affair Dickens had with Ellen Ternan, as well as telling her mother’s side of the whole painful story.

Today, Dickens is still respected as a writer, and rightly so. But, in admiring a person’s art, it’s important not to forget that they were human, too, and to recognize the bad along with the good in them.

(More information about the marriage of Charles Dickens can be found in a book called Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, which also discusses the marriages of other famous Victorians Thomas Carlyle,John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, and George Eliot.)

(All images taken from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/or Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted in their description. Wikimedia images are marked with appropriate attributions and public domain status.)

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