‘My father was a wicked man – a very wicked man,’ Charles Dickens’s daughter Kate Perugini wrote. ‘My father did not understand women.’ Yet he was never simply a chauvinist. Though he would not acknowledge women’s independence, he recognised their ambitions outside the home. He admired his musical sister Fanny, and was drawn to Nelly Ternan, who became his mistress, partly because of her talents on the stage. He worked closely with Elizabeth Gaskell and the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. The distress of abused and vulnerable women moved him to pity, and he made energetic attempts to lift prostitutes out of wretchedness, with Burdett-Coutts’s help. He couldn’t tolerate women defying his authority, but he was bored by women who were easily controlled.
These conflicts are central to his fiction. If his thinking on questions of gender had been less tangled, he would have been a different and less absorbing writer. It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that he could treat women badly. Twenty years ago, Claire Tomalin made his hypocrisies apparent in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, an account of Nelly’s struggles as the illicit lover of the nation’s celebrated defender of domestic virtue. Tomalin’s book was an early example of a biographical genre which has since flourished. Lillian Nayder’s study of Dickens’s wife, Catherine, demonstrates in relentlessly amassed detail that Victorian women put up with crushing legal and cultural disabilities, that Dickens was especially overbearing in his dealings with the women in his immediate family, that he destroyed the happiness of a woman who had done nothing to justify his cruelty, and that 21st-century women have every reason to bless the feminist revolutions that have transformed their position in society since Dickens’s day.
Such observations are not new. Nevertheless, Nayder does much to restore Catherine Hogarth’s dignity, showing that she was not the bland and stupid cipher that Dickens’s biographers often describe. As a girl in Edinburgh, Catherine developed her own cultural interests. Dickens’s casual refusal to encourage the thoughtfulness that he later accused her of lacking was especially hurtful. He wrote to his friend John Forster that she ‘wants to know whether you have “any books to send her”. If you have any literary rubbish on hand, please to shoot it here.’ She responded to every slight with unshakeable loyalty, even after Dickens had turned her out of the family home, but her forbearance only sharpened his exasperation. His coldness made no difference. On her deathbed, she bequeathed her letters to the British Museum, ‘that the world may know he loved me once’.
There’s an element of revenge in Nayder’s treatment of Dickens. ‘This book forces him to the margins,’ she says. The problem is that Catherine is such an unwilling ally in her project. After her marriage, she seems to have renounced the wish to be anything other than Dickens’s wife and the mother of his children, and Nayder’s investigation of her activities and opinions both before and after the break suggests that she became a cautiously conventional woman. Her unassuming temperament seems to make her pain all the more undeserved, but neither sorrow nor uncomplaining fidelity can make her a substantial figure in her own right. Nayder may intend otherwise, but her work is intriguing precisely because of what it implies about Dickens, the invisible man of this book. It might be thought puzzling that he dismissed Catherine with such ruthlessness, given what he wrote about the claims of family affection. One of the reasons for his extraordinary popularity is that his fiction identifies with the cultural values of femininity, rather than the supposedly cool and rational qualities of the masculine mind. Tender-hearted women (Little Dorrit, Little Nell, Sissy Jupe, Florence Dombey) are repeatedly given redemptive roles in his complex narratives. Their littleness, like much else in their representation, is ambiguous, suggesting their secondary or even childlike status, while emphasising by understatement that they transcend their native frailty. They are diminished by the very qualities that make them greater than men, paying for their loving interventions with a loss of autonomy. The force of feminised sentiment is carefully constrained in Dickens’s novels, but it remains the only means to heal division and disease.
An unsettled childhood offers some explanation for these creative muddles. Dickens’s mother was lively and sociable, with a habit of irreverent mimicry that her son relished, and later imitated. He came to despise her disorderly ways, but the women who attracted him were often rather like her, and she influenced him more profoundly than he could ever bring himself to admit. She bore eight children, and the household seems to have been boisterously cheerful, with plenty of music and games. Duets with his sister Fanny introduced him to the pleasures of public performance. But when he was 12 it seemed that his education, and any hope of becoming a gentleman, had come to a sudden end when he was sent to work (ten hours a day, six days a week) in the blacking factory. Shortly after he started the job, his father was imprisoned for debt, and Dickens’s unhappiness was compounded with a sense of family disgrace.
Meanwhile, Fanny’s developing talents as a musician seemed to promise fame and prosperity. Dickens was anguished as he watched her accept a prize at the Royal Academy of Music: ‘I could not bear to think of myself – beyond the reach of all such honourable emulation and success. The tears ran down my face. I felt as if my heart were rent. I prayed when I went to bed that night to be lifted out of the humiliation and neglect in which I was. I never had suffered so much before.’ He was writing of this episode years after the event, and was quick to add the half-believable claim that ‘there was no envy in this.’ Perhaps not, for his devotion to his gentle sister never faltered. Fanny’s memory (she died of tuberculosis at 38) lies behind the fond brother-sister relations that often supply warmth in his fiction (Nicholas and Kate Nickleby, Tom and Ruth Pinch, Florence and Paul Dombey). He was attached to Fanny, but her achievements served only to confirm the loss of his proper place in the world. Boys were expected to make their fortune, while girls would support their efforts. His chaotic family seemed to be reversing the order of things.
Dickens blamed his mother. When at last he had the chance to get away from the factory, she didn’t support him: ‘I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.’ Elizabeth was overruled, and the family finances recovered sufficiently to allow for two more years of schooling. Dickens never did forget his mother’s failure to defend his interests. Throughout his life, he seemed to have regarded her as an embarrassing nuisance. Siblings might help each other out in his novels, but parents are unable or unwilling to protect their children. Mothers, especially, are broken reeds. They fade and die, or feebly crumple under pressure, or absent themselves from the start, or turn out to be false. He is an ideological promoter of family ideals, but his fictional mothers are disconcertingly weak. Catherine’s fecundity reminded him of his unreliable mother, and this was part of her undoing.
Dickens resolved that his parents’ carelessness would not threaten his future again. Years of compulsive, unceasing work would remove any risk of poverty and shame. A situation as a legal clerk led him to journalism, a rapidly expanding occupation in 1830s London, offering just the kind of unregulated opportunity that he needed. He began to write, and to be paid for writing, freeing himself before he was 20 from dependence on his family with their incurable money troubles. Still struggling to make a name and an income, he fell for Maria Beadnell, a pretty and well-to-do girl. Though she is now chiefly remembered as a model for the helplessly inept Dora Spenlow in the quasi-autobiographical David Copperfield, she was much tougher than the ditzy Dora. She was interested in Dickens, but not overwhelmed. He courted her passionately for three years, with the same determination he was applying, much more effectively, to his job. When she finally turned away, his pain was genuine. ‘I never have loved and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself,’ he told her and no doubt he believed it. The rejection seemed to him merciless, and it reinforced his sense that women could not be trusted. If he would not allow himself to be treated as ‘the little labouring hind’ that his mother had tried to make of him, neither would he risk another romance in which a woman had the upper hand. From now on, he would take sole charge of his affairs, professional and amorous.
Two years later, Dickens was engaged. His courtship of Catherine Hogarth, the 19-year-old Scottish daughter of a fellow journalist, was distinctly different from his dogged pursuit of Maria. Dickens made it clear from the first that this would not be a union of equals. In return for her submission, Catherine would have a secure home, with the domestic responsibilities of a wife to occupy her time. Dickens saw her primarily as a source of restorative comfort, someone he could turn to ‘at our own fireside when my work is done, and seek in your kind looks and gentle manner the recreation and happiness which the moping solitude of chambers can never afford’. Catherine initially jibbed at her place in this arrangement, protesting about her fiancé’s consuming preoccupation with his career. Dickens was having none of it. He explained that he would end the engagement if her ‘sullen and inflexible obstinacy’ persisted. The tussle seems to have continued for a while, but Catherine eventually gave in. The wedding was quiet. ‘Young, girlish’ Catherine was a modest bride. A guest remarked that she was ‘bright, pleasant … dressed in the simplest and neatest manner, and looked better perhaps than if she had been enabled to aim at something more’. Catherine is an early version of the diminutive Ruth Pinch: ‘Pleasant little Ruth! Cheerful, tidy, bustling, quiet little Ruth!’
They married in 1836, the year Dickens’s prospects were transformed by the appearance of Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers. The pressure of his writing commitments, together with his obsessive need for domestic dominance, made Catherine’s life trying. Children arrived thick and fast – ten in all, the first (Charley) nine months after the wedding. Dickens found their noisy exuberance too much, and he quickly ran out of patience with the maladies associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Catherine gained weight (becoming less neat); she was often tired and ill. ‘I am sure she might rally, if she would,’ Dickens remarked. Her domestic management was not all he wished. She did not compare well, it seemed, with the memory of her angelic sister Mary, who had died unexpectedly at 17. Georgina, another Hogarth sister, lived with the family, and kept the children in order without adding to their number. Georgina’s capable presence exacerbated Dickens’s sense of Catherine’s shortcomings and he began to investigate alternative possibilities. Contact with Maria Beadnell led to a brief attempt to rekindle his feelings for her. But Maria, like Catherine, had ‘grown to be very broad … and short of breath’. When Dickens met Nelly Ternan, he was 45, and she was a delicate and slender 18-year-old – younger than his eldest daughter. His marriage to Catherine was in effect over.
The process of separation was peculiarly upsetting, in part because of Dickens’s insistence on making it public. He published a rash account in the Times and Household Words (Punch offended him mightily by refusing to have anything to do with the matter), hinting tantalisingly at the existence of a lover by the vehemence of his denial – ‘misrepresentations, most grossly false, most monstrous and most cruel’. A later statement was more direct, mentioning ‘a young lady for whom I have a great attachment and regard. I will not repeat her name – I honour it too much. Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady.’ Strangely, he could not see that readers would assume that the young lady in question was anything but spotless. Catherine, on the other hand, was described as having suffered a ‘mental disorder’; she had ‘thrown all the children on someone else’. The ‘someone else’ was Georgina, who took Dickens’s part rather than her sister’s, and doggedly persisted in running the household. Incensed by the predictable rumours that Georgina was his lover, Dickens had her virginity attested by doctors. She seems to have perceived this as a necessary safeguard rather than a gratuitous humiliation. Her devotion to Dickens, and to his memory, dominated the rest of her life, and she died unmarried in 1917.
Catherine was packed off to a small house near Regent’s Park. She was never allowed back into the family home, or into Dickens’s presence. Whatever her feelings, she maintained her silence. Yet she was not without defenders. Dickens’s self-vindications generated a tumult of gossip and speculation. Thackeray wrote to his mother: ‘There is some row about an actress in the case, and he denies with the utmost infuriation any charge against her or himself … It is agreed they are to part … To think of the poor matron after 22 years of marriage going away out of her house!’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning was indignant: ‘What is this sad story about Dickens and his wife? Incompatibility of temper after 23 years of married life? What a plea! … Poor woman! She must suffer bitterly – that is sure.’ The worst of Catherine’s misery was the enforced separation from her children, some of them too young to understand what had happened. Edward, the last-born, was six. Only her eldest son, Charley, was able to stand by his mother and accompany her into exile. Contact with the others was sporadic and limited. Her daughter Kate was later to reproach herself: ‘We were all very wicked not to take her part.’ But at the time the children had no choice. Dickens had made it clear that they must remain with him. His attitude to the family, especially to his sons, seems as pitiless as his banishment of Catherine. ‘He did not care a damn what happened to any of us,’ Kate bitterly recalled. Whether he did or not, the boys were expelled as soon as they were of an age to make their own way. Edward grew into a timid and uncertain youth, and when he was 16 Dickens despatched him to Australia. Catherine was not consulted. ‘Plorn’, as Dickens called him (not a helpful nickname), received a firmly valedictory letter from his father, informing him that ‘this life is half made up of partings, and these pains must be borne.’ Plorn meekly boarded his ship. He never saw his parents, or England, again.
Dickens seems to have been driven by an impulse to start his life afresh, in the same way that he could begin a new novel. He wanted to rid himself of his flesh and blood family as though they were fictitious, just as he had shaken himself free of the bothersome parents who had produced him, turning them into characters under his command – Mr Micawber, Mrs Nickleby, Mr Dorrit. Speaking of his marriage, he claimed that ‘a page in my life which once had writing on it, has become absolutely blank, and it is not in my power to pretend that it has a solitary word upon it.’ Nelly seemed to represent an erasure of the past. In practice, she was no such thing. She had to be hidden and supported, and like Catherine she was not always happy. There may have been a short-lived baby. Dickens must have known that in shattering Catherine’s world he had also wrecked any chance Nelly might have had of a prosperous and respectable career. Having built his reputation on the staunch defence of household probity, he now depended on sordid concealment. His early novels had sustained comic defiance, however precarious, in the face of villainy. After the failure of his marriage the fiction darkened, began to brood on sexual obsession, dishonesty and betrayal. Dickens’s life had come to embody the self-interested duplicity that he had once resisted, but the deceptions that haunted his imagination extend and complicate his later writing.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.