Women Too Must Confront Heroes Who Are Complicated ...
But nobody would ban my former hero, Charles Dickens, from the literary canon. Nor should they.
The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
After visiting the London home of my then favorite author, I was shocked to learn that Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol, was an inexcusable cad toward his wife of a quarter century, Catherine.
Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and both were happy until she started having a ten children punctuated by a series of miscarriages. She became overwhelmed with her domestic responsibilities. Dickens began having dalliances.
In 1857, after 22 years of marriage, Dickens, then in his 40s, had an affair with an 18-year-old American actress which became the subject of gossip in a London men’s club and eventually went public.
U.S. newspapers reported a gold bracelet Dickens bought for his mistress was lost and found by an “honest person” who returned it to the jewelers. The firm promptly sent the bracelet to Dicken’s home, where it was received by Mrs. Dickens. She presented it and Dickens’ hand written note to Dickens, who reportedly said he would not stay another minute in the house.
Dickens then proceeded to write a long and self-serving ‘personal statement’ known as the “Violated Letter” in which blamed his wife for the separation.
“Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy… her temperament will not go with mine,” he wrote. Dickens also said Catherine suffered at times from a “mental disorder” that rendered her unfit both as a wife and mother, a claim that has been widely discredited.
The New York Herald called Dickens’ account “fudge. A married life of twenty-two years, nearly a dozen children, a spotless life on the part of the wife and mother, and now to have uncongenial temper cause a separation is simply preposterous.”
When Dickens separated from Catherine, he gave her 600 pounds a year (about $100,000 dollars today). His eldest son went to live with her but the other children and their aunt, Catherine’s sister, remained with Dickens. Dickens reportedly discouraged the children from visiting their mother.
Dicken’s insistence upon his wife’s fictional guilt caused a falling out with English novelist William Thackeray, who was cordial to Mrs. Dickens, even inviting her to dine at his house. Dickens wanted all evidence of his wife erased form the public sphere.
Dickens supported the actress, Ellen “Nelly” Lawless Ternan, after she left the stage in 1860 and occasionally traveled with her.
The Invisible Woman
Ternan was the subject of a book by Claire Tomalin, “The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.” Tomalin writes that Ternan and Dickens relationship lasted for 13 years, until his death in 1870. Ternan was basically written out of history so as not to sully Dickens’ image.
Dickens was not the hero I thought he was when I entered the house. He has never been a hero to me since. How could the author of Great Expectations and David Copperfield be capable of such cruelty to the mother of his children? Indeed, to his children, whom he alienated from her.
But he’s still a great writer. Iread A Christmas Carol every year or so and I am moved by it in a good way.
But now I know that Dickens had more in common with Scrooge than I previously thought.