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'HE LOVED ME ONCE': Equality and the real home life of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Published: 12 July, 2012

The legacy of Charles Dickens does not just lie in his gift of novels, stories and journalism.

He became a byword for social outrage, for warning of the human cost of the unfettered industrial revolution, with calls throughout his works for justice and equality.

But while his seat at the table of English literary icons is assured, the story of his marriage – and his behaviour towards his wife, Catherine Hogarth – is rarely mentioned. It is this story that literary academic Dr Lillian Nayder  tells in her book The Other Dickens: the life of Catherine Hogarth (Cornell University Press, 2010).

Catherine, who died in 1879, is buried in Highgate Cemetery. It was a fitting venue for a talk by Dr Nayder last night (Wednesday), organised by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery.

Dr Nayder says that while she is telling a story that does not easily fit with Dickens’s saintly reputation, she is still a devotee. “I absolutely loved Dickens’s novels and still do,” she admits. “I became interested in Dickens’s ‘satellites’ – those who worked with him but who were largely marginal­ised in the process.  Wilkie Collins was one example, before he became famous in his own right. I started thinking about Dickens’s domestic ‘satellites’, especially Catherine Dickens, who had long been berated by Dickens critics and biographers, and blamed for the marital breakdown. I wanted to discover her real story – placing her in an orbit of her own.”

What emerged is a picture of a classic hatchet job by a man in a position of power.

“Catherine has long been defined – and her image distorted – by her husband and by those who have simply echoed his claims about her,” Dr Nayder says.

The marriage – which began in 1836, resulting in 10 children and a seemingly happy home in Bloomsbury – began to fall apart in the early 1850s. But we only have Dickens’s version of events. “His words have replaced Catherine’s in the record of that argument – just one mark of a much larger process of silencing,” says Dr Nayder.

This includes a nasty attack in the magazine Household Words, which he then also sent to The Times as a press release. They included the allegations that she had abandoned her children: “. . . some peculiarity of her character has thrown all the children on someone else,” he wrote. “I do not know – I cannot by any stretch of fancy imagine – what would have become of them but for this aunt, who has grown up with them, to whom they are devoted, and who has sacrificed the best part of her youth and life to them,” he wrote.

But Dr Nayder says it wasn’t like that. Her research has taken her into the archives at the Charles Dickens Museum, the British Library, and the National Library of Scotland. She read through Catherine’s unpublished letters, the letters and diaries of friends and relatives.

Dickens’s banking records were pored over, as were legal papers relating to their family, the marriage and the separation.

Divorce at the time was laden with social stigma. The simple fact seems to be that Dickens had met someone else – the actress Ellen Ternan.

But instead he wanted the blame to fall on Catherine’s shoulders, making out her quarrelsome and erratic behaviour meant he had to walk away.

But there was still an attraction, up to their separation, claims Dr Nayder. Using the timing of Catherine’s 12 pregnancies and the spacing between them, Dr Nayder has constructed an accurate picture of their sex life.

As they did not use contraception, Dr Nayder debunks the claim by biographers that Dickens had lost interest in his wife sex­ually by the 1850s. She estimates they that they made love as often in 1850 as they had a decade previously.

“Dickens’s ability to distort Catherine’s story – to so badly misrep­resent her – was enabled by the sexual double standard of Victorian laws and culture,” says Dr Nayder. “Catherine didn’t even have custody rights, and Dickens could bequeath child custody to whomever he chose in his will. But biographers still echo Dickens and are surprisingly co-operative with him despite the degree of gender equity that we’ve achieved. That’s the measure of how completely people have invested in Dickens as a cultural and social icon.”

The critics could be cruel: when Catherine wrote a cook book, it was used as a sign of her un­suitability as a muse for such a genius.

It was full of typical dishes – tables groaning with chickens, potatoes, marrow pud­dings, macaroni cheeses and plenty of bacon, and she was painted as a fat woman with an unstable mind.

But this menu typified the Victorian dinner party, where guests would nibble slowly at a wide offering, and not eat it all.

“Catherine never spoke publicly about her treatment by Dickens,” she says. Even as she faced death, aged 64, she asked a daughter to give letters he had written to the British Museum, saying that they showed ‘...he loved me once’.”

Now, more than 100 years after Catherine’s death, a Dickens devotee has put the record straight.

• The next talk in the chapel at Highgate Cemetery is on Wednesday August 15: Leslie Grout on Royal burials – he is a past International Mastermind winner (specialist topic: Windsor Castle) and longstanding member of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. Email or call 07521520599


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