Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"He Has a Moustache"; or, "Earth Will Not Hold Us Both": Charles Dickens and the Problem of Fred

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"He Has a Moustache"; or, "Earth Will Not Hold Us Both": Charles Dickens and the Problem of Fred

Article excerpt

In the best-known image of Charles Dickens with his "pair of petticoats" (Letters 3: 440)--a sketch dating from 1843--Daniel Maclise depicts the novelist, his wife Catherine, and her sister Georgina Hogarth, drawing comparisons among them. Catherine gazes down demurely while Georgina looks ahead, her line of vision the same as Dickens's. Yet we are struck, too, by the similarities between the sisters, one profile echoing the other despite Catherine's downward nod, and connected by the single line tracing the hair on their foreheads (Figure 1). The visual echo between Hogarths seems to support the familiar, if suspect, claim that the sisters were "interchangeable" (Marcus 290), an idea partly drawn from Georgina's decision to stay with Dickens in 1858, when he and Catherine separated, but often tied to parliamentary debate over marriage to a deceased wife's sister--like Maclise's sketch, a product of the 1840s. As Karen Chase and Michael Levenson put it in discussing the allegedly "mobile desire" of Dickens's life and fiction, the novelist shared with contemporaries "the fantasy that a husband will always have a second choice, a second sister, waiting nearby in domestic reserve" (106). Maclise's portrait gives visual force to the doubling between sisters that was perceived by Victorians on both sides of the debate, and by critics who claim that either Mary or Georgina Hogarth did or could have stepped into Catherine's shoes as Dickens's beloved. (1)

Just as Mary and, later, Georgina kept company with Dickens when Catherine was confined, so Fred Dickens kept company with Catherine while Charles was working or out of town, filling in for his older sibling as Mary and Georgina did for Catherine. "I fear I shall not be able to see you to-night, and therefore send out Fred," Dickens told his fiancee in 1835 (Letters 1: 95). "Either Fred or I will be with you at One o'Clock tomorrow, to fetch you" (Letters 1: 98), he wrote some days later. And, again, in 1836, "As 'Pickwick' must be attended to ... Fred shall be with you, about 3" (Letters 1: 139). Fred served as Catherine's messenger as well as her escort in these early years. "Send me word by Fred ... how you feel exactly.--I am in a fever myself, to be with you" (Letters 1: 78). "Fred ... brings the 'Linwoods'--Write me a note by him--as long a one as you please, and let me know how you are particularly" (Letters 1: 79). "Fred will be out," Dickens assures her typically, "should my work, or my ill-health, or both, detain me at home" (Letters 1: 120).

What, then, of the doubling between brothers? The alleged substitutions among Hogarth sisters have never found their parallel in comparisons drawn by critics between the Inimitable and any of his brothers. Nor has Catherine's reputed jealousy of Mary and Georgina found a counterpart in talk of Dickens's feelings about his wife and Fred, despite Catherine's evident attachment to her brother-in-law. "Don[']t forget dear Fred to drink my health on the 192 of May"--her birthday--she wrote in 1842; "I am looking for a long letter from you by the next parcel. God bless you dearest Fred" (Letters 3:189n).

Skeptical as I am of claims that Dickens married the wrong Hogarth sister, I will not be arguing here that Catherine married the wrong Dickens brother. Even if we were to draw romantic triangles among Dickenses and Hogarths, we would need to acknowledge what such configurations really address--homosocial dynamics. As Rosemary Bodenheimer points out in Knowing Dickens, and as Eve Sedgwick noted years before in Between Men, the love triangles in Dickens's life and fiction serve to produce same-sex rivals--more specifically, an antagonist who doubles back on the self. "Another Man' shows up regularly in Dickens's fiction," Bodenheimer argues. "He often plays the role of a romantic rival, but he is more than likely to double as part of the self ... Threads linking Dickens's actual friendships with his written renditions of 'the other man' suggest his fascination with intense relations among men, in which identification and rivalry are intimately linked" (90-91). …

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