The Untold Story of Mrs. Charles Dickens

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Untold Story of Mrs. Charles Dickens


Timko, Michael, The World and I


What would the Christmas season be without reading, hearing, or seeing Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol?" In that story Dickens captures the joy that marks the holiday, especially in his description of domestic bliss, the Cratchit family sitting around the table enjoying their Christmas dinner, especially the "pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy."

This scene, and all the other heart-warming domestic scenes in many of Dickens' novels, helped make him one of the most popular novelists of all time.

What is often forgotten in this celebration is the story of Dickens' own domestic life, especially the narrative of the woman who was his wife and bore him ten children. If one ever doubts that behind every great man there is a patient, loving woman, Catherine Hogarth Dickens' story is testimony to the truth of that saying. Hers is a tale that seems like a Dickens novel, and it is one that needs to be told.

A lot of gossip has been spread over the years about Dickens' domestic life, but a number of facts remain clear. After an unhappy love affair with Maria Beadnell, young Charles quickly rebounded and in 1836 married Catherine Hogarth, his boss' eldest daughter. It was a cozy arrangement at first; Catherine, Charles, and Catherine's sister Mary lived together and seemed quite happy until Mary's tragic, untimely death in 1837.

Catherine was always eager to please, and over a period of twenty-two years she bore Dickens ten children. In spite of what must have been a tremendous burden, caring for her family, Catherine also managed to keep busy in other ways, especially attempting to keep up with her husband's heavy social demands. She was expected, he had made it clear, to be always ready to entertain or to go out to the many functions to which they were invited.

Over these years of childbearing Catherine, not surprisingly, changed. She complained of headaches and various illnesses, became a bit lethargic, and gained some weight. Dickens, who wanted to keep up their busy social life, began to grumble a bit, first only to friends, then more openly. It was at this time he told his friend John Forster that he and Catherine were "not made for each other" and that she would have been "a thousand times happier" if she had married someone else.

The marriage fell apart gradually. In 1857 Dickens met Nelly Ternan, a young actress of 17, and, predictably, fell madly in love with her. Shortly after this meeting Dickens made his first move towards a separation. Catherine came home one day and discovered that Dickens had moved out of their bedroom, converted his dressing-room into his separate private quarters, and had the doorway between it and Catherine's room closed by a wooden door and the recess filled with shelves. To make matters worse, when Catherine asked a few questions about her husband's relationship with Ellen, Dickens accused her of being unnecessarily jealous and ordered her to pay a social visit to Ellen. Catherine obediently did.

In 1858 Dickens, no longer able to keep up the charade, forced their separation, stating that his wife's mental condition was the chief cause. So desperate was he to justify his action that, against the wishes of many of his close friends, he published first in the New York Tribune, and then in other British papers, the following letter: "In the manly consideration towards Mrs. Dickens which I owe to my wife, I will merely remark of her that some peculiarity of her character has thrown all the children on someone else. For some years past Mrs. Dickens has been in the habit of representing to me that it would be better for her to go away and live apart; that her always increasing estrangement made a mental disorder under which she sometimes labours--more, that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better away. …

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