Through his work, Charles Dickens was perhaps the foremost chronicler of 19th-century British life. And in classic novels such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, the beloved author pointed out that even the seemingly most honorable people in society often possess their own unsavory foibles. However, given what we now know about Dickens’ marriage, it appears that he may have been somewhat of a scoundrel himself.
Dickens had first encountered his future wife, Catherine Hogarth, in 1834, and that meeting came by way of a fortuitous connection. Both Dickens and Catherine’s father, George Hogarth worked for the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle, you see. George was a music critic there, while the man who would become his son-in-law was employed by the publication as a parliamentary reporter.
Catherine eventually became fond of Dickens, too. Following a soiree in celebration of the writer’s 23rd birthday, in fact, she professed her growing admiration for the man she would eventually marry. “Mr. Dickens improves greatly on acquaintance,” Catherine wrote in a letter to her cousin from 1835.
And yet despite Dickens’ lower social standing and lack of wealth, Catherine ultimately fell for him. It appears that Dickens felt similarly towards Catherine, too, as the couple were engaged to be wed only weeks after the birthday party; they subsequently tied the knot in April 1836. The pair also wasted little time in starting a family.
Indeed, Catherine and Dickens’ first child arrived in January 1837 – mere months after their marriage. The newborn boy was subsequently named Charles Culliford Boz Dickens in honor of his father. And it’s said that Catherine took to motherhood quite well. Parenting therefore became yet another string to her bow, since the young woman had already proved her skill in both acting and cooking.
Also in 1837, Dickens began the serial publication of what would become one of his most famous novels: Oliver Twist. The book – which was a great success at the time – further established the author as a considerable talent. And thanks to his work, Dickens was held in high esteem across the Atlantic, too, if an event held in New York City in 1842 is anything to go by.
In that year, Dickens and Catherine both traveled to America, where a ball in honour of the novelist awaited them. And on the surface, it seemed that all was well between the couple. As a 2012 article by the BBC has explained, on that occasion husband and wife “danced most of the night in the company of around 3,000 guests.”
The New York trip wasn’t the only one that Dickens and Catherine had taken together, either; during the previous year, the duo had made a joint expedition to Scotland. In addition, it’s been said that Dickens appreciated his wife’s company when traveling. Yet as time passed, the couple would increasingly find themselves disenchanted with their partnership.
And as Dickens’ reputation grew, Catherine herself apparently began to struggle. The responsibilities of both being a mother to several children – Catherine gave birth to ten in all – and fulfilling her obligations as the author’s spouse reportedly became too much for the young woman, in fact. Upon the Dickens’ return home from the U.S., then, Catherine’s sister Georgina became part of the household – ostensibly to help out her sibling when needed.
It’s perhaps no surprise, either, that Catherine seemingly felt the strain. Dickens’ fame meant that he and his wife were invited to – and expected to attend – many social events and conventions. Then Catherine was also required to excel at hostessing when visitors dropped into the Dickens’ home. And on top of these obligations, there were the stresses of motherhood and the fact that Catherine’s body had been given very little time to recover from each pregnancy.
Dickens was apparently short on sympathy when it came to his wife, however. He wanted Catherine to have more get up and go, for starters. And he blamed her, too, for producing so many children – despite the author himself playing a part in that matter. In particular, Dickens was bitter about having to support his burgeoning brood financially.
Furthermore, it appeared that the couple’s honeymoon period had long finished. Dickens said as much to his friend John Forster, remarking in a letter, “Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it.” The author’s apparent dissatisfaction with his marriage therefore led him to seek romance elsewhere.
And at first Dickens sought out an old flame. Prior to marrying Catherine, the writer had had a dalliance with Maria Beadnell, who had at the time spurned his affections. However, in 1855 – and so more than two decades on from the initial liaison – Maria got in touch with Dickens, and the two met again.
Yet the arrangement supposedly did not go as Dickens had anticipated. For one, Maria had changed from the woman for whom he had fallen all those years ago. And perhaps as a result, nothing adulterous came of their get-together. But even so, this did not mean that Dickens would spend the rest of his days with his wife.
In 1857, you see, 18-year-old Ellen Ternan walked into Dickens’ life; the teenager had come on board a charity production that the author was overseeing. And, ultimately, he fell in love with Ellen, whom he later came to endearingly call Nelly. This new romance was also apparently the nail in the coffin for Dickens’ marriage.
From then on, relations between Dickens and Catherine spiraled into a state of disrepair, with the pair going on to sleep in separate beds. And Dickens apparently took to extreme measures to remain distant from his wife. It has even been said that he pushed a bookcase up against the door of his new private bedroom in order to stop his spouse from entering.
Catherine even got wind that Dickens’ affections lay with another. You see, the author had purchased a bracelet that was intended as a gift for Ellen; unfortunately for him, though, the item was mistakenly delivered to his home address. And upon discovering the piece of jewelry, it’s said, Catherine criticized her husband for being unfaithful. Yet Dickens supposedly had an explanation: he told Catherine that he often gave presents to the actors in his plays.
In the end, then, the marriage was irretrievable. And Dickens, for his part, appeared to attribute some of the problems in the union to his wife. In an 1858 letter to his manager, Arthur Smith, he explained, “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.”
What’s more, Dickens suggested to Smith that Catherine was far from well. Describing the situation, the novelist wrote that his wife suffered from a “mental disorder under which she sometimes labors” – although he didn’t take into account just how news of his affair may have contributed to Catherine’s ill health.
Finally, Dickens and Catherine officially separated in June 1858, with the author later publishing an explanation for the dissolution of his marriage in The Times. This read, “Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement.”
Dickens added in his message, “[This separation] involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now but to be forgotten by those concerned in it.”
After this, Catherine moved into another home along with her eldest son. Dickens possessed custody of the other children, however. And while the writer apparently did not outright forbid his offspring from seeing their mother, it’s said that he suggested such visits were not a good idea.
Of these children, moreover, only one daughter, Kate, kept in contact with Catherine. And about her father, of whom she seemed to now disapprove, she later wrote, “The affair brought out all that worst – all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.”
And perhaps owing to Dickens taking hold of the narrative of the breakdown of his marriage, Catherine’s side of the story has been somewhat overshadowed. In fact, Catherine herself has been unfairly maligned, according to her great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley. In 2016 Hawksley wrote in a piece for the BBC, “For more than a century, Catherine has been marginalized and misremembered as a dull, frumpy wife. Even the sole Dickens biopic ever to have been made by the film industry focused not on Catherine but on Ellen Ternan.”
Hawksley went on to explain that Catherine was herself an author in her own right – even if some have since attributed her work to Dickens. Going under the name Lady Maria Clutterbuck, Catherine penned What Shall We Have for Dinner?, which was released in the early 1850s. Ostensibly, the tome was intended to counsel young married women on how to best go about jobs around the home.
And yet more was revealed about Catherine in 2019. John Bowen – a professor at the U.K.’s University of York – had investigated a hoard of 98 letters that were held at Harvard. In the process, however, he unearthed new information that, according to the academic himself, “made the hairs on the back of [his] neck stand up.”
One letter in particular was of note to Bowen. This had been penned by Catherine’s neighbor Edward Dutton Cook and had been sent to Cook’s friend William Moy Thomas. And the missive was rather revealing, as it conveyed personal details that Catherine had previously divulged to Cook prior to her death in 1879.
Subsequently, in the letter to Thomas, Cook wrote, “[Catherine] had borne ten children and had lost many of her good looks – was growing old, in fact. [Dickens had] even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity, he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.”
Luckily for Catherine, then, the doctor with whom Dickens liaised in a bid to institutionalize his estranged wife ended up putting his foot down. The medical professional in question, it’s thought, was Thomas Harrington Tuke, who managed the Manor House Asylum in the London district of Chiswick.
Unlike many asylums of the period, however, Manor House was comparatively kind to its patients. Indeed, the Tuke family were adamant deliverers of merciful and sympathetic care by 19th-century standards. And if Catherine had therefore been admitted to Manor House, then there may have perhaps been a small silver lining: her experience likely wouldn’t have been as bad as it would have in many other psychiatric hospitals in the country.
But Tuke did not accept Catherine into Manor House. And in turn, Bowen believes that this decision may have led to a rift between the asylum supervisor and Dickens. The pair were apparently once good chums, you see; by the mid-1860s, however, Dickens had labeled his former friend a “wretched being” and a “medical donkey.”
Nor was Dickens the only man to attempt to incarcerate his estranged spouse in a psychiatric hospital. The author’s contemporary and fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton tried, too, to have his wife, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, locked up on the grounds of mental ill-health. And unfortunately for Rosina, he succeeded.
In a similar way to Catherine, Rosina found out about her husband’s affairs, with the pair duly going on to separate in 1833. And Rosina, too, was divided from her two children when she was forced to move to France. On her arrival back in England, though, she fought to publicly undermine Bulwer-Lytton and his political views.
Sadly for Rosina, though, that mission to blight the name of her estranged husband had tragic consequences. Bulwer-Lytton was worried, you see, that Rosina would end up ruining his career. And to that end, the writer successfully managed to convince doctors that locking away his spouse would be the best option for everyone.
Furthermore, Rosina’s account of her experience at Inverness Lodge – where she was placed – sheds light on the treatment afforded to the many women who found themselves at similar institutions. In her 1880 book, A Blighted Life, she described how the windows to her room were “duly nailed down,” for instance.
Rosina also explained in her memoir that she “could do nothing against the locked door” at night. Disturbingly, she added, “Everything was so atrociously bad in [Inverness Lodge] that I really could not eat, and I believe Hill [the doctor] began to fear that I should die upon his hands.”
In one way, however, Rosina was fortunate. Owing to her status as a prolific author, she had built up a following, meaning it didn’t take long for people to publicly argue against her incarceration on her behalf. And when Rosina’s son ultimately intervened, she was allowed to leave Inverness Lodge after just three weeks inside the institution.
Rosina’s experience stands in marked contrast, however, to those of many women of the period, who never received the chance to return to society. And Catherine was luckier still, since she didn’t have to experience life in an asylum – a existence which, as Rosina’s account suggests, was often a distressing ordeal.
Yet relations between Catherine and Dickens apparently never improved after their separation. What’s more, when the writer died from a stroke in 1870, Catherine was not called to his deathbed, nor was she permitted to attend his funeral. It appears, then, that Dickens’ former wife was even given short shrift long after the couple’s marriage had been informally dissolved.
And despite the way in which Dickens had treated Catherine behind closed doors, the writer continued to be held in some repute before his passing. Indeed, as The Guardian’s Ian Jack wrote in February 2019, “[Dickens’] reputation as a compassionate moralist – the enemy of humbug and suffering – continued to flourish untainted by the facts of his private life.” Now, however, the much-loved author can be painted in a very different light.