Charles Dickens: world-famous literary giant, beloved author of A Christmas Carol, creator of Tiny Tim. Nearly as many words were written about him as he wrote himself. Respected British novelist and literary critic G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote an important biography called Charles Dickens: a Critical Study, published in 1906, for which he received broad praise.
I enjoyed reading it, and it gave me valuable insight into Dickens’ character. There are numerous
other biographies (some of which I also read or browsed), but the one at the top of the list is The Life of Charles Dickens by his friend and fellow writer John Forster (1812-1876). Published in 1874, it is a thick, exhaustive work of nearly 500 pages.
John Forster was the man to whom Dickens bequeathed all his manuscript originals. (Forster in turn willed them to the Kensington Museum.) And it was Forster to whom Dickens revealed the secrets of his impoverished childhood. As such a close friend and associate of Dickens, Forster was in a position to share many personal details about him. And he did. We wouldn’t know about the boot-blacking factory Dickens worked at when he was a boy, or that his father was sent to Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison if not for Forster.
I knew of Dickens’ hardships ever since my high school teacher Evelyn Allen talked extensively about her hero. (You’ll notice I named a character in A Matter of Time in honor of her.) When I began reading the Forster biography, I expected to find all the horrifying details of Dickens’ childhood in the slums of London. But they weren’t there. I came away scratching my head and wondering what the big deal was, because according to Forster, Charles Dickens did not grow up in abject poverty as I had thought, but in a middle class family fallen on hard times.
Foster wrote glowingly of Dickens’ genius, his concern for the poor, and many achievements. And he gave a moving eulogy when Dickens died in 1870. The downside to a biography written by a friend of the subject is that he tends to pull his punches about the flaws. And everyone has them, even our beloved Charles Dickens.
I chose to portray Dickens in a mostly positive light in A Matter of Time. After all, he did have many good qualities. And besides, the story was not about his personality defects, other than the one that made him write what he did in American Notes. But he did have plenty of them.
G.K. Chesterton admired Dickens, and he even defended the author against the cutting barbs some literary critics have made about his sentimental writing style. But writing a generation later, Chesterton was able to give a more balanced view of Dickens than Forster did.
Chesterton said that although Dickens was a precocious genius, he was also excitable and “suddenly quarrelsome—like a child allowed to stay up too late at night.” And as for the horrors Charles Dickens had supposedly suffered through, Chesterton said Dickens was prone to exaggeration. The so-called “tragedies” and sorrows of his childhood and the shame of having to work in the boot-blacking factory arose out of nerves only.
He [Dickens] was concerned about the same issues the average man is, but he feels them all more excitedly. Annoyed at the usual annoyances, only more than necessary. He wanted what men want, only was ill with wanting it.
And Dickens was vain. William Clyde Wilkins in Charles Dickens in America said:
Every one now concedes, that Dickens was vain of his appearance and that he was fond of gay waistcoats, massive gold watch-chains, large scarf-pins and his wavy locks. It is an axiom that the more vain a man is, the less he wants to be told of his vanity.
The descriptions the American journalists gave of Dickens hurt and offended him, further adding fuel to the ongoing war between them about copyright law and infractions thereof. But the vanity extended beyond just his looks.
Chesterton says Dickens had such a “pugnacious vanity that he refused to admit the truth of the mildest criticism.” He was so sensitive that he “lacked a skin.” This led to various quarrels throughout his life, some because of genuine affronts and others because of his touchiness. Because of it, Dickens cut off several friendships through the years.
One of them was with America. You’ll read about that in A Matter of Time.
Dickens, the great champion of the poor and downtrodden, could also be an arrogant snob. Wilkins tells of an incident that the Louisville Courier Journal reported about Dickens’ visit to the city that illustrates it:
He stopped at the Gait House, whose landlord, Throckmorton, was a highstrung Southerner of much character and influence, the intimate of Clay, Crittenden and all the worthies. Mr. Dickens had not been there long when Mr. Throckmorton visited him and offered his services in introducing him to the first families of Kentucky.
“Sir, are you the publican who keeps this inn ? ” inquired Mr.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Then,” said Mr. Dickens, “when I have need for your services, I will ring for you.”
Dickens’ traveling secretary George Putnam, who like Forster fell under the spell of his charismatic charm, never mentioned the incident or any others like it in his article Four Months with Charles Dickens, written for The Atlantic Monthly.
But as I said, G. K. Chesterton wasn’t afraid to mention Dickens’ flaws. However, neither he nor any of the other biographers ever mentioned Dickens’ controlling relationship with his wife Catherine and their failed marriage. This I learned about from Lillian Nayder’s biography of 2011, The Other Dickens.
DON’T READ THIS NEXT PART IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT DICKENS’ FEET OF CLAY.
Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth on May 13, 1837. She was from a Scottish family of educated, intellectual, musical, cultured, literary Presbyterians. Her father George Hogarth was a critic and editor of the newspaper Dickens worked for at the time and was a friend of Sir Walter Scott, whom Dickens saw as his literary father. So Dickens was thrilled to marry into her family for the connections she could bring.
Scottish women were famous for their independence and unwillingness to be pushed around by the men. And Catherine was unusually humorous, intelligent, and charming. And yet Dickens was able to dominate her to the degree that she turned from a confident woman into a shadow of herself.
Even before they were married, Dickens began exerting his control over her. He instructed his fiancé about how to be a good and proper wife via commands, comments, and books she was to read before the wedding. He taught her that an ideal woman was one who willingly submitted and was self-sacrificing to her husband’s needs. His helpful instructions carried over to his mother-in-law. He wrote to her on two occasions to tell her how she should behave during her mourning for her deceased husband.
Dickens kept his wife constantly pregnant, (Catherine bore ten children in sixteen years.) and then complained of her weight gain in middle age. All the while, he had a series of inappropriate, public liaisons with other women (including Catherine’s own sister) that may or may not have been actually consummated. Catherine objected strenuously to no avail. He forced her to socially call upon one actress, so as to lend respectability to his relationship with her. But Catherine’s choice of friends were limited to those Dickens determined would not be a bad influence on her. He even attempted to control her very thoughts. As I mention in A Matter of Time, he used his talent for mesmerism to convince her against her will to leave her children behind in England and accompany him on his grand tour of America.
Dickens’ controlling personality extended to micromanaging their household. He took over many tasks in the areas commonly reserved to women, things like choosing the furnishings, arranging furniture, hanging pictures, and choosing the cuts of meat for the cook. He countermanded Catherine’s household instructions and social invitations. He often added witty postscripts to the letters she wrote, subtly mocking what she’d written as unimportant women’s stuff.
Finally, during what Nayder describes as a mid-life crisis, Dickens expelled Catherine from their home. He didn’t divorce her, and although he provided financially for her, he never saw her again. Other men in their circle of friends thought Dickens actions were shameful. Catherine remained publicly silent on her husband’s mistreatment of her, while he used his celebrity, verbal dexterity, and platform to discredit her as mentally unstable and himself as the victim.
In a letter to a friend, Catherine said, “May I not publish a statement? Who would believe me? He is the great writer, the friend of the poor, the Inimitable Boz. He is Charles Dickens. I am only Mrs. Dickens. Nobody.”
Dickens’ magnetic, charismatic personality tended to turn people into worshipers. Even Catherine’s own sister Georgina, took his side. And for many years, Dickens’ biographers and other historians told his story and left out Catherine’s. If they mentioned her at all, they blamed her weight gain and mental sluggishness as the cause of the failure of their marriage, totally unaware that Catherine had wonderful gifts of humor, intelligence, charm, and diplomacy.
Sometimes I wish I had not read Lillian Nayder’s biography. Before I did, like my English teacher Evelyn Allen (and her namesake in A Matter of Time) I thought Charles Dickens was pretty amazing. It was awful to find out how flawed he was.
But as Brett Garrison often points out to Merri, we are all sinful creatures, and yet God uses us to bless others. The scene of Charles and Catherine at the Planter Hotel in St. Louis is emblematic of their early years together before things got so bad.
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