Charles Dickens: a wolf in sheep's clothing?


The Living Force
Looks like Dickens, the champion of the downtrodden and humanitarian values, didn't practice what he preached.

Newfound Letters Reveal Charles Dickens Wanted His Sane Wife, Catherine Dickens, Locked In An Asylum

By Marco Margaritoff
Published February 27, 2019
Updated May 15, 2019

In the midst of a messy divorce, Charles Dickens tried to have his wife Catherine Dickens committed to an asylum so he could move in with his young mistress.

Letters About Catherine Dickens

Harvard UniversitySome of the newly-discovered letters between a journalist and family friend of the Dickens’.

The dissolution of the 22-year marriage between Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine Dickens, has been well-documented — as has the famed author’s cruelty towards his wife. But as a slew of newly discovered letters show, Dickens was petty enough during his separation that he went so far as to try to have his sane wife committed to an asylum.

The trove of 98 letters depicts just how precise and cunning the writer was in his attempt to pivot his romantic life from Catherine Dickens to his new mistress without repercussions, Smithsonian Magazine reported. He went so far as to try to gaslight his own wife.

The Marriage Of Charles And Catherine Dickens Falls Apart

At the time of their separation, the author penned a letter to his agent claiming that it was Catherine’s idea to move out and that she had “a mental disorder under which she sometimes labors.”

The letter eventually found its way to publication where it became gossip for the public. Some say the Great Expectations author even approved this exposure in order to help control the narrative around his separation and unofficially label his ex-wife as a burden who could no longer be helped.

In the early years of their marriage, the writer would address his wife as “my dearest Life,” and lovingly call her “dearest darling Pig” in letters to her, but this all quickly shifted when the author began an affair with an 18-year-old actress. After meeting the new young object of his affection, Ellen Ternan, the writer divided his marital bedroom in two before officially separating from Catherine, an unorthodox action in that time.

Catherine, meanwhile, was busy reconciling no longer living in her family home where she had raised her ten children. Catherine Dickens’ version of events has thus, until now, never been considered.

The letters were within a 2014 auction catalog which caught the eye of University of York professor John Bowen, an academic who specializes in 19th-century fiction. “As far as I know, I was the first person to analyze them,” said Bowen. “I’ve not found any other reference.”

Charles Dickens Headshot

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Dickens, 1867-1868.

The letters chronicle an exchange between a family friend and neighbor of Dickens, Edward Dutton Cook, and a journalist in which the two explore the Dickens’ relationship and separation through a correspondence Cook had with Catherine the year she died in 1897. After sorting through the letters at the Harvard Theatre Collection in Cambridge, Bowen found a significant amount of evidence that would tip the historical scales in Catherine’s favor.

Charles Dickens Writing Desk

Public Domain PicturesA drawing of the author at his writing desk in his library.

“He (Charles) discovered at last that she had outgrown his liking…He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!” Cook wrote.

Catherine Dickens and Edward Dutton Cook were good friends, which adds quite a bit of credence to the validity of the letters. Bowen said he believed the wife of Charles Dickens allegations against her husband, that they’re “almost certainly” true and make “a stronger and more damning account of Dickens’ behavior than any other.”

Catherine Dickens Drawing

Wikimedia CommonsCatherine Dickens, wife of Charles Dickens and mother to 10 of his children.

The discovery that Charles Dickens tried to institutionalize his wife is certainly shocking, but it is all the more so because there was evidence that people had known about this behavior years before. Indeed, researchers had long known that Catherine’s aunt, Helen Thompson, claimed that the author had tried to convince her into making Catherine’s doctor diagnose her as mentally unsound — but Thompson’s record was dismissed as a forgery.

Bowen is also convinced that he has found the very doctor who refused to lock Catherine up — a short-lived friend of Charles Dickens and an asylum superintendent named Thomas Harrington Tuke. Six years after Catherine’s separation in 1864, Charles referred to Tuke in retaliation as a “Medical Donkey”.

Bowen’s substantial discovery of primary evidence only serves as further support for this bizarre, imbalanced moment in the Dickens’ relationship.

Catherine Dickens Oil Painting

Wikimedia Commons“Catherine Dickens” oil painting by Daniel Maclise, 1847.

Dickens’ idea of sending his wife to an asylum wasn’t an isolated incident, either. His friend, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, actually managed to do just that with his own wife, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, and have her officially certified as a lunatic.

Bowen is aware that these disconcerting truths about Charles Dickens will make for “very uncomfortable reading” for his devotees.

After all, the writer was so publicly against Britain’s treatment of the impoverished that he established safe houses for homeless young women, visited insane asylums in both the U.K. and the U.S. and called for more humane treatment instead of the “chamber of horrors” these institutions were at the time.

Unfortunately, even literary geniuses are complex human beings who are themselves capable of the cruelty they denounce. Though the treatment of women as hysterical burdens back in the time of Catherine Dickens was certainly an inspiration to the writer’s strategy, the blame for actively trying to do such a thing at all lies squarely on his own shoulders.
Unfortunately, even literary geniuses are complex human beings who are themselves capable of the cruelty they denounce.

Oh yes. I have a friend who lost his love to read classics when he read about Tolstoy, how bad we was with his wife, how far away he was to what he preached. Myself I was very surprised of who was really Proust, a very sick man, mentally. Virginia Woolf also is someone far from being perfect, let me tell you. We tend to put the master pieces they wrote and themselves together, and one thing is what they did as writers, other thing is what they were as humans. Some writers are really disgusting.
Yes, if we only ever read books, watched movies, admired paintings or listened to music made by people who actually practiced what they preached in their various works and who led a virtuous life (in the true sense of the word), I'm afraid there wouldn't be many works for us to appreciate. We'd probably have to throw away 90% of them. But it's one thing to not be exactly the best husband in the world, or to suck at relationships (like most people) and quite another to attempt to commit your own wife, mother of your 10 children, to a mental institution just to be able to have sex with your 18 y.o. mistress. Really sickening.
Really sickening.

It is, very much so. I didn't expect it of Dickens. But then again...

I do believe that this kind of thing was done more widely back in the day. Not only the despicable ways in which a husband would get rid of his wife, but the other way around too.

If any of you ever read any of the Miss Marple mystery stories/novels by Agatha Christie, there's a lot of these types of situations described. Miss Marple, an elderly lady with no special background in anything, is capable of always figuring out who was the aggressor/predator because as she says, she spent all her life in her little village, St Mary's Mead, and she learned to read people. In a little village community, everyone learns everything about everyone else, and from such close quarters, the observation and understanding of human behavior as well as the consequences of it, are much easier to accomplish.

"These things happen all the time", or "it's the same story repeating", Miss Marples often claims to the bewilder law enforces who can't believe that this old lady solved the murder before them while knitting. Agatha Christie wrote most of her works during the first half of the previous century, and even some of her short stories are SO scary! And there's some historical gossip about Christie herself: after her first husband left her for another (probably younger) woman, she disappeared for a while, and there are speculations that she was planning to kill herself or her husband and frame his new mistress for the murder. She actually has a similar short story like this in her Marple series, though it was just a plan and the fictional woman planning it never goes through with it.

Anyway, I guess I don't know if these things are less common now or better hidden because we are more vocal in condemning them. Which is a good thing of course. And crimes are now way more solvable than back in the day, plus divorce makes it way easier to get rid of a spouse. But I think that we are also a bit more naive in our understanding of other humans nowadays, compared to earlier times. We refuse to acknowledge our shadow and everyone else's, we expect people to be all good and nice things. And the younger generations appear to be even worse than us.
I think Dickens surely should have known and done better. But, it is always helpful to immerse oneself in the "mindset" of a given time before judging people back then. There were always people who were advanced in conscience, but on average, people were totally inured in their cultural situation.
I would never have believed that from Charles Dickens, his writings are so wonderfull.
Now I wonder if his books were written by his wife, at least partially or the ideas, the proofreading. Like Jung who took ideas and concepts from his studients/ patients; like many other famous authors, scientists did with plagiarism ( Platon, Einstein, etc...)
I really think that concepts of rights and wrongs weren't quite the same back then. Besides, due to the mores at the time, I guess it was better to portray your wife as insane than admit that you had enough of her because you were lusting after a girl young enough to be your daughter. Also, though what Dickens did is quite horrible, I cannot help linking it to modern cases I've seen of divorced spouse trying to portray their ex has an alcoholic/ drug addict or mentally deficient.

And we also got to admit that sometimes older men have a tendency to lose their mind over younger women. I mean here is a middle aged man having an affair with an 18-year-old actress. Next to this, you have his older long-term wife who bore ten children. In an ideal world, he would remain faithful or at least not murk his wife, but we don't live in that world!

Leaving Dickens' case aside. Our society has a tendency to deify people that are talented or famous. The thing is even if someone is a genius, this person is still human, with very human flaws that only the people closest to them can see. This is without adding the fact that wealth and fame often attracts unhealthy behaviours. We shouldn't expect a virtuous life from anyone.
You can be a marvelous writer, a magnificent one, a genius one like Paul Scott (now I think about him) with his Indian Saga but at the same time be a very mean husband, an alcoholic, a bad father. In his books you have the impression that he is someone who is almost perfect because he understands the soul, of humans and of a country. But in his life he was so difficult to live with. He was so human, so imperfect. How is this possible ? Humans are not perfect. Writers are, some of them, perfect. This is another paradox.
Then you have someone like Stephen King, writes horror, rarely uplifting except maybe Shawshank Redemption, married to the same woman for almost 50 years to all accounts happily. Maybe not relevant, but just came to mind.

Yes! I was pondering over this last night. So what's worse? To create absolute masterpieces that will enlighten people about the human condition, denounce social injustice, etc., uplift them spiritually, creating positive dissociation… yet be a horrible human being in your personal life?

Or is it worse to write (as in the example of S. King) disturbing stuff that might have been influenced by nefarious sources, and which might create negative dissociation and 'lower the vibrations' of millions of people… yet be a good, or at least decent person in real life?

Personally, I draw the line at really sick and twisted behaviour. Painter Gabriel Rossetti was reportedly a jerk in real life; his behavior/philandering is at least partly responsible for his wife's descent into addiction, depression and her early death (some say it was suicide). He even exhumed her body to retrieve his poems, which he'd buried with her. Yet his paintings are gorgeous, and I'll always admire them.

On the other hand, we have individuals like Polanski, an unapologetic child rapist. Knowing that, I can't watch any of his movies anymore even though objectively speaking, some of them are really good - though we can't exactly say they're uplifting, there's something quite dark about some of them (I'm thinking of the 9th Door, which has satanic overtones). However, his adaptation of Tess is fine. Yet I'll never watch it again, because I'd feel dirty and almost guilty by association, knowing what he did, and I couldn't watch the movie without seeing, in my mind, his disgusting, creepy face. So, no.

I've been planning on reading Dickens's complete collection for a while, and past the first shock and disappointment at what he did to his wife (all the while hypocritically protesting against the inhuman treatment of patients in lunatic asylums), I don't think that knowing Dickens was a d*** in real life will prevent me from reading his books. But I'll keep his less than honourable behaviour in mind.
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