A Conversation for Charles Dickens - Author
Dickens and Scandal
Londi Started conversation Jun 20, 2003
In the short sumary of Dickens' life , his marriage to Catherine Hogarth is mentioned. Actually, Dickens' relationships with two of his sisters in law have caused continual speculation. Despite our romanticised view of Dickens as the archetypical Victorian family man, the paterfamilias, Dickens private life was distinctly murky. This should not be a surprise to us. Dickens was a complicated man.
Dickens' first love was called Maria Beadnell. Her family being fairly well to do, her father put an end to the relationship. Years later, when his marriage was over in everything but name, Dickens actually sought Maria Beadnell out, and was horrified to find that she had grown middle aged, lost her figure, and turned out to be pleasant but empty headed. Dickens being Dickens, he used this episode to great effect in the character of Flora in "Little Dorrit ".
When he set up home with Catherine Hogarth after their marriage, Catherine's younger sister, 17 year old Mary Hogarth came to live with them, and help the young couple. Mary died very suddenly and unexpectedly, and her death affected Dickens in the most profound manner. Dickens made a huge show of mourning for Mary, and every document which comes down to us from his firends at this time shows a belief that his grief and sorrow, seemingly far greater than Catherine's, was genuine.He had Mary buried at great expense, and insisted that he wanted to be buried beside her, and not Catherine. Her death was the inspiration for the death of Little Nell in "The Old Curiosity Shop ". Various commentators have speculated on the nature of Dickens' relationship with Mary Hogarth. One fictionalised account can be found in Peter Carey's "Jack Maggs". One of the main characters, novelist Tobias Oates, has an affair with his teenage sister in law, who becomes pregant, and dies when Oates assists her in a back street abortion. It should be stressed that there is no evidence whatsoever that there was anything sexual, or improper even according to the standards of the time in Dickens' relationship with Mary Hogarth. However his reaction to her death was strangely excessive, even judged by the standards of the time.
Dickens seperated from his wife Catherine, in the last decade of his life, after they had raised several children. At the time, his wife's sister Georgina Hogarth was carrying out the duties of housekeeper for him, and he saw no reason to change this arrangement. Georgina stayed on in this role after Catherine left. This led to speculation that Dickens was having an affair with Georgina. There is no evidence of any truth in this whatsoever, especially considering that there is substantial evidence that Dickens was carrying on an affair with a young actress called Ellen Ternan at the time.
The morals of the time being what they were, it was considered quite acceptable for a man of Dickens' standing to have an affair with an actress. Actresses, in those days, were regarded as being on a slightly higher social footing than prostitutes. However, for such a man to be having an affair with his sister in law was considered scandalous. Dickens even went so far as to publish a detailed and far from coherent outline of the reasons why he had seperated from Catherine in his magazine, Household Words. Public reaction to this saw him winding up the magazine in a fit of pique.
Incidentally, this misconception about Dickens and Georgina led to a long standing rift between Dickens, and his great contemporary William Thackeray. In the Garrick Club, of which they were both members, Thackeray was informed that Dickens was having an affair with his sister in law. Thackeray, seeking to defend his colleague's reputation, promptly put both feet in it by replying,
"Absolute nonsense. He's having an affair with an actress." Dickens heard of this, and didn't forgive Thackeray for years afterwards, going so far as to encourage his protege, Edmund Yates to attack Thackeray in print - a move which did Dickens no credit, and pretty much ruined Yates' career.
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