The troubling true history of celebrated author Charles Dickens

2019-04-09 03:18:00

This story was originally published by The Listener and is republished with permission.

Charles Dickens, acclaimed novelist, husband and father of 10, was an international literary star.

He enjoyed fame, fortune and an adoring public who admired his empathy with the poor and disenfranchised.

But Dickens was a man with a secret, prepared to go to extreme lengths to preserve his favourable public image.

A letter, discovered by Dickens scholar John Bowen, a University of York professor, reveals the author tried to have his wife, Catherine, locked up, so he could avoid the scandal of divorce.

A new life with 18-year-old actress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan would be acceptable in Victorian society if Catherine was declared insane and committed to an asylum.

Doctors, however, found Catherine was of sound mind and rejected his request. After her husband's death and on her deathbed, Catherine told her friend and neighbour Edward Dutton Cook of Dickens' plot and he, in turn, wrote to a mutual friend about it. The revelation is now causing a stir in academic circles.

Writer and art historian Lucinda Hawksley, who is visiting New Zealand, has both a personal and professional interest: she is Dickens' great-great-great-granddaughter. Born in Yorkshire, Hawksley is one of three children.

She grew up in the English countryside and coastal Somerset, but fell in love with London during childhood visits to her grandmother.

She has lived there since graduating from university, but comes to New Zealand at least twice a year to spend time with friends and focus, without distraction, on her writing. Hawksley writes mostly on 19th- and early 20th-century subjects, including her famous ancestor, and welcomes Bowen's discovery of the incriminating letter.

What does the letter add to the body of scholarship on Dickens?

The concept [of Dickens' harsh treatment of his wife] isn't new, but I am pleased John Bowen found this letter.

It's well known that Dickens was pretty nasty to his wife at the end of the marriage – though by Victorian husband standards, he definitely wasn't even the lowest of the low, as I discovered when I wrote March, Women, March.

The legal system at that time allowed men to be unbelievably vile. I am amazed any woman of independent means ever got married then. The laws were so stacked against them, it was hideous.

You know Dickens as well as anyone. Given what we know now about his treatment of his wife, what kind of man was he really?

I think he was having a mental breakdown at the end of his marriage, as it wasn't only Catherine he was horrible to.

He fell out with many of his friends, his behaviour was terrible and his daughter Katey got married to someone she wasn't in love with to escape the "misery" of her father's home. He really wasn't a pleasant person to be around in the late 1850s.

This nasty aspect of him was hidden to many of his readers at the time, but it has been picked over by academics ad nauseam ever since.

A love of English literature and history is in your blood, no?

Mum loves books, but Dad, like me, would inhale them. If we went into second-hand bookshops, she would sigh, knowing she wouldn't see us for hours. I was always allowed a book at breakfast; my friends were amazed that we were allowed to read at the table.

I realise now that my father probably just didn't want a lot of noise, but to me, as a child, it seemed marvellous. Books and dogs were my childhood.

I'm curious about your 2013 book The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter, because, despite your best efforts, Louise remains a mystery in many ways, doesn't she?

Yes, even though she died 80 years ago, her files are still closed to researchers.

No one is allowed to see them. They have never been opened. In the 1980s, an American author wrote a biography of her.

It's pretty good, but it missed out the things I was discovering about her as I was researching my first biographies of two artists who were part of her circle [Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel and Dickens's Artistic Daughter Katey: Her Life, Loves & Impact].

I kept thinking, "Why is this information not in that biography?"

I looked at diaries and letters of Louise's contemporaries, and these are things that were not made up.

So, in my biography, I wrote about her multiple affairs; her husband, who I believe was gay; and that she had an illegitimate baby by one of her lovers before she was married, although not her main lover, who was her sculpting tutor.

Nobody cares about all these things in 2019, but it is still impossible to get into her files. This at a time that we have The Crown on Netflix, which is about living royals.

What's your best hunch as to why her documents are kept under lock and key?

It's very strange.

It's got to be something that has repercussions to the current day.

Who cares in 2019 about illegitimate babies or whether someone was gay or not? She was an adviser to five monarchs, one after the other, from her mother, with whom she worked closely, to the present Queen's father, George VI, who was her great-nephew, and his brother, who abdicated.

Perhaps it is something to do with them. Initially, I thought it was because they don't want talk about her having an illegitimate baby, but look at her uncle, William IV, who had 10 illegitimate children, and that was widely known. It can't be anything other than something with repercussions today.

What happened when her will was released to the National Archive last year? Did that help?

I was contacted by a BBC journalist and we went in to read her will.

There are three files relating to it, but only two were released.

Of those, pages and pages are redacted and they are photocopies of the original, so you don't have any chance to see what is underneath. There is one page of legatees where the entire page is blocked out, apart from one name. But I will continue to dig around and find out what is going on.

Once you are writing a biography, your subject's life takes over your own for a long period, and I feel protective of her. I want to know what the powers that be are holding back and why.

What are you working on now?

Dickens and travel.

People don't realise how much the Victorians travelled.

He lived in Italy for a year with his family, he moved them to Paris for a year and one year he also took them to Switzerland for five months. He travelled frequently around Europe, to America twice and to Canada. He was planning a tour of Australia, but died at 58 before he could.

He loved travelling and he wrote travelogues with fascinating observations.

And his year in Italy was good for his mental health.

You can tell in his books when he is depressed, such as in The Old Curiosity Shop. He was begged by readers not to let Little Nell die, but his response was that "the world is not kind enough to sustain Little Nell".

At other times, there were happy endings, as in Oliver Twist, but before he moved to Italy, he felt the world was too cruel to little children. He never forgot what it was like to be a poor child.

Given continuing problems of child poverty and poor housing, which Dickens appears to have genuinely cared about, can you hear your great-great-great-grandfather spinning in that grave in Westminster Abbey?


In the UK, it feels like the gates of hell have opened.

I am not a fan of Brexit, but, that aside, the hatred and division in the country since the referendum, and the Scottish referendum, are very upsetting. Racism has increased in the UK to a frightening extent, as has poverty.

The Government spends a fortune bribing the Democratic Unionist Party [of Northern Ireland], but there is no money for hospitals or to fix potholes.

The worst of modern times, then?

Very much so, and we envy New Zealand having a Prime Minister like Jacinda Ardern and a decent Opposition.

You visit New Zealand quite often. Do you read New Zealand writers' work?

Having been to the Auckland Writers Festival a couple of times, I've got to know the work of Paula Morris, who is brilliant, and Eileen Merriman. Recently, I have been reading Jane Tolerton's But I Changed All That: 'First' New Zealand Women.

I have just read Catherine Robertson's What You Wish For, recommended by the Women's Bookshop – such a Kiwi novel, with words that I have to check the meaning of. Kiwi life fascinates me. I am trying to finish The Luminaries, but I haven't got through it yet.

Will I be hated by every Kiwi for saying that? I will pick it up again and give it a go.

Another book I love is Deep Beyond the Reef: A True Story of Madness and Murder in the South Pacific, by Owen Scott. It's a great work of non-fiction that goes from Fiji to New Zealand. It kept me hooked. And I have always loved crime fiction, and read Ngaio Marsh for years.

What is your favourite Dickens?

That is tough.

I am rereading Little Dorrit and I am amazed by the modernity of some of it. It sounds naff, but A Christmas Carol is my overall favourite. It was from the heart, and written in six weeks. It was Dickens' protest at child poverty.

It can still make you cry, because he meant every word of it.

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