What Was She Without Charles Dickens? ‘The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth’

[16 May 2012]

By Catherine Ramsdell

The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth by Lillian Nayder might be considered a biography by some. I think it’s more of an analysis of a life, or more accurately, two lives. Nayder puts both Catherine and Charles Dickens under her literary microscope and sets out to prove that Catherine was not “solely” Mrs. Charles Dickens, a “helpmeet gone bad, a figure best characterized by her rejection at Dickens’s hands, her star eclipsed in 1858 by that of a much younger woman… justifiably eclipsed, the story goes, her own incompetence to blame”.

Nayder argues that Catherine’s “relationship to Dickens need not be what scholars have claimed it is: the rationale for any consideration of her experiences. Since 1870, critics and biographers have assumed that Catherine’s life has meaning only insofar as it illuminates that of Dickens, and that unless she is defined in relation to him, her story is no story at all.”

As Nayder works to prove these critics wrong, she shows how Dickens attempted (and often succeeded) in controlling Catherine, and that his depictions of her should not always be considered reliable. Nayder provides biographic details concerning Catherine and her family—Dickens, her sisters, her children, and her parents—but she also, and perhaps more importantly, analyzes artifacts (primarily letters and household items such as checks) from Catherine’s life and provides alternate readings of these artifacts.

For example, the first part of Chapter Two “Becoming Galatea”, examines the couple’s courtship and suggests that Catherine was trying to train Dickens (for marriage) and that Dickens was trying to train Catherine. (Dickens was more successful in his endeavor.) Nayder includes a paragraph of a letter Dickens wrote to Catherine during their engagement, but she doesn’t just leave the letter for her reader to interpret. She provides her own interpretation by further examining certain passages: “While assuring Catherine that he is ‘very little [her] superior in years’ and ‘in no other respect can… lay claim to the title,’ Dickens establishes his superiority over her by invoking familiar stereotypes of gender differences, disparaging her ‘sex’ and threatening to break their engagement promptly if she fails to heed him.

Nayder quotes letter after letter (most written by Dickens or written by Catherine to her friends and family—Dickens destroyed all Catherine’s letters to him) and then, when necessary, Nayder provides various interpretations of this information to show how Dickens not only controlled Catherine but how he put his own, to use a modern term, spin on Catherine’s life.
Catherine’s pregnancies and relationships with her children make up a large section of the book. Nayder includes a table labeled “Estimated days pregnant and not per year, 1836-1852” that is both fascinatingly informative and disturbing. Of this 17 year time frame, there was only one year in which Catherine was never pregnant and only six years when she was pregnant less than 50 percent of the time. Nayder maintains that these pregnancies also show another way that Dickens controlled Catherine.

One specific example is when Catherine gave birth to Henry, the Dickens’s eighth child, under the anesthesia, a decision made by Dickens. Nayder notes: “By the time Dickens is through recounting the event…, Catherine is not only an unconscious and unfeeling body (‘she had no sensation’) but a depersonalized and disassembled one as well” and concludes “As Dickens conceives of it, Catherine’s delivery testifies not to her own strength or endurance but rather to the foresight and courage of her husband…”

According to Nayder, Dickens’s attempts to control Catherine range from comparing one of her friends to the Ancient Mariner from the Coleridge poem of the same name to managing the household finances (which was generally a wife’s task during this time period) to calling her an “incompetent mother”, a claim he made as they were separating. And nowhere are Dickens’s obsessions with control and his own image more clearly depicted than in the chapters relating to the couple’s separation when Dickens attempts to bolster his own reputation at the expense of Catherine’s.

As the two were separating, in addition to accusing Catherine of being a bad mother, Dickens dictated what Catherine’s family could say about him. Believing Mrs. Hogarth and her daughter Helen (Catherine’s mother and sister respectively) had contributed to a rumor that he was having an affair with a young woman named Ellen Ternan, Dickens forced them to sign a document (that he had prepared). This document stated, in part, that Mrs. Hogarth and Helen did not believe rumors about the affair to be true and that Catherine also did not believe that Dickens was having an affair with Ternan.

Dickens went one step further, however. He also demanded that they “pledge… on all occasions to contradict [the rumors] as entirely destitute of foundation”. Of course, “Neither Helen nor Mrs. Hogarth ‘disbelieved’ the rumors about Ellen or wanted to sign the document. But after…’considerable discussion’…’they signed the paper,’ which they saw as a necessary evil: the means of ensuring Catherine’s settlement.” 

By the end of the book, Nayder has certainly shown a very different side of Charles Dickens. He’s depicted as controlling, obsessive, and simply a bit odd, which perhaps makes one of the most remarkable parts of the book Catherine’s claim in 1858 (the year the couple separated) that “she still loved Dickens and thought of him ‘too much for her peace of mind’”. 

Impeccably researched and scholarly in tone, The Other Dickens is not for the casual Dickens’s fan, but it provides a unique, and an important, look into the lives of both Catherine and Charles Dickens. It also might be the ultimate revenge on the image obsessed Charles Dickens—it’s definitely not what he would have wanted us to be reading on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/158171-the-other-dickens-a-life-of-catherine-hogarth-by-lillian-nayder/