Devil or Angel: Charles Dickens in Love

Charles Dickens in Love, by Robert Garnett (Pegasus, 2012, 256 pages)

Garnett_CharlesDickensLoveThe year 2012 marked the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. Celebrations occurred in the UK and in France; and in places like Galveston, Texas where, during the 39th “Dickens on the Strand,” citizens held a world record birthday card signing. And in Washington, D.C., a walking tour celebrated the author’s visit to our nation’s capital. Few writers are as celebrated, widely read, and held in such esteem.

Dickens continues to evoke Victorian settings of Christmas, stemming from the impact of his most famous work, “A Christmas Carol,” images that belie the apparent lack of warmth and comfort in his personal life–assuming Robert Garnett’s recent foray into the darker side of Mr. Dickens is to be believed.

Garnett is an English professor at Gettysburg College, and has published widely on the subject of Dickens. His dissection of the writer’s love life lapses into Freudian analysis at times (why is it English professors wax Freudian more than they do Jungian? And isn’t waxing painful?), but his book makes for an interesting read.

One of the most touching parts of A Christmas Carol occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Past returns Scrooge to his youth, and we see there a woman he might have married. His own driving ambition outweighed his feelings of love, and he lost her–something he was now made to regret. Dickens was thirty-one years old when he wrote this, perhaps his most famous work, and Garnett suggest that “one might have supposed that he had never been in love, had never known any feelings of desire, passion, or urgency.”

In truth, Dickens had experienced love and disappointment, but he had a peculiar attitude towards women, viewing them as either angels or sluts. Victorian society as a whole had this problem, since for all of its pretensions about the sanctity of womanhood London in the 19th century had what has been variously estimated at 80,000 prostitutes working the alleyways. Dickens was no doubt well aware of these denizens of the dark alleys, since at some point just prior to his marriage he picked up an STD. Sex in polite society was to be avoided, but men will be men.

Dickens’ marriage was doomed from the start, yet his wife Catherine (nee Hogarth) bore him a half-dozen children. Although divorce was not an option, he separated from Catherine for an actress named Ellen Ternan, who was more than 25 years his junior. Although he loved Ellen first from afar, holding her in high esteem on that pedestal reserved for the flower of womanhood, he eventually succumbed to her more earthly qualities and she became pregnant.  Garnett believes that she gave birth to a child who lived only a few days. (Garnett isn’t out on a limb here, as Dickens’ son, Henry Fielding Dickens, is on record as saying that his father’s mistress “had a boy but it died,” and his sister, Kate, had also mentioned this.) Oddly enough, the scandal did not ruin his reputation, so highly regarded was he by his readers around the world; an attitude that strangely presaged our own tendency to allow celebrities a pass when it comes to conventional notions of morality.

I enjoyed Garnett’s analysis of the many female characters in Dickens’ novels, and how they tie to his various loves. Take, for example, the ethereal Mary Hogarth, his  wife Catherine’s young sister who lived with the newlyweds and became Dickens guiding spirit until she died in his arms quite suddenly of an aneurism. It seems he married the wrong Hogarth. Garnett sees her in Rose Maylie, the heroine of Oliver Twist (“the earth seemed not her element nor its rough creatures her fit companions”). Ellen Ternan may not have directly influenced the character of Estella in Great Expectations, but the story is infused with “his passion for Ellen and the frustrating impasse of his love for her.” The contrast between the ethereal angel, Mary Hogarth, and Ellen Ternan, the actress with feet of clay, greatly affected Dickens the man and Dickens the writer: “…while Mary drew his thoughts upward, Ellen drew them down to earth….”

The Dickens “scandal” is not news. It was well known during his lifetime. So Garnett is giving us nothing really new here. What he has done is to fill in some of the knowledge gaps by taking us into diaries, correspondence, and Dickens personal letters (the few that Dickens and his doting sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, didn’t destroy to protect his privacy). Oh, incidentally, Dickens was rumored to be sleeping with Georgina as well: seems his wife, Catherine, was the only Hogarth woman he didn’t get on with! My, my. Yes, Charles Dickens in Love  makes for an interesting read, so long as you don’t mind learning that your idols have feet of clay. In this century, we should be accustomed to that.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

What’s coming on The Morris Chair?

My review of Charles Dickens in Love by Robert Garnett (Pegasus, 2012) will appear on Wednesday, January 30, 2013.


Charles Dickens: Image –

In celebration of the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth, here is Dickens as you have never seen him before: an intimate and engaging portrait of the great author and the women he loved.

When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he was the best-known man in the English-speaking world—the preeminent Victorian celebrity, universally mourned as both a noble spirit and the greatest of novelists. Yet when the first person named in his will turned out to be an unknown woman named Ellen Ternan, only a handful of people had any idea who she was. Of his romance with Ellen, Dickens had written, “it belongs to my life and probably will only die out of the same with the proprietor,” and so it was—until his death she remained the most important person in his life.

She was not the first woman who had fired his imagination. As a young man he had fallen deeply in love with a woman who “pervaded every chink and crevice” of his mind for three years, Maria Beadnell, and when she eventually jilted him he vowed that “I never can love any human creature but yourself.” A few years later he was stunned by the sudden death of his young sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, and worshiped her memory for the rest of his life. “I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed,” he declared, and when he died over thirty years later he was still wearing her ring.

Charles Dickens has no rival as the most fertile creative imagination since William Shakespeare, and no one influenced his imagination more powerfully than these three women, his muses and teachers in the school of love. Using hundreds of primary sources, Charles Dickens in Love narrates the story of the most intense romances of Dickens’s life and shows how his novels both testify to his own strongest affections and serve as memorials to the young women he loved all too well, if not always wisely.

Special: While we’re arguing about guns, let’s look at Hollywood’s bill of fare

Garbage in, garbage out. Reservoir Dogs (1992). Social relevance at its most poignant. Image:

While politicians are looking for ways to curb violence, focusing only on some of the implements of violence, I am curious about something that might be contributing to the culture of death with detachment: Hollywood.

The holidays are over, so there aren’t any animated movies playing in Springfield to take my pre-school grandkids to. On Fandango, filtering for “animated” I got zip. Filtering for “family” – zip. I did, however, get four returns filtering for “action / adventure.”

So which of these latest Hollywood bills of fare should I take my pre-school grandson to? Let’s see.

Arnold is back in The Last Stand. Rated R. The synopsis reads, “The sheriff of a sleepy border town becomes involved in a showdown with a violent fugitive.”  Sounds intriguing. Check out the trailer. Car crashes, bazookas, high powered weapons, explosions. And Arnold at his post-gubernatorial best dispensing justice in the form of death and destruction.

Well, probably not a good choice. So, let’s check out Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest contribution to culture. This looks intriguing, especially since I am all for movies about the end of racism in this country, and this one has the black guy overcoming the horrors of slavery. The synopsis: “Set in the South two years before the Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty. The unorthodox Schultz acquires Django with a promise to free him upon the capture of the Brittles – dead or alive.”

But wait. This is Tarantino. You know, Reservoir Dogs? From Dusk Till Dawn 1, 2 and 3? Kill Bill I and !!? Inglorious Basterds? So I checked the trailer. Nope. Not for me. As for the social relevance, I need only refer you to Jaimie Foxx on SNL: “I get free. I save my wife and I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”  There’s an uplifting thought if I ever heard it.

So for this week, at any rate, it seems as though Hollywood and AMC are catering to the lowest common denominator, the way the Romans did at the gladiatorial games. And please, please don’t call me a hypocrite by pointing up all of the westerns that filled theaters in the 50’s and early 60s. Somehow comparing High Noon’s apple to Kill Bill’s orange just doesn’t work. Violence for the sake of violence is a phenomenon of the post-High Noon era, stemming from a society that discarded most of its moorings–ethical and social–in the search for liberation. Seems to me, we have just ended up in chains that are far more damaging to our psyches.

And we wonder why people find it exciting, romantic even, to want to pick up a weapon of major destruction and go out and end it all in a blaze of glory? Especially if our lives are less than glorious, and we sense that nothing will ever change in that regard? If we keep feeding people a steady diet of what Hollywood is dishing out of late, we can’t protect ourselves by taking away some of the weapons they might choose to pick up. Sad, lonely, damaged people with a hyped up need to bring meaning–however inglorious–to their lives will find a way, legally or illegally. Perhaps we need to think about feeding people a slightly different cultural diet. One in which the main course isn’t gratuitous mayhem.

Oh I almost forgot! Coming soon: Sly Stallone in “Bullet to the Head.”  Sounds like a plot we can all live with.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Sneak Preview: A Mature work by a good writer

This is a sneak preview of Touch and Goby Lisa Gardner (Penguin Group USA, 2013, 400 pages) Available February 5, 2013.

When does love start going south? Why?

Many people can remember the days when that special someone was in our heads every minute of every day, and how we prized whatever time we spent with them laughing, playing, making love, or just hanging out. They were the focus of our universe, and we just knew we were the focus of theirs. What a wonderful trip. But then, sometimes–even after years of marriage with children–we notice that that special look we used to see is gone. Is it just because the intoxicating whiff of Emeraude has been overpowered by eau de Vicks VapoRub–or is there something more fundamental, more selfish going on? And what do we do about it? Let is slide? Hope it gets better? Or bury our heads in the sand?

And what if it doesn’t get better?

In Lisa Gardner’s new novel, Touch and Gowe encounter a family in crisis. On the surface, things couldn’t be peachier. Justin Denbe is a self-made millionaire, owner of his own construction company, who happens to be damned good looking to boot. His beautiful wife, Libby, grew up on the wrong side of Boston, and happened to fall head over heels (I hate cliches, but it works here) in love with Justin the first time she saw him. After almost two decades of marriage, they have a beautiful 15-year old daughter and they live in the Back Bay section of Boston where real estate is out of reach even during a downturn in the economy. Life couldn’t be better.

Then we learn that things aren’t as good as they seem on the surface. Cracks are beginning to show up. Justin, it seems, has developed certain behavioral characteristics that his father was famous for–one of which is that he can’t keep his pants on around good-looking women. Libby is secretly hooked on prescription pain pills and never met a physician with a prescription pad she didn’t like. And 15-year old Ashlyn? She is watching this whole thing develop and feels helpless to do anything about it. She essentially feels abandoned.

So, in many ways, this is a book about a family in crisis–and how that family finally comes to face the crisis. Or is it too late?

But wait! I am sure you are saying, “Isn’t Lisa Gardner  a mystery writer?” Why yes, she is. And a good one at that.

So what’s the mystery?

Well, the family may never have faced their crisis at all but for one fortuitous (or devastating–you decide after reading this) event: On a Friday evening, after Justin and Libby arrive back in their townhouse after a “date night” (something they had been doing to patch up little things like Justin’s infidelity), the entire family is kidnapped. And the kidnappers aren’t amateurs. They are very professional–and very scary.

The depth of the family’s misery is revealed slowly after the kidnapping, and from Libby’s point of view. She is the narrator of their experience inside the place where they are being held. Here, although they are facing the uncertainty of their situation (why were they kidnapped? For money? Or for something else? Will they be released–or does someone want them dead?), they are confined in a cell and the three of them, forced together in close quarters, have no choice but to confront their demons. Sort of a forced therapy, if you will. Their experiences with each other, with all of the love-hate overtones, are truly touching in places and it is clear that Gardner is maturing into a writer with more than forensics and body-farm smarts going for her. She has a heart.

As though their family issues aren’t enough torture, there are the kidnappers themselves. Scary guys with tattoos on their heads, probably former military. Although violence is just beneath the surface, they seem to want to keep the family alive–at least for a while. But they are really scary people.

I have read Gardner’s books before, and have always found them entertaining. This one is different. Maybe because Gardner is different. She is growing, maturing, turning into more than just a writer of formula thrillers. Yes, we do have a story involving an investigator who has appeared before in her books–Tessa Leoni. We also meet a savvy detective from Northern New Hampshire, and a few FBI agents who become involved in the case. But this isn’t about the investigators. It is about the family. And that I find refreshing.

Author Gardner-maturing nicely. Source: Barnes & Noble

For over twenty years, mysteries have been paeans to the art of serial killing. It was intriguing for a whlle to read about sociopaths, forensics, body farms, blood work, autopsies, and the like–but after twenty years our fascination with Bundy-like antagonists needs to come to a close and deal more with the feelings of real crime victims rather than with their mutilated corpses. Gardner has taken a big step for a writer and a giant leap for “reader-kind” in this her newest novel.

But she has not sacrificed suspense. If, as Hitchcock once implied, suspense is created by the audience knowing what is on the other side of the door when the hero has no clue, this book is filled with suspense. As readers, we know where the family is being held and we are waiting, hoping, praying for the cops to pick up a map and figure it out for themselves–before it is too late.

This is good stuff.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris!

Looking ahead: Lisa Gardner’s new novel about a family in crisis

I will be reviewing Touch & Go, by Lisa Gardner, on Wednesday, January 23rd.


#1 New York Times bestseller Lisa Gardner, author of Catch Me and Love You More, returns with a heart-thumping thriller about what lurks behind the facade of a perfect family.
This is my family:  Vanished without a trace…
Justin and Libby Denbe have the kind of life that looks good in the pages of a glossy magazine. A beautiful fifteen-year old daughter, Ashlyn. A gorgeous brownstone on a tree-lined street in Boston’s elite Back Bay neighborhood. A great marriage, admired by friends and family.  A perfect life.This is what I know:  Pain has a flavor…When investigator Tessa Leoni arrives at the crime scene in the Denbes’ home, she finds scuff marks on the floor and Taser confetti in the foyer.  The family appears to have been abducted, with only a pile of their most personal possessions remaining behind.  No witnesses, no ransom demands, no motive.  Just an entire family, vanished without a trace.This is what I fear:  The worst is yet to come…

Tessa knows better than anyone that even the most perfect facades can hide the darkest secrets.  Now she must race against the clock to uncover the Denbes’ innermost dealings, a complex tangle of friendships and betrayal, big business and small sacrifices.  Who would want to kidnap such a perfect little family?  And how far would such a person be willing to go?

This is the truth:  Love, safety, family…it is all touch and go.

About the Author (from

New York Times #1 bestselling crime novelist Lisa Gardner began her career in food service, but after catching her hair on fire numerous times, she took the hint and focused on writing instead. A self-described research junkie, she has parlayed her interest in police procedure, cutting edge forensics and twisted plots into a streak of thirteen bestselling suspense novels, including her most recent release, Catch Me.Readers are invited to get in on the fun by entering the annual “Kill a Friend, Maim a Mate” Sweepstakes, where they can nominate the person of their choice to die in Lisa’s latest novel. Every year, one Lucky Stiff is selected for Literary Immortality. It’s cheaper than therapy, and you get a great book besides. For more details, simply visit Lisa’s website.Lisa lives in New England with her family, as well as two highly spoiled dogs and one extremely neurotic three-legged cat.

The Time of the Wolf: A bloody good read

By the time I was in high school, I had learned that 1066 was the year of the Norman Conquest of England by William of Normandy (aka “the Bastard,” aka “the Conqueror”). I don’t know whether kids learn this stuff any more, especially since some college graduates have a hard time locating England on the globe. But the battle for the windswept island, which was eventually won by the Northmen (the Normans were descended from the Vikings), grafted the military expertise and cunning of the Normans onto the culture of the Anglo-Saxons with their passion for jurisprudence and hero-worship. The result was a people with a stubborn streak and a stiff upper lip.

The period immediately before and following the Norman invasion is the setting for The Time of the Wolf: A Novel of Medieval England, by James Wilde (Pegasus, 2012, 336 pages). Wilde (a nom de plume for Mark Chadburn ) has previously written mostly mist-shrouded British fantasy novels but in The Time of the Wolf his subject is historical:  a Mercian with anger management issues known as Hereward. History calls him by several names: Hereward the Wake (“the watchful”), Hereward the Outlaw, and Hereward the Exile to name but three. You’ve heard of Robin of Locksley (aka, “Robin Hood”) and King Arthur (aka “The Sword in the Stone”)? Well, in Britain, Hereward is as renowned as those other two–with one big difference: Arthur and Robin were shades of the legendary past whose forms were filled with the straw of folklore; Hereward is no less a man of legend, but his historical framework was very real and very intimidating.

Hereward’s fame had more in common with William Wallace than with Robin of the Hood. In Braveheart (1995), Mel Gibson’s paean to Wallace, we were treated to medieval warfare at its goriest, and similarly explicit descriptions of the many beheadings and blood spraying arrow, spear and sword piercings lend a cinematic effect to Wilde’s writing that suggests he is angling for a movie option. Wallace and Hereward both fought for freedom against tyranny. Wallace was a man unknown beyond his own country before Mel Gibson brought him to life. And I had never heard of Hereward the Wake before picking up this novel.

Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace captured all of the fury and gore of a fight for freedom. Source: photo

This book would make a good movie, no doubt about it, but as much for the story as for the bloodletting. When we first meet Hereward, he is arising from a pond like some demon from Hell to avenge the slaughter of an entire village by men who were sent to kill him. Later, an unlikely friendship is formed between Hereward and Alric, a monk who is running from his past. Both have something in common: they were each responsible–or thought to be–for the murders of women they loved. In Hereward’s case, the murder was committed by an agent of a usurper to the throne in a failed attempt on Hereward’s life. The monk killed his woman by accident, in the act of defending himself from an attacker. Hereward was innocent, Alric only partly responsible. But their anguish helped them form a bond.

It is not an easy bond to form given their oil and water mix of personalities. Hereward’s youth was wild, unchecked, and brutal and his service to the crown as a warrior reflected his quickness to anger. Alric was a man of God who felt the heat of damnation for his great sin, and who saw his chance to find salvation in his efforts to save the soul of this Devil he met with in the north of England. Hereward wants many things, but having his soul saved is the least of them. He is damaged goods. He seeks only revenge and blood and to erase the memories of his childhood especially that of the day his father beat his mother to death.

The novel revolves around intrigues in the court of King Edward (the Confessor), whose passion for rebuilding St. Peter’s in London into what would later be known as Westminster Abbey brought him derision from his peers whose concerns are more worldly. His heir apparent has been murdered, and Hereward uncovers this plot and immediately becomes a target — and a hunted exile. Harold Godwinson, the mastermind behind the plot, will later usurp the throne of England as Harold II. However, succession had been promised to William of Normandy. When Harold takes the throne, all hell breaks loose and the history of England will change dramatically.

In the thick of it all is the sword of Hereward, hacking, slicing, splicing, and shish-ke-bobbing. Blood literally runs in the streets and leaves the fens with a coating of bile and blackened gore .

There is love in this story (women aren’t put off by his blood stained clothing and ill manners apparently) and there is treachery. Hereward is a man whose trust is sometimes misplaced. Once William conquers England, Hereward finds his true claim to fame. He fights against the tyrant William, and continues to fight against him from his hiding place in the marshy Fens, deviling the Normans the way Francis Marion (“The Swamp Fox”) would later devil the British in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. This is a great read because it is more than the story of a man, it is about the spirit shared by many like the legendary Arthur, Robin of the Hood, Hereward the Wake, William Wallace, Francis Marion, and Davy Crockett. It is the spirit of men longing to be–and to stay free.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

Preview of coming review: Time of the Wolf

My review of the following book will appear Wednesday, January 16th on The Morris Chair.

The Time of the Wolf: A Novel of Medieval England, by James Wilde (Pegasus, 2012, 336 pages)


A London Times bestseller, this rousing historical debut rescues one of England’s forgotten heroes from the mists of medieval history and brings him to brutal and bloody life.
1062, a time many fear is the End of Days. With the English King Edward heirless and ailing, across the grey seas in Normandy the brutal William the Bastard waits for the moment when he can drown England in a tide of blood. The ravens of war are gathering. But as the king’s closest advisors scheme and squabble amongst themselves, hopes of resisting the naked ambition of the Norman duke come to rest with just one man: Hereward.To some a ruthless warrior and master tactician, to others a devil in human form, Hereward is as adept in the art of warfare as the foes that gather to claim England’s throne. But in his country’s hour of greatest need, his enemies at court have made him an outlaw. To stay alive—and a free man—he must carve a bloody swath from the frozen lands outside the court in this evocative tale of a man whose deeds will become the stuff of legend.

About the Author

James Wilde, the pseudonym of Mark Chadbourn, a two-time winner of the prestigious British Fantasy Award, has written a number of widely praised modern fantasy novels. Wilde lives in the heart of a Mercian forest in England.