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

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