Dear friends and readers,
Last week I finished reading Lillian Nayder’s The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Were it to be read widely, its content genuinely taken in and disseminated, the book has the potential to alter the common perception of Catherine Hogarth Dickens as a person, woman, and wife and mother, of Dickens’s attitude and behavior towards her during the early as well as later phases of their marriage. Many people are aware his conduct towards her once he decided to eject her from their mutual home, was studiedly cruel, outrageous, but they seem unaware that from their earliest years as man and wife, far from dissatisfying him, she supplied and catered to his every need and desire, as a man and professional (who wanted a presentable socializing baby-making wife). This includes obeying the smallest detail of the decorations in a mantelpiece of their home, really letting him control her almost completely, with only the occasional (apparently) easily squashed protest against his vicarious similar use or enjoyment of other women through what was called mesmerizing them.
Nayder’s book could function to offer readers another example of what happens to a woman when you give her husband unqualified power over her from the concrete money and power the man has and from the inculcated myths of what life is about (she is to be an obedient devoted wife) and how we are to judge her (by how she is said to have brought up her children). Nayder says her aim is to build a portrait of Catherine as a complete life apart from Dickens; she can’t quite succeed in that, but her book could help to break down popular stereotypical hagiographies of Dickens among fans and scholars too. It seems to me as important a re-framing of Dickens as well as Catherine Hogarth as Gillian Gill’s We Two: Albert and Victoria Saxe-Coburg. Like Gill’s, Nayder’s book is a strongly woman-centered text.
My project reading and writing postings about the chapters of the book began on Trollope19thCStudies when I posted a review of Nayder’s book by Dinah Birch (London Review of Books, 33:3  25-28), and a friend and member of the listserv community was taken aback by Birch’s text as it seemed written by someone who had not read the book at all. Birch repeats the false conception of Dickens’s marriage that it was in his interest to spread (that Catherine was an inadequate, boring, “easily controlled” and therefore irritating unworthy partner for the great genius), reiterates in abstract language general assertions of those aspects of Dickens’s fiction and action which make him look like a mild proto-feminist, and hardly recounted any details from Nayder’s book. Indeed Birch’s review concentrates on Dickens, not Catherine, and accuses Nayder of “an element of revenge” because Nayder dares to forces Dickens into the “margins.” My friend was very generous and sent me a copy of the book as a present, and I now write this blog in order that someone put into public a summary of its contents.
Nayder begins her book by making a strong case for Catherine Hogarth as a person in her own right. Catherine lived many years before she met Dickens and many after the marriage ended. Chapter 1 tells us (as biographies do) Catherine’s background, her family. There were a number of strong intelligent women in her family; hers was a Scots background with a strong intellectuality and interest in music as part of the culture.
We first meet Catherine (get a sense of her presence) at age 17, going out to pay a social call. To capture something of the witty outlook of the young Catherine, Naydor retells one of Catherine’s jokes: to someone explaining the supposed beauties (?!) of the story of Adam and Eve, Catherine said: “Eh, mon, it would be nae temptation to me to gae rinning aboot a garden stark naked ‘ating green apples.” Catherine sounds like an Austen heroine (probably not Miss Morland as this character is a naif): bright, good-natured, well-read, open, able to write an appealing letter. This comes from a letter by Catherine and she also shows an ironic reaction to the typical sentimentality women are supposed to feel and enact.
I wish Nayder had reprinted this letter. What’s interesting is people have paid attention to a post-script added by Dickens — not the letter itself, and in this post-script as is typical of Dickens apparently (and perhaps he liked to put down his coming wife this way — a rival you see) “the comic insignificance of Catherine’s concerns’ — and all women’s concerns, trivial you see.
People care about who wrote something I’ve discovered, far more than what’s in it. (This leads to an overvaluation of any famous writer’s oeuvre, fetishicizing, but that’s by the bye). We do get reprints of some of the autographs.
Later ones written after her marriage are closely written and crossed like Jane Austen’s.
Nayder says Catherine’s sense of self was strongest before marriage and this segues into an account of her parents and grandparents.
Nayder is hampered because the womens’ letters were not saved (how typical this is) but some of the men’s were. Both parents and grandparents were really substantial middle class types — her father had just the kind of job Walter Scott started out with, a law writer — and literary and musical people. Her grandfather, George Thompson, did serious scholarly work to collect Scots music.
George Hogarth, Catherine’s father was a publisher, and thus potentially of great use for a young writer. But there’s a lot more here. He was ambitious, left off being a farmer’s son and become a solicitor. Not easy. He rose in status and to add to his money and social contacts was a tutor. When he did not do that well (not easy in this era) and began to need more money or lose out (nonetheless they lived in nice quarters in Edinburgh), a letter on this. Then he switched to journalism, and that’s what brought him and his family to London.
Here we learn about the man’s varied previous life; cultured, capable, educating his daughters, in cultured fashionable circles in Edinburgh like Catherine’s grandparents). Justice is done to Catherine’s mother, Georgina, apparently also derided by Dickens’s scholars. Mrs Hogarth apparently was not deferential to her great son-in-law. She would not keep up to his impeccable house-keeping standards. A minor but real irritation for me as a woman reader is Dickens’s nagging at women who don’t keep impeccable houses. I wonder whether he ever kept up a house, controlled a servant. I would never have spent my life this way no matter what era. Catherine’s mother insured her own life too. Her outlook against a man like Dickens was “semi-sarcastic humor.”
There is a problem with Nayder’s praise of Catherine’s grandfather and father’s positive attitudes towards women. They were not to be educated fully in the way of men at all. They may admire women in France for doing men’s jobs but they are not to learn how to cope in the world the way men do. Not that it’s easy to learn this for anyone, boy or girl. It’s just that admirable as some of their sentiments are, the particular limitations are enough to skew a girl’s outlook about herself.
This may also be seen in spades in the endless pregnancies and children Catherine’s grandmother, mother and then she had to cope with. Lists of children and siblings do not convey what this does to a woman’s life but is enough to suggest how she must spend it.
Music meant a lot in both the grandparents and then Catherine’s parents’ home, and not only did Catherine read a lot, she was trained in music for its own sake. Indeed “profit was a secondary consideration” in the home. That makes life a lot more comfortable but can boomerang.
So we leave the Hogarths off with the father through the influence of Lockhardt (Scott’s son-in-law and that’s what made him) as the editor of an Exeter newspaper. Nayder’s narrative (p. 48) confirms the idea that Dickens was strongly attracted to Catherine for the connection with her father — and yes the two-removed contact to Scott (though his equally reactionary Tory son-in-law, Lockhardt). See p 48, last sentence second paragraph: “She was the daughter of George Hogarth.”
Myself I surmised that part of the attraction for Dickens surely was this father-in-law he’d get this way. Later in life he controlled his writing and became the lasting success he did because he became a publisher himself. (“Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one” &c&c). Sutherland’s Victorian Publishers and Novelists is very good on Dickens as businessman (so too Gaskell). It’s an age-old truism that ambitious men can and do pick wives with their father-in-law in mind. It’s put in this nice neutral way about how the father does affects the daughter’s marital choices but consider the inner life ties of this.
That he focused on her partly because of who she was related to does not mean there was no psychological allurement. Apparently there was, but from these letters and enough are left for us to see subtleties (even if we might not understand them accurately or as either of the two participants saw them) and these suggest tensions from the start.
To backtrack: Catherine’s father George Hogarth found himself editor of Tory papers, first in Exeter, then in Yorkshire, and then in London where he finally did move over to a liberal paper – the one Dickens was writing for (The Morning Chronicle), so for a while Hogarth was a sort of boss if not over, at least alongside Mr Dickens.
It’s no surprise the Tory papers outnumber the liberal. Today we know what money supports. Nayder tells us the contemporary political events affecting the media and real people in England at the time (Peterloo massacre, Reform bill. We learn of Hogarth’s continued musical interests reflected in some of his daughter and her sisters’ doings, and of the friends the Hogarths made: Franklins, Arytons. With the latter the Hogarth girls became friendly: Nayder does include how Mrs Ayrton had TB and was dying from it all the while expected to run a household, have children (?!).
Nayder shows us how much responsibility and time this business of running a middle class household took, and also how important it was for her husband’s career. This not only brings home the nature of these women’s real lives once again, though she doesn’t enough emphasize the constant pregnancies and babies and how the power arrangements probably stifled complaints about the husbands. I take it Mrs Ayrton apparently complained her maid was drinking (the “alcoholic maid” on p. 45), but we have nothing about Mr Ayrton.
So Catherine would have to take all this on.
The courtship and engagement
What’s important about Nayder’s treatment of Dickens’s courtship of Catherine is the tension early on in Dickens and Catherine’s courtship running up to marriage. Apparently Dickens had been disappointed by another engagement: Maria Beadle had turned him off and he was determined that he would not suffer the same kind of cold-shouldering and the domineering that apparently was part of this again. Nayder quotes Dickens’s letters (alas he destroyed Catherine’s) which show him complaining about Catherine behaving in an affected way, playing silly manipulative tricks (from his point of view. Nayder says this is Dickens’s interpretation of Catherine through indirection trying to assert her private independence and space. As time went on and Catherine saw that Dickens would break the engagement off (a no no for women as it hurt their reputation) and (I assume really liked him — and Naydor says she was mastered by him and feel for the romantic tradition) she gave in, and we get this letter where he’s instructing her how she is to be there to make him breakfast and serve him. I would say that Dickens was here bullying Catherine and she is inadequate how to deal with it and thus she began to try to manipulate him indirectly and he immediately reacted by calling her out on this and resenting it.
Slater in a footnote is credited with taking the view that Dickens really felt Catherine to be frivolous and was writing earnestly and gravely. When Dickens writes to Catherine that she exhibits “frivolous absurdity, which debases the name [of love] and renders it ludicrous,” I also see her as someone made uncomfortable by Dickens’s evident intellectual genius. As it emerges from the letters I am reminded of one of Dickens’s grotesque (supposedly comic — but here I’ll confess I no longer find them funny myself) Fora Flintwich.
He will have to support her and is busy writing and she resents the time lost — like many people married to writers who do not themselves write or read incessantly. This is his strong point. I wish Dickens had said he loves to write and enjoys it and been less hypocritical and not referred to their duties to one another, but maybe that would have not gotten the response he wanted.
Altogether both are manipulating and playing games. This is a couple who are regarding marriage as a part of this planned career, looking on marriage as this responsibility from a very gendered perspective. So they are endowing all their actions with these imagined (or real if you like) burdens. No wonder they are already having trouble, experiencing stress.
Jumping ahead: Chapter 5 opens with lots of statistics about childbirth in the era and specifically Catherine’s: how often, when confined; there’s even an information speculation that such a couple as the Dickens’s with their reproductive rate would probably have 15 to 20 acts of intercourse per month, with estimated intervals of pregnancies and non-pregnancies.
What Birch ignored beyond the real details of the book about Catherine Hogarth’s life is how Nayder set her life in a woman’s world, and quite carefully — later we’ll see how Nader uses some women’s novels that Catherine liked and read to provide parallels with Catherine’s behavior and experience. The early part of Chapter 5 is given over to outlining the statistics of childbirth in the Victorian period — and extrapolating what kind of sex life might lie behind these. The idea is to give a general picture of averages within which Dickens’s treatment of Catherine and her response can be really understood.
Another long portion is about how doctors treated women pregnant, miscarrying, giving birth. Like inferior people whose ideas are not to be taken into account at all. Repeatedly we see the doctor consulting the husband first as to what to do. The woman is turned into a child who cannot be trusted with information or decisions that are affecting her directly.
Some of this continues into today; the difference would be that today such attitudes have to be qualified strongly — the doctor must at least pretend to consult the patient and many do consult and try to get the patient to take responsibility too, and to chose (this helps avoid lawsuits) and are not just meted out to women but to many patients.
We also get an account of how Victorian wrote about postpartum depression, again in a way that disregarded the woman as an individual, did not take at all into account she might not want endlessy to be pregnant or breast-feed. Among the revolting things here are how women were denied painkillers for a long time, the rational being Eve’s necessary punishment.
To return to our specific individuals, Nayder’s Chapters 2 and 3 tell the story of the Dickenses’ engagement, wedding and first years of marriage I see this: what happened was Dickens was just too strong a personality for Catherine. She couldn’t buck him, backed up as he also was by the culture. I feel for her.
His taking over the expenses, bills, buying stuff, even deciding what they should eat is a controlling personality. He had enormous energy – that’s part of his genius — too. He did leave to her the control of the servants to some extent. I find that par for course. It’s probably among the least pleasant of tasks in a household such as the Dickens’s. In part of course who wants it; she was endlessly pregnant and sick (including miscarriages too — no fun I can tell the reader — I’ve had two). But she would rue the day when she realized that in fact the house was not hers nor the objects in it, not even the children.
Nayder says (probably rightly) having all these babies gave Catherine her reason for being as a woman and put her into a community, with all the people active around her either helping her or doing the same. Also each child was to her a new sign of affection. I’ve seen this attitude myself today. As Catherine was to find out, this confidence was more than a little delusional.
As important as the ceaseless pregnancies was the demand she control herself to stay in a kind of seclusion and give over her body night and day to caring for and breast-feeding her children on demand. No wonder she became depressed: every aspect of her waking life was a form of self-erasing bodily servitude. Again I feel for her. Nowadays too women are pounded by an incessant drumbeat for breast-feedings, and the pseudo-science supporting this matches the pseudo-science supporting the idea that there’s a baby in a woman from the moment of conception. Nurses gain power over women in the hospitals this way. In Nayder’s account it’s the doctors and Dickens himself who exert the control.
Among other things to see Catherine as forced and not wanting what was imposed on her and managing at last to avoid it shows her not an hysteric, not an incompetent, but as during her engagment indirectly reacting sometimes on her own behalf. She was fortunate to have such a rich man as her husband who when he said she was to have a painkiller got it. Not though when she said it. She was not asked.
This not telling women and not giving them their own choice does not protect from reality — what is inflicted is a specific kind of reality — and it can be seen in how Dickens treated the death of one of their children. Dora. He lied. He pretended she was just very sick
Thus Catherine Hogarth weeping and depressed because she couldn’t breast-feed is a significant spectacle. Nayder herself says she got over these depressions once she was no longer required to stay upstairs and be powerless. But the experience of this at least three times was not to be overcome or forgotten. A pattern with Dickens in charge is set. Who is he to tell her what to do — and all the male doctors. I suspect she didn’t want to breast-feed and didn’t care (dare) to say it. So she’s driving herself nuts in several directions at once.
(I spent four times in hospital over miscarriages and childbirths and experienced a modern version of the pressure Catherine had to endure. I was herded into a huge room filled with women, many with IVs attached to them still where a speech was given whose purpose was to create guilt and insist all women must breast-feed and the longer and the bettter. I’ve seen women urged to diet not to have big babies and urged to overeat — and end up with a C-section because the baby is too large. After first four weeks there is no need for transfer of antibodies; all the talk about needed bonding this way and asking women to feed on demand is absurd; who should control a situation, a woman or a baby? Just as much love can be shown by bottle-feeding (and a lot less expense and anxiety when the woman resorts to a breast pump (unspeakable this infliction). In quiet talk with other women I know many admit how they dislike it, how much it gets in the way of their lives and what an emotional strain the ordeal is. Lots pretend to follow orders, even more feel guilty because they are targets for blaming for years after for what ever the child grows up into.)
That Dickens blamed Catherine for the endless pregnancies is rich too. He writes that Macrone is “permissive’ in letting other woman come downstairs (!). These women are owned by these doctors and husbands, like some cattle to produce calves?
Catherine did grow close to the first child, a son as it happened. I’ve seen this. The first child seems to mean so much — it’s the first experience.
And so now we come to Mary Hogarth whose story is told from her and Catherine’s point of view. It was common in this period for sisters to be close — especially if at all congenial in nature. women didn’t go to school, couldn’t get real jobs, couldn’t leave the home so they had to make friends with biologically related individuals. It does seem as if Mary felt for Catherine even if she became the “privileged” person to shop with the genius making so many money around whom so many people were happy to gather and so respected. But then Mary died and Catherine lost her.
It’s not irrelevant that Catherine is losing her looks. In the photos and pictures she is heavy. It would have been so hard for her to keep her figure at all. Part of the enjoyment she was to partake of was eating food — we are told how Dickens likes it that she can eat again when they go out. But this did her in too — and does her in still. Photos in books show Ellen Ternan to be conventionally attractive staying thin.
I do note that Ellen never got pregnant. From Trollope’s remark I take that not to be that she withheld anything from Dickens but rather that he knew how to have sex with a woman and not get her pregnant. He did not have the unselfishness and decency towards Catherine not to use her as a continual baby-maker but did refrain from doing this to Ellen as it would not have been in his interest. There were contraceptives available and their uses were well understood, his relationship with Ellen Ternan implies he knew lots of satisfying sexual techniques which did not include full sexual penetration and ejaculation into a woman’s vagina. Orgasm can
be brought about in many ways.
After showing the reader how Catherine Hogarth was the partly (or mostly) willing victim of the usual abuses of women through their reproductive and biological organs still going on today, through her lack of any job on offer but that of wife and the reality that she married a controlling dominating personality increasingly successful financially as well as socially (and a genius to boot), Nayder backtracks to present another view of the death of the sister, Mary.
This is the first time I’ve read the details of how Dickens presented Mary; hitherto I was aware only that generally he presented a ludicrously unreal worshipful picture of her. Dickens then used this portrait to damn Catherine: the story line became how Mary saw how Catherine was inadequate to start with and of course did all she could to compensate to the (poor?) big man. Mary was used as a hammer to smash Catherine.
Nayder shows us by quoting the letters that in fact Mary’s relationship was with Catherine, that the two of them formed a supportive partnership as close sisters and women friend still can. All make sense to me. They were together “irreverent towards men … mocked male presumption … emphasized, with comic self consciousness, their own power, not their power by proxy.”
I liked this sort of thing brought out by their alas only 5 letters and also that Nayder shows Dickens using Mary to keep men/guests in the house: how could Bentley be impolite to Mary and so he took the drink and stayed.
So Catherine not only had a loss in companionship, support, but Dickens later reinterpreted Mary to be part of his story.
Travel and living abroad, mesmerizing Catherine and other women
Chapter 3 brings use Dickens’s claims to hypnotize Catherine (and then other women). I’ve read about this phenomenon (as maybe some on our list have) and know that often the idea you have been mesmerized or hypnotized is partly believed by the victim. Studies show that repeatedly the person doing the hypnotizing is of high status and the one hypnotized low. I find Macready’s behavior to his wife, Fanny, horrible (p. 97): 10 children, dies of TB (very painful disease)
We see Dickens discouraging Catherine’s relationship with her mother and youngest sister, Helen from 1858 and Catherine bringing Georgina in. Catherine wanted someone — Georgina didn’t get to run the household as a consumer either. They move to bigger quarters, very fancy now. Now she’s expected to travel with him. She apparently would have preferred to stay home with her children, or at least was not keen to leave them.
Here we get this mesmerizing and obliged travel brought together; she is uprooted from where she knows, and feels (presumably) safe and is now dependent on him utterly. He the God, she among those who worship Him. So what does he do? he hypnotizes her again and she gets hysterical (p. 117). Of course this proves her weakness and volatility as a woman to Dickens.
It’s really not funny. Dickens shows little feeling for Catherine for real; or to put it another way, any feeling she might have had that interfered with him, he dismisses. He makes her pain during her births into a joke, and says he’ll mesmerize her. Very funny. (He did arrange for her to be anesthetized during the eighth. Chloroform was used. How good of him. I wonder did husbands have to sign for their wives.)
She loses self-control and consciousness.
I’ve now and again come across papers about women’s psychological reactions to marriage as presented practiced in many parts of the world still: the woman at home, left with children, the man with the job. One pattern that emerges is Catherine’s here: that a personality hitherto firm and independent becomes dependent and even afraid to go far on her own; this is accompanied by emotional instability (crying jags), infirmness. the paper is Alexandra Symonds, “Phobias after Marriage: Women’s Declaration of Dependence” American Journal of Pscyhoanalysis, 31:2 (1971). I’ve seen this debilitation and loss recently in reaction to the marketplace practices that have emerged as jobs become scarce, prices high, no safety net; things like “behavioral interviews” (a form of hazing).
Two others: Lenore Walker and Elizabeth Waites (“Battered Women and Learned Helplessness” and “Female Masochism and the Enforced Restriction of Choice,” Victimology, 2 [1977-78]:525-44) whose work demonstrates how this explanation (which partly absolves society) is maintained by not looking at the social arrangements and circumstances of a case. The girl is offered a highly restricted set of choices and is trained early on to see that none of her actions have any effect on what is done to her. This kind of thing done early creates a passivity in individuals difficult to break out of. Animal studies show this for animals. And then we are told women can be innately masochistic.
Chapter 5 continues this mesmerizing by Dickens of women. Now he’s mesmerizing Madame de la Rue whose huband is understandably not keen. Nayder reports in this chapter how Dickens said of one of his readings aloud of A Christmas Carol how much pleasure it gave him to see the power he could have over others. I’ll bet. I forgot yesterday to say also that most people who allow themselves to be hypnotized are also women and it’s most frequently done by men.
I suppose Dickens wanted to have an affair with this woman and couldn’t in the tight circumstances.
In this chapter Dickens takes his family to live in Italy you see: cheaper, and supposed quieter. We see that Catherine has two years respite from these incessant pregnancies and then they begin again, but she has at least asserted her right to a wet nurse.
Catherine did what she could to put a stop to Dickens’s taking over the de la Rues; it was finally achieved by moving away from Genoa and never returning.
While some of the self-abnegation demanded hurt Catherine, she begins to fight back for herself: she holds onto women friends she wants (Christina Thompson who Dickens particularly disliked), introduces a pianist, Christina Well. But I note how Dickens threatened her again in the way he did in the courtship: “I should never forgive mysel or you if the smallest drop of coldness or misunderstanding were created between me and Macready, by means so monstrous” (p 129). My guess at this humor Georgina was directly at Macready’s sister-in-law was needling, catty needling. Why is this Catherine’s fault.
He’ll never forgive her. Like Darcy with his implacable resentments. Dickens’s dreams are about how the dead Mary is this angel trying to reach him. Naydor again says how Dickens’s idea about Mary that she was so centered on him was not but we can see how Dickens is the object of compassion in the dream.
She is not effective for her children: I’ve read how Dickens tried to mould his sons in his own image. I certainly feel for Charlie who is not aggressive enough (“lack of manly energy and drive”) to suit Dickens. Perhaps not as intelligent as he too (so disappointing to Dickens). Naydor writes: “When he could not successfully influence and control family members, he judged and criticized, a pattern particularly evident in his marital relations” (p. 123). Catherine stuck up for the boy to some extent. We are told in a previous chapter the boy chose to stay with his mother later on.
The man depicted here is the author I’m familiar with in the books too: some of his attitudes towards “pathetic” male characters.
The time in Genoa is (possibly) reflected in the Dorrits’ experience of Italy in Little Dorrit
So now we find that Charles Dickens can’t stand the Weller young women. How dare they want to have careers and a life of their own. It seems the Weller father and even a husband (Thompson) worries lest Christian throw away, give up her gifts and business as a pianist and piano teacher.
It seems that if you marry in this era, it’s all over for you (pp. 134-35). There was no thin rubber.
What Dickens would like to see though is Anna getting “shocked and knocked and started into a reasonable woman.” Let us take a minute to think about what he could mean by that phrase.
He goes to visit the Wellers and what does he find: (“singularly”) untidy children! (p. 136)
Catherine tries to hold onto the friendship with Christiana: “a talented friend with whom she could discuss people and art, refreshing in her expressiveness and her relative unconcern with social proprieties” (p. 137)
Nailed down again though: the sixth pregnancy ended in a miserable childbirth: she is reported as “in a most critical condition,” “in a state of tribulation,” on the morning the baby finally emerged “suffered very much.” So she can’t go to her friend’s wedding.
The hostilities between the men (the Wellers are betraying the class order called men) were too much. So Catherine finds a new young musical friend. It seems she lived vicariously through this young musical women.
Following Chapter 5 is a sketch of the character and life of Georgina (who I gather sided with Dickens when Dickens left Catherine) contextualized by the life of another (I had almost said) women servant in the household: Anne Cornelius and Anne Cornelius’s daughter, given the names of Catherine and Georgina and Anne: The curious thread left hanging is about Catherine Georgina Ann Cornelius. We are given no father’s name.
The chapter contextualized Georgina’s life not with Dickens and her work for him but as one of a trio serving Dickens and living together as women in the house., traveling together. Anne traveled second class of course. Yours in subordination is the idea. It appears that Georgina was in the house as much a servant as governess, as much mothering the children (p. 198) What set Georgina apart was not that she was so superior a character but she was not a target for sex: no babies endlessly, no miscarriages, no restrictions imposed on her all throughout. Of course if Georgina asserted herself in company not to like this person or that Dickens put her in her place (p. 202)
Georgina’s reward was to live the rest of her life with Dickens, supported by him. Catherine’s own large heartedness comes out in the remark she made afterward that it was a comfort to her to think her sister was with the children. Not many women would take it that way (p. 199)
The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Bill has a sinister aspect: the man was not bedding his sister-in-law, that would be incest and as log as they didn’t marry no one would think they were having sex. Probably Dickens and Georgina didn’t — it appears her services were not called upon here.
A friend who is a frequent reader of Dickens (has read collections of Dickens’s letters as well as a spate of biographies) suggested to me one flaw in Nayder’s book is she doesn’t quote Catherine Hogarth enough. There are more letters than the surface feel of this book presents. My friend said that paradoxically Nayder is guilty of what she accuses others of: quoting Dickens rather than Catherine.
This kind of argument can be used to suggest that Nayder skews the evidence, but it is a problem for biographers from Boswell and Gaskell to our own day: how much do you transcribe verbatim and how much paraphrase and summary. You have to do the latter a good deal or the book gets too long.
The last part of the interlude gives us the fates of Anne and her daughter, Kate. Kate went on to become a pupil at North London college, Dickens paying for her schooling as he did for the daughters of his brother, also enrolled in the same school. Then a third sister joined these daughters (Dickens’s nieces).
Catherine did not mention mother, Anne, or daughter, Kate in her will and they seem to have lost contact. Georgina did write Anne after Catherine’s death, the day after, an acknowledgment of what Anne’s presence had been in the household.
Anne kept getting into financial difficulties. Not uncommon in this pre-20th century age (we are returning to the conditions that caused the vast majority of people to be desperate). Kate was allowed to marry quite young, but it seems the marriage turned out well to the extent that Kate became a successful music instructor and schoolteacher well into middle age while still having 6 children. Anne came to live with her daughter and son-in-law in old age.
Catherine spent her old age with Charley and Bessie Evans, the latter of whom she formed a good relationship with. I hope I’m not alone in finding such ends called successes demoralizing.
Chapter 6: Middle years, tension erupts, and Dickens’s breaks up the marriage and disperses his children
Nayder does say that many of Catherine’s letters were destroyed by Dickens so the picture that emerges from the last years of the marriage just before the break-up comes from his letters and we see a strongly egotistical husband-in-charge. The letters show him turning her into the helpless woman: in this chapters’ letters we see how he takes his point of view and insists it’s hers and then insists she act on it. He talks in this “you had better” tone — she had better do and think what he wants, and then he throws at her how he has provided everything: he has given her a “station better than rank, and surrounded you with many enviable things.
To say the early years were happy ones is to use the word happy in a superficial way. Dickens may have been happy because he got a willing servant-slave administering to his needs, obeying him at all points, including every bit of her body, time, and even mind. When he is gone from the house, he sends a letter which orders every detail of a mantelpiece be precisely what he wants. This is scary If she was happy in the beginning, she seems not to have been by the time of the first birth. Depression at childbirth is not caused just or even by childbirth, but by all the things that occur around it and what is demanded of the woman and how she is treated. Since he destroyed the letters we are left with this idea that childbirth brings on depression as a general principle instead of the actual situation which brought on her depression.
Now we also back with his mesmerizing Catherine and even more fun for him: his conjuring. We are told in the scholarship how splendid Dickens was at this, and that he could ferret out Catherine’s thoughts. I know I have the implication right here: Nayder suggests Catherine was silently playing along and saying what was wanted so Dickens would look like he conjured up her meaning. This silence of hers is chilling. Is she afraid of some aspect of him. Well, duh, yes, see how he threatens her implicitly with the loss of his affection in the letter where he tells her what he thinks and how she must act on it (pp 212-13).
He’s still pursuing other women by his mesmerizing and conjuring antics. One of the women she gets involved with from this sees her “subservience:” Mrs Hoare (p. 219). It was apparently okay by Dickens that Kate Horne got rid of her tyrant-husband; now he has no husband to deal with when he visits (p. 221). We hear how relieved Kate was. I suppose she had money of her own or got a decent income out of the husband. She was a strong type and maybe this is why Dickens admired her too.
To Dickens it was not okay for Christina Thompson to try to have a life of her own while with her husband. Oh no. She is to keep her children tidy first thing: this women’s “excitability” and “restlessness’ are a “disease.” She is not subordinating herself to husband and children. I notice the other Dickens brother, Fred, is separated from his wife too, Anna. So Charles’s behavior is not unusual for the family.
We see Catherine scurrying about, writing letters to people to get her brother a job from them. Wonderful these connections. Angela Coutts. The letter is interpreted as showing Catherine had her own relationship with one of these women. I see something different: she is using what Dickens gives her to further her family member’s advancement. This is the payment for her subservience and she does buy into it (p; 231)
Nayder is unusual (also?) in not dwelling at length on the separation or making it loom large in space: in a sense the book has been preparing for it since Catherine’s pregnancies and Dickens’s use of them to control her further began. It’s in the cards even if it was Dickens who called a halt to proceedings: we see early on not only his taking over her personality (as well as body) and her diminishment from this, but the near affairs (mesmerizing of other women, and then chasing after them) and now finally open affairs.
What precipitated the break was Dickens’s taking up with Ellen Ternan — and I suppose though the text doesn’t put it this way — his decision to take over Ellen’s personality and bring her under his control and he saw he couldn’t go this far. At the close of the chapter just before the break, we are told Catherine realizing an affair was going on began to protest, there were quarrels; this is when Dickens insisted she visit the Ternans to “show” all was legitimate and she agreed it was so, and she did, but they both knew better.
Dickens even bullied Catherine into visiting Ellen Ternan. This is edging to the practice of bringing your mistress to your house and table which in France at least was something a wife could bring into court to demand a divorce or separation.
We also see how he broke up the whole home, including sending away the sons. I felt as sorry for them as I do for Catherine. I realize that this level of people were the colonialists: Trollope sent one of his sons too. The fringe gentry who would not inherit big and hoped to gain big by going abroad to grab the land and its products in countries controlled by the British military. But Dickens had a good deal of money, far more than Mr Trollope and he could have tried to set the sons up in the UK. He wanted them out. The story of their leaving is pure pathos.
Catherine never saw Walter again (his eyes in his portrait look intently elusive). Dickens says how “manly” was Walter’s behavior. Right. Four were sent off to school — far away from where Dickens is again.
Charley did defy the father and openly side with the mother and stay with her.
Nowadays Dickens couldn’t get away with this. Catherine would have the right to equal share in the property, to equal right in what would happen to her children (clearly Dickens regards them as his appendages, symbols of his identity), and would not have been so humiliated and bereft. She could have carried on her life as mother, housekeeper, respectable and at long last independent householder. She was deprived of a life this way — he killed her in effect.
Having said this I am again struck by how she doesn’t protest and she does not publicize her side at all. That she tried to stay. It seems to me that one aspect of the tragedy of her life was she loved this man and was enthralled by him very strongly. It makes sense in that from his books you see what a power he was, what a genius, and she would have been influenced by the adulation everyone else, most of whom didn’t know him intimately, gave him. A couple of times I was startled by her abjection. I read as a living person and this book has wanted me to compare Catherine to myself as a woman. So here I do it again: I’ve never loved anyone sufficiently to allow anyone to do this to me. When I have come across men much admired or powerful, partly because I’m a strong sceptic, I’d say I saw through it to judge them on human qualities. She seems not to have been able to say to herself, what a bastard this man and turn around and tell everyone else and let him know it in no uncertain terms.
There was her weakness. She probably (foolish foolish woman) tried to hold onto him through the pregnancies. She had not the insight to see he would not take any kind of inward responsibilty for them, that he couldn’t give a shit about them as individuals for real — partly because of what his character clearly was and partly as his code of manliness (it didn’t do).
We get the story of Hans Christian Anderson’s visit – his lack of seeing what’s in front of him.
We do get in this chapter a couple of paragraph vignette of Dickens as sexual predator in the brothels of Paris. On a night after a dinner party Dickens describes where he stigmatized Catherine for overeating (he’s aware she’s overweight badly by now — partly from all the pregnancies), he goes to a brothel. He talks about the prostitutes in terms which signal his disdain and moral and physical superiority: “wicked, coldly calculating, or haggard and wretched” [which they clearly deserve]. But there is one he is attracted to. He looks for her. Not there in the house. So he’ll look about the streets for her: “I mean to walk about tonight …” p. 239) The great man.
For Catherine’s final years (Chapters 7 and 8 and Interlude III of Nayder’s biography), see comments.