Professor Lillian Nayder certainly gave an entertaining and informative talk on Catherine Dickens at the National Library in Canberra, helping to launch her new book The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth(Cornell University Press). I was pleased to enjoy it with fellow Sydney Dickensian Michelle Cavanagh and her husband.
As Michelle reported, the plight of women in the 19th century was often dismal and derided, their writing skills dismissed and put into place as having a ‘deficiency of subject’, an ‘ignorance of grammar’ and ‘bad handwriting’.
This was also the case for Catherine Dickens. And yet we can see from her letters and the diaries of family friends and the Hogarths in London – all well researched by Nayder – that they don’t, in fact, echo Dickens’ desperate attempts to render her invisible after their famous 1858 split. Instead, her letters portray her loving feelings to Dickens and their children, a nostalgia for the past, and attempts by her to recapture the past. She enjoyed hearing about her grandchildren, and asked after all her family fondly. Her well-written and well-penned letters portray her as a literate, interested and loving mother, seemingly far from the suggestion of having the ‘mental disorder’ or other shortfalls Dickens claimed she had.
Nayder therefore urges us to rethink the way we consider Catherine. A lot of the information about her has been drawn from statements Dickens made after their marriage split. These have been perpetually reported as fact by journalists. She suggests even recent biographies such as Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin fall into this way of regarding Catherine, presenting the marriage just as the novelist himself would have wanted it. Nayder suggests these negative statements about Catherine were all part of Dickens’ ploy to disregard her after their separation. He needed to justify his own actions and suit his own needs, not that of his wife.
Nayder suggests we should ‘celebrate’ Catherine and ‘do right by her’ in the 2012 bicentenary. We need to remember her as a great woman behind a great writer.
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