The Other Dickens – Michelle Cavanagh meets the author

As I walked into the beautiful foyer of the National Library of Australia (NLA) in Canberra the last person in the world I expected to see was a fellow NSW Dickens Society Member. But, like me, Malvina Yock was there to listen to Professor Lillian Nayder talk about her recent biography, The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth published by Cornell University Press.  And what an interesting talk it turned out to be.

Professor Lillian Nayder, who was introduced by Robin Oakes, spoke to a conference room full of people telling us that her research for the book had drawn on some material held at the NLA; letters from Catherine Hogarth to her son Alfred and daughter-in-law Jessie who live in Australia in the 1860s and 1870s. It soon became obvious that, prior to Nayder’s biography, nobody had really investigated Catherine Dickens nee Hogarth except through the eyes of her husband. Taking as her first example of this Nayder discussed a letter Catherine wrote to William Macready in September 1853 held in Yale University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The letter itself has not survived, all that remains is the envelope with a postscript written by Dickens on the inside flap which aimed to ‘improve’ on what Catherine had written. While we’ll never know what Catherine actually wrote Dickens effectively subverted his wife’s authority by defining her as he saw fit. Such text, and others which have similarly been ‘improved’ by Dickens, have been used by various biographers.

Amongst the many books written about Dickens Nayder mentioned Edgar Johnson’s Charles Dickens, his tragedy and triumph published in 1952 and Claire Tomalin’sCharles Dickens: A Life both of which are seen as pre-eminent works documenting the life of Charles Dickens. Both authors, Nayder feels, have judged Catherine on what Dickens wrote about her and not from the evidence which her letters have shown.

Nayder asserted that by Victorian standards Charles and Catherine, who married in 1836, had a happy marriage and by virtue of the fact that Catherine gave birth to ten children in their 22 years of marriage it cannot be said there was no love involved. Statements made by Dickens after the split were aimed at honouring his part in the marriage while claiming Catherine was an unfit wife and mother and that she laboured under a mental disorder; a plotline nearly as powerful as his stories. In an era when women had no custody rights under English law Catherine was powerless. Dickens also used two of Catherine’s three sisters against her which must have been doubly hurtful although the sisters did at least reconcile after his death. And, as Nayder pointed out, various family members contested his will.

Nevertheless, contrary to what many authors have written, many of the Dickens’s friends allied themselves with Catherine and not Dickens. Catherine went to the theatre, concerts and gave dinner parties after her move to 70 Gloucester Crescent where she lived with her eldest son Charley – while Dickens retained custody of the other children – from 1858 until her death in 1879.

Not only were letters from Catherine to her friends – many of which Nayder quoted –used to dispel the myths which Dickens created about the marriage she also researched material in Coutts Bank, trawling through all the cheques and bank statements which showed Catherine was indeed a good manager of her husbands finances. Although I have yet to read the book there is no doubt is is extremely well researched and will prove a fascinating read I’m sure.

There was a short question and answer section after the talk followed by a book signing in the NLA foyer which gave me the opportunity for a very brief chat with the author. I came away from Lillian Nayder’s talk with the thought that while the writings of Charles Dickens may have championed social justice in society on a personal level his values were really far more selfish. Nayder’s talk also gave me a deeper understanding of what life must have been like for women in the Victorian era.    Michelle Cavanagh

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