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The martyrdom of the forgotten wife of Charles Dickens

CATHERINE HOGRATH
Public Domain
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The story of the great British novelist's marriage to Catherine Hogarth is a tragedy.

Being the wife of one of the greatest writers in history can’t be easy, especially in the 19th century when women as such were already relegated to a secondary role.

There’s no denying that Charles Dickens wrote some of the most memorable Christmas stories, but the story of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth is more of a tragedy.

She was the daughter of his boss, and they met at her birthday party in 1835 when he was not yet a famous writer, but worked as a journalist.

A few months later, they married, and the next 15 years were, apparently, happy. This seems to be reflected especially in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, which he wrote two years after their marriage; in the book, the protagonist ends up happily married and welcoming the arrival of several children.

Their love seemed to grow year by year, and in fact, they were described as “a couple in love.” They had 10 children, they traveled, they held parties at their home to entertain friends … Everything seemed to be going wonderfully. And then, their relationship deteriorated, ending in a terrible and public legal separation in 1858 (something like the divorce of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, if we look for a modern-day example).

Public opinion was divided in two: those who were on “team Dickens” (the great majority, especially considering that he was already such a recognized author that even Queen Victoria read his works) and those who were against him, who argued that he had never allowed his wife to shine so that she wouldn’t detract from his own fame.

The fact is, Catherine was a talented actress (she even performed in the United States and Canada), a great cook, an excellent traveling partner according to Dickens himself, and also a writer.

She published a book called What Shall We Have for Dinner?, in which she gave advice for preparing dinner for from 2 to 18 people. Some people even dared to say that it was not she who had written it, but her husband—a theory that isn’t very credible for many experts, considering that in those days it was women writers who used male pseudonyms in order to be published, not the other way around.

Dickens asked her to move out, alleging that she had mental health problems. What’s more, he created an image of her—as influential as that of any of the characters in his stories—as a boring and depressed woman who could have a negative influence on his work.

Of course, this created many rumors in society, to the point where some people said that the problem was that she was an alcoholic, among many other things.

Historians agree that Catherine probably did, in fact, suffer from depression, but it was likely postpartum depression. Besides that, she suffered tragic losses, including that of her daughter Dora at the age of 8 months.

If to this we add the constant changes of residence, the stress of the long voyages (no longer for pleasure, but for Dickens’ work responsibilities; his friends even admitted in several letters that they thanked Catherine for traveling with him even though she didn’t want to), the pressure of being a great host at the never-ending dinners that she had to organize, the process of adapting to becoming the wife of a celebrity, and any other insecurity she might have had as a woman, of course there were all the ingredients for the atmosphere at home to be less than ideal.

What isn’t as well known is that Dickens had been very interested in one of Catherine’s younger sisters, Mary, whom he even invited to live with them shortly after their honeymoon.

Perhaps that is what inspired him to write The Battle of Life in 1846, a love story in which the protagonist is in love with two sisters (by coincidence?).

Mary died suddenly after living with them for a short time (it is thought that the cause was heart failure), and Dickens mourned her for years; she was the muse for many of his stories, and it’s even said that he wore a ring that had belonged to her.

But Catherine apparently learned to live with the ghost of her sister (they even named one of their daughters Mary in her honor), perhaps because she never saw (or wanted to see) their relationship as a romantic one, as she did years later, right before she and Dickens separated.

The writer then met an actress named Ellen Ternan (who was more than 20 years younger than him, and who became the protagonist of many of his works) right when the problems in his marriage were more than evident in the letters that both he and Catherine wrote to their respective families and friends.

According to writer Gladys Storey, her friend, Dickens’ third daughter Kate, told her that she had seen her mother cry, and that once a bracelet destined for Ternan had been sent to the house by mistake, and Catherine had accused Charles of having a love affair with her.

Dickens denied all accusations of adultery (which was a cause for divorce under a new British law of 1857), alleging that he always sent gifts to his favorite actors and actresses. He used these accusations as another reason why he couldn’t continue to live under the same roof as his wife.

Why not get a divorce? Probably because in the Victorian period divorce was socially unacceptable, and a public figure of his caliber couldn’t allow himself to have that kind of reputation — which is absurd, considering that everyone knew they were separated, but it was one of those things of the past that are hard for us to understand … although they continue to happen.

Dickens retained custody of all his children except the eldest, who went to live with Catherine, and he reached a legal and financial agreement with his estranged wife. Hogarth continued attending the theater (one of her favorite activities) but no longer with the status or the fame that she had attracted when she had arrived arm-in-arm with the man who had been her life companion for more than two decades.

Although their children weren’t forbidden to visit her, they saw her very little until their father died. They were raised by Catherine’s sister Georgina, who had moved in with Dickens family to that end many years before, although there were unsubstantiated rumors that there was more to their relationship.

When Catherine died from cancer in 1879 (nearly a decade after Dickens), she gave her daughter Kate several letters that Dickens had written her in the past, so that she could donate them to the British Museum, and the world would thus know that Charles Dickens had once truly loved her. Currently, those letters are divided between that museum and the New York Public Library.

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