Discovering a Meaningful Life

The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth

By Lillian Nayder

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011, 359pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Lisa Rodensky

The last five years have seen two outstanding Charles Dickens biographies: Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s Knowing Dickens (2007) and Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens (2009). Now Lillian Nayder’s excellent The Other Dickens breaks new ground in Victorian Studies by making Catherine, Charles Dickens’s wife, the center of a work that reconfigures the Dickens story so that it is as much hers as his—indeed, more hers than his, since wherever possible she shifts him to the margins.  Nayder aims both to correct injustices done to Catherine by Charles and many of his biographers (though not Bodenheimer or Slater) and more crucially, to revivify Catherine’s voice, to write her life from her own perspective.

Right off the bat, two complications threaten to upend this ambitious enterprise. Nayder faces up to them immediately. First, while many of Catherine’s letters survive, the letters to her husband do not (because he destroyed them); as a result her voice “can be reconstructed only from the letters she received from him,” explains Nayder.  Second, even in her extant letters (many of which Nayder rescues from obscurity), Catherine manifests her voicelessness. As Nayder notes, “From the earliest years of their marriage, Catherine gave precedence to Charles’s words over her own.” She censored herself, “producing gaps of her own in the biographical record.” On the one hand, the impulse driving the book is to recover Catherine as an individual in her own right. On the other, the book must (and does) demonstrate time and again the ways in which Charles turned Catherine’s voice against her (appropriating language from her letters to chastise her for objecting to his behavior, for instance) and the ways he and his Victorian culture denied its existence, even after his death.  How, then, does the biographer proceed?

Nayder negotiates these problems by acknowledging them—explaining, for instance, that she is committed to “[r]ecapturing Catherine Dickens’s voice as well as acknowledging her silences”—and then making the most of what there is.  To begin with, she does not concede that Catherine’s self-abnegation and the dullish politeness of her letters (particularly after her marriage) arise out of her innate limitations, as Charles and his followers contended.  This is a tricky business. The Catherine that emerges from Nayder’s meticulously researched biography is at once a victim (Charles left her for the eighteen-year old actress Ellen Ternan in 1858) and a substantial and capable person. Yet, do we find ourselves deeply intrigued by her, apart from her relationship to Charles? Do we long to read more of her letters? Well, no. Nor does Nayder seek to make that case.  Catherine Dickens is not an undiscovered genius. What this biography attests to is the meaningfulness of this Victorian woman’s life, not only in relation to the period’s greatest novelist but also in relation to their children, her sisters, and herself.  It’s not so unusual for biographies to show that great artists makes poor partners. But this biography does that and more: it brings the partner to life. The combined energies of Nayder’s critical reading and her skills as a storyteller and researcher make The Other Dickens a compelling work for both scholars and nonspecialists.

Catherine’s story begins in Edinburgh, where she was born to George and Georgina Hogarth, middle-class parents who encouraged their children’s independence—within limits. She was the oldest of ten children. For Nayder, Catherine’s years in Edinburgh establish her as a young woman with a lively intelligence who enjoyed close relationships with two of her sisters—and in this endeavor Nayder has some success, even as the letters with which she works don’t produce a strikingly original personality. Charles met George Hogarth (and thus Catherine) in 1834, after the Hogarths had moved to London, and George Hogarth became the musical and dramatic editor of the Morning Chronicle, to which Charles was a contributor.  Catherine married Charles on April 2, 1836, after which she made her way with him into their London life, taking her sister Mary with her.

Once Charles enters the scene, Nayder works to keep him from overwhelming the story—no small accomplishment.  She presents him as at once an essential figure and a threatening one, reminding us that Charles practiced mesmerism, including on his wife and others—particularly young women.  Describing Charles’s hypnotic powers as both “giving literal form to what we have seen of his influence over” Catherine and as a “fitting emblem for Catherine’s experience of coverture [the legal principle under which the wife’s identity was merged with the husband’s] during that period,” Nayder asks us to “resist Dickens’s magnetism.” While she sometimes overplays the mesmerism trope, the point is well taken. Charles Dickens is hard to resist: the power of his personality, when he enters the narrative, is unmistakable. Nayder overcomes the temptation herself by, for instance, saying very little about Charles’s creative work and zeroing in on his intense desire for dominance. He was a control-freak, as many Dickens scholars have remarked, including Nayder herself in her 2002 work Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship. Looking now at the relations between Charles and Catherine, Nayder vividly details how he absorbed Catherine and manipulated public perceptions of her and their marriage.

Nayder is at her best when she applies her estimable gifts as a literary close-reader to the Dickenses’ relationship.  Examining Charles’s letters to Catherine, particularly during their engagement, she exposes how he went about “authoring the terms of their marriage.” A central text for her argument is a May 1835 letter from Charles to Catherine in which he takes her to task for objecting to his neglect of her (buried as he was in his work) and for behaving “coldly” toward him.  Nayder’s analyses of the letter’s diction and syntax expose his deployment of his linguistic power over her. The letter testifies to Catherine’s early attempts to have some equality in their marriage, to Charles’s intention to be in charge, and to Nayder’s capacity to bring this dynamic to life for her readers.

At the center of Nayder’s argument (though its full discussion doesn’t happen until the book’s last quarter) is the breakdown of the Dickens marriage and the ensuing separation. Readers may know the broad outlines of the story: Charles met the actress Ellen Ternan in August 1857 and in the ensuing months began the process of separating from Catherine, first physically—he “made a point of dividing his bedroom from his wife’s,” says Nayder, in October 1857—and then legally.  By juxtaposing Charles’s treatment of Catherine pre- and post-Ellen, Nayder exposes his fraudulent justifications for the separation. These he produced both in private correspondence and in the so-called “violated” letter—a cover letter and enclosure that Charles invited the recipient (his lecture manager) to share with anyone who might believe what Charles claimed to be false rumors about him. The enclosure was soon published in various papers. The rumors Charles had in mind were those circulating about his relationship with Ellen Ternan, as well as those about his relationship with Catherine’s sister Georgina, who had lived with the Dickenses since 1842 and who remained with Charles until his death, after which she became a trustee and executor of his estate.

Among other things, Charles famously claimed that his marriage had been, from its very beginning, a miserable one and worse, that Catherine had been a neglectful mother “with such a peculiarity of . . . character” that she had “thrown all the children on someone else”—that is, Georgina. Nayder’s carefully adduced evidence proves that he was lying, perhaps to himself as much as to everyone else, but lying nonetheless. He went further still, announcing that

For some years past Mrs. Dickens has been in the habit of representing to me that it would be better for her to go away and live apart; that her always increasing estrangement made a mental disorder under which she sometimes labors—more, that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better far away.  I have uniformly replied that we must bear our misfortune, and fight the fight out to the end; that the children were the first consideration.

Putting himself in the position of the victim (as he often did), he delivers a triple-whammy to his powerless wife, implying that she was alienated, mentally ill, and weakly neglectful of her children. In an age before public relations agents or Twitter, he knew how to spin a story.

Nayder produces a counternarrative supported by a wealth of evidence that demonstrates Charles’s self-serving behavior.  Although Nayder isn’t the first scholar to challenge his version of events (in his important Dickens and Women [1983], Michael Slater mounts similar arguments, and Nayder gives him due credit), she is the first to expose him so fully, by bringing to bear the evidence of the intimacy between Charles and Catherine up to August 1857 as well as the close relationships among Catherine and her children, her servants, and her sisters.

I was struck particularly by Nayder’s discussion of Catherine’s ten pregnancies. In the chapter entitled “Fertility,” she offers a bar graph depicting the “estimated days pregnant and not per year, 1836-52.” This visual aid shows in no uncertain terms that this “miserable” couple had a lot of sex.  It also demonstrates how often Catherine would have been incapacitated by the challenges not only of pregnancy but of postpartum recovery. Nayder persuasively argues that whatever Catherine’s limitations as a life-partner, she managed effectively as a companion and hostess for Charles, notwithstanding the burdens of childbearing and -rearing. If she couldn’t walk as far or as fast as Charles, who could? His energy was unmatchable. I felt especially repulsed by those who remarked on Catherine’s increasing weight over the years: as punishment they (men and women alike) should try giving birth to ten children and then be forced to model string bikinis.

Unlike other Dickens biographers, Nayder attends to Catherine’s life after the separation and his death (he died in 1870, and she in 1879, of cervical cancer). The separation settlement allowed Catherine to live a respectable middle-class life, though without the luxuries (a carriage, for instance) that she had enjoyed with her husband.  Nayder engagingly demonstrates that these losses stimulated her strength of character: she learned how to take the omnibus, for example. Worse than the material deprivation, though, was being cut off from her family. She lost contact with her sister Georgina until after Charles’s death; and because Charles had fallen out with her parents and youngest sister Helen (who had had the temerity to suggest that Catherine had been wronged), he forbade the children from seeing their grandparents or aunt.

Nayder identifies Helen—an obscure figure up until this biography—as the heroine of the story. She stood up to Charles and stood by Catherine, no small feat, given his power.  Indeed, Nayder makes a significant contribution to scholarship by recovering the relationships among the four Hogarth sisters. In so doing, she offers a persuasive critique of other Dickensians who represent, Nayder says, “Hogarth women in relation to Dickens rather than in relation to each other, mistakenly casting them as competitors and seeing them exclusively through Dickens’s eyes.” She has done much to allow us to see through Catherine’s eyes.

Until her death, Catherine identified herself as “Mrs. Charles Dickens,” and continued to be one of her husband’s admirers.  And this explains the biography’s title. It claims for Catherine the right to the name, and why not? After all, it was her name for most of her life. At the same time, it defines her by her relation to him. We are left, then, with the ambivalence of the book’s title and subtitle:   she was Catherine Hogarth, but she also remains the marginal Dickens—the “other” one—and this carefully documented, engagingly written biography manages to do justice to both.

Lisa Rodensky is an associate professor of English at Wellesley College. She is currently at work on a book about Victorian novel reviews.


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