Over the years, there has been a tendency to view Charles Dickens’ wife, Catherine, as a victim. There’s the version of accounts with which we’re all familiar: submissive Victorian wife, bearer of their ten children, unhappy divorce, rumours of mental instability…
Dickens, of course, was the first-ever “celebrity” that this country ever produced – the David Beckham of his day, unbelievable though it may seem now (I was going to describe him as the Kim Kardashian of his day, but can’t imagine he would have thanked me for that). He was – is – a literary genius as well as a fervent advocate of social reform and his legacy lives on to this day – tomorrow night, I’m going to a production of ‘A Christmas Carol, taking place at the British Museum, and I can’t wait.
We have much to thank Dickens for. And yet; and yet. Why did he treat his wife so badly? He and Catherine were married for 22 years – happily so, according to many sources; they travelled the world together, enjoyed a mutual love of literature and theatre, took part in amateur dramatics and created a loving family environment for their children. Despite all of that, when Dickens left Catherine he began an immediate whispering campaign about her supposed mental fragility and unfitness as a mother, one which persisted for many years after his death.
Thank goodness, then, for the Charles Dickens Museum’s ‘Discovering Catherine’ exhibition, which sets out to portray a much more balanced version of the woman who was, ultimately, the love of Dickens’ life. I went to see it today and came away feeling that I had a much greater understanding of Catherine as an individual and as a woman. This is not, by any means, a feeble or weak human being. Yes, she was devastated when Dickens told her he was leaving her. No, she didn’t want them to divorce – but, this being Victorian times, she had no say in the matter. And yes, it took her a long time – unsurprisingly – to recover from the emotional wounds that Dickens inflicted upon her. How could it be otherwise, when he forbade their children from seeing their maternal grandparents and aunts and spread rumours that Catherine was an unfit mother?
There was so much more to Catherine, though – as we learn through this exhibition, which includes her jewellery, letters and first edition copies of her book. She was a pianist, accomplished cook, published author, generous hostess, avid reader, inveterate letter writer, loving wife, skilled seamstress…and her children, and grandchildren, adored her. The kind of woman you would have wanted as a friend, basically.
A final word, about the Charles Dickens Museum itself: if you haven’t visited 48 Doughty Street yet, please do find the time to do so. This tall, narrow house in Bloomsbury is the only remaining house in London of Charles Dickens; it’s where he and Catherine began married life, where two of their children were born and where many of the family’s personal items remain (I have an especial soft spot for the samovar, from which the family served tea). It’s also where Dickens wrote a number of his novels, including ‘Oliver Twist’.