Catherine Dickens is far less known than her legendary husband, Charles.
When you think about Victorian novels, his name is the first one to pop up.
But the story of Mrs. Dickens’ life is very much like a novel itself.
A woman of many talents, a devoted wife and mother of 10, she made a desperate move and
divorced her husband.
For many years Dickens’ biographers treated her as foolish and impulsive, but it’s high
time you knew the truth about her!
The Dickens you say?
Well, I’m about to…
Catherine Hogarth was born in Scotland in May, 1815.
She was the first of 10 children brought up in a good, intelligent family.
Her father, George Hogarth, was a musical critic and a journalist.
In 1830, the Hogarths moved to London, where 5 years later, George got the position of
editor of The Evening Chronicle, where he became acquainted with Charles Dickens.
He gave the young and talented writer a job in his newspaper.
Hogarth also invited Dickens to his home in Kensington, where he met 19-year-old Catherine.
She was a smart and beautiful young woman, and Dickens liked her at once.
Charles was dreaming of a loving, close-knit family and Catherine was perfect for the role
of a good housewife, a thoughtful mother and an intelligent friend.
Charles invited Catherine to celebrate his 23rd birthday.
After that, she started liking him too and soon agreed to marry him.
A year later they got married and were happy – just like all newly-weds are.
They were young, free and joyful.
No domestic or financial problems would distract them from enjoying each other.
They would go to theaters and parties.
Charles called Catherine his “best half”, “wifey” and “Mrs. D.”
He wrote in his diary that he would never be as happy as in their small flat on the
2nd floor, even if he became rich and famous.
9 months after the wedding, in 1837, the Dickens had their first-born – Charles Jr. Catherine
was sick and could hardly breastfeed her baby, which caused her to struggle with postpartum
Charles tried to support his wife and was happy to have an heir.
But Catherine was afraid that her son wouldn’t love her because she didn’t nurse him herself.
Later, Catherine had 3 more children.
Before the birth of their 5th child, the couple visited America.
Dickens had had huge success there; his novels immediately became bestsellers.
But he didn’t get paid for any of them because of the tricky copyright rules.
So he had to travel across the Atlantic to settle that matter.
Charles and Catherine traveled on a ship that hardly made it to the US: they met several
harsh storms, a fire on board, and the ship ran aground when they came to Nova Scotia.
Though the journey was full of hardships, Catherine stayed cheerful and persevering.
Charles wrote to his friend that she had never lost courage or felt gloomy.
She adapted to any circumstances without complaint.
Catherine was not only a brave traveler, but a good actress, an excellent cook and even
She acted in Charles’ amateur plays and wrote and published a cookbook, What Shall
we Have for Dinner?
The book had a lot of menus for complex and simple meals, recipes and advice on housekeeping
for young wives.
The book was a bestseller and was re-edited several times until 1860.
What could go wrong for a happy family blessed with so many talents?
Well, when Catherine gave birth to their 5th child, Charles was no longer happy about having
a large family.
For the first time, he complained about having so many children.
He wrote in his diary that he was hoping to not have any more.
But life doesn’t always go how you hope it will: within 15 years, Catherine had given
birth to a total of 10 children and had 2 miscarriages.
No wonder she was under so much stress and looked nothing like the young and pretty woman
Charles blamed Catherine that they had so many children.
After all, she came from a huge family too.
His best half was getting more and more on his nerves.
Finally, Charles concluded that they weren’t made for each other.
He would tell his friends that his wife was cold and apathetic.
Too stout, too plain.
Too nervous, too possessive.
And yes, she was always crying and was a bad mother.
After the birth of their youngest son, Charles saw to it that they had no more children.
He ordered their bedroom to be divided and put bookshelves in the hallway.
Soon after that, in spring, 1858, a fatal mistake put an end to the Dickens’ marriage.
A bracelet that Charles had bought for a young 18-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, was delivered
to their house instead.
The postman mixed up the address and Catherine immediately knew that her suspicions were
She confronted Charles, but instead of apologizing, he said that it was quite common for him to
give small presents to actors who took part in his plays.
Why would his dear wifey be mad?
Charles insisted that Catherine should go to Ellen, give her the bracelet and apologize
for her insulting behavior.
Catherine had had enough.
She left Charles forever.
Later it became clear that Dickens had met Ellen a year before that and had rented an
apartment for her, her mother and her sisters.
The actress accompanied him everywhere, though there was no romantic relationship between
them at the time.
Charles officially announced his divorce in 1858.
In a family magazine “The Household Worlds” he addressed the readers, explaining that
he’d come to a friendly agreement with his ex-wife.
The thing is that the Victorians treated marriage as something that couldn’t be broken.
But if it did happen, a woman had no rights.
That’s why it was only the eldest son Charles Jr. who left the family house together with
According to the laws of that time, all the other children had to stay with their father.
Dickens didn’t approve of the meetings with their mother.
Though he wouldn’t openly forbid them, he insisted that both daughters didn’t invite
Catherine to their weddings.
They also didn’t tell her about her 4th son, Walter, passing away.
The society condemned Catherine and considered her unworthy of her famous genius husband.
How can one love a plain woman who doesn’t look after herself, is always in a bad mood
and doesn’t want to live up to her husband’s demands?
A genius has a right to choose someone better, doesn’t he?
There were few people who felt sorry for Catherine: after everything she went through, she could
hardly stay healthy, pretty and cheerful.
Kate, the second daughter, wrote that there wasn’t anything awful about her mother.
She had faults like all humans, but she was also a kind person and a true lady.
She’d been afraid of her husband and had no right to speak up or talk about her feelings
when they were together.
Catherine lived alone till the end of her life.
She outlived Charles by 9 years and passed away in 1879.
Before her death, she gave her correspondence with him to Kate and asked her to pass it
on to the British museum – so that the world would know that he’d loved her once.
She was buried in the Highgate Cemetery in London, close to her daughter, Dora.
It was only 139 years after Catherine’s death, in 2016, that her great-great-great-granddaughter
Lucinda Hawksley, who is an author and lecturer herself, defended her.
She said that Dickens' biographers hadn't done justice to the woman who was a good wife
and mother but had a very uneasy life with Charles.
They lived many happy years together, but the burden of housekeeping and multiple pregnancies
did little good to Catherine while huge literary fame changed Charles for the worse.
Another proof of that is the correspondence found in 2014 by professor John Bowen.
He works at the University of York and specializes in 19th-century fiction.
The discovered letters show that before getting an official divorce, Charles tried to institutionalize
his wife based on a fake diagnosis.
He tried to convince a doctor to declare Catherine insane.
Fortunately, he never succeeded with his plan, and while she was blamed for the end of their
marriage, she can at least rest in peace now, knowing the truth behind it all finally came
Do you feel sorry for Catherine or do you think Charles Dickens deserved a better wife?
Let me know down in the comments!
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