Charles Dickens is one of history’s most beloved authors. He enjoyed popularity during his lifetime, too, and regularly gave readings of stories to the public. When a new book was released in segments through the newspaper, people would wait anxiously for the next entry like we wait for TV shows with cliffhangers to return. Dickens was also very concerned about the conditions of the working poor and used books like Oliver Twist to draw attention to injustice. However, he has a skeleton in his closet.
Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth in 1836 and they had ten children together. However, after two decades of marriage, Dickens grew to despise his wife. His affections diverted to an 18-year old actress, Ellen Ternan. The Dickens’ marriage trouble was revealed in a letter by the author, where he claimed Catherine had suggested they live apart. He blamed a unspecified “mental disorder” and implied she was a bad mother. The letter was soon published, though scholars believe Dickens orchestrated the leak himself to try and justify his actions. It backfired.
The extent of Dickens’ behavior towards his wife has been unknown until now. Recently, a professor analyzed nearly 100 letters, realizing that there were not referenced anywhere else. These were brand-new to modern eyes. Written by Dickens’ friend and neighbor, they include a shocking revelation: Dickens tried to commit Catherine to a lunatic asylum. The neighbor got the information from Catherine herself, and because Catherine never shared details of her marriage’s breakdown and never sought attention, it’s highly unlikely she was lying.
Another event in Dickens’ life supports just how far he tried to go. After a long friendship Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke, a superintendent of an institute for the insane, Dickens suddenly turned on him and publicly insulted him. Did Dickens try to get his friend to lock Catherine up, earning Dr. Tuke’s outrage? It’s very possible. Having unwanted wives shipped off to insane asylums was sadly not that uncommon, and women had very few rights to protect themselves. Catherine Dickens may have escaped that fate, but her life was still thoroughly wrecked by a man who supposedly stood up for the oppressed.