Friday, January 28, 2011

"...that the world may know he loved me once."

Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature has two hilarious posts--guides, really--about reading the classics, located here and here. Her first step is to "become besties with the author. Bffs even." I just started reading Great Expectations, and I dutifully followed the tips.

The world knows Charles Dickens as the popular writer of classics like A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and more. The world, however, is mostly unaware that Dickens was part of a love triangle between his wife, Catherine, and the woman he left her for.


Charlie, you saucy little minx.

I knew all about the time he spent working in factories as a child, but, not to sound gossipy or anything, I find this particular aspect of his life fascinating. And I'm not even being sarcastic. It just shows that the writer most people nowadays consider too highbrow, and, God forbid, even boring led a very dramatic life, one that could rival the plots of his novels.

This is his wife Catherine. She was the eldest daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle where Dickens worked as a young journalist. They had ten children together, but, over the years, Dickens started blaming her for having the said ten children who were proving to be too expensive to feed, care for, send to school, etc, etc.


And, in the red corner wearing a lovely silk gown (sorry, got carried away), we have the other woman, Ellen Ternan. Dickens met her when he was forty-five, and she was eighteen. He saw her performing at Haymarket Theatre, and decided to cast her in The Frozen Deep, a play written by his protege Wilkie Collins. In contrast to the motherly Catherine, Ellen must have seemed vibrant, not to mention youthful. She was, after all, about twenty years younger than Catherine.


Things came to a head in May 1858 after Catherine accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ellen. This, my friends, is what I mean by dramatic. She received a bracelet meant for her husband's mistress! It almost sounds like something from a soap opera.

But I do genuinely feel sorry for Catherine. She was forced to move out of the house she shared with Dickens, and leave her children behind. Her own sister, Georgina, even sided with Dickens. Ouch. On her deathbed, she gave her collection of letters from Dickens to her daughter Kate so that "the world may know he loved her once."

That almost makes me want to cry.

And people say classics are boring.

Bah, I say. Bah!

17 comments:

Kristi said...

He was a saucy little minx. I had no idea. I've never read anything about Charles Dickens, despite reading and enjoying several of his books. Naughty me. Thanks for sharing. I agree that insights into the author quite often aid understanding their work.

Jenny O. said...

Just finished reading Drood, which discusses all this, from the point of view of Wilkie Collins. There is also "The Girl in the Blue Dress." which is written in the point of view of Catherine, beginning on the day of Dickens' funeral. This is all fascinating information that one doesn't learn in high school, when being forced to read A Tale of Two Cities...a juicy story attracts more bees, for sure.

Red said...

I knew a little bit about Dickens having a mistress but didn't know the details. I went from "Dickens, you dog you" down to "Dickens, you're an ass" after the whole blame Catherine for having the kids then take them away from her bit. It does give a different edge to his work. I feel like I should pick up some Dickens now.

Jillian said...

That is fascinating!! You know, there's a whole book about this Dickens affair scandal by Clair Tomalin. I may have to read it.

(Thanks for sharing those Dead White Guys links. Iead. Appreciate it!)

S.L. Bookworm said...

That is heartbreaking.

People who say history is boring just don't realize that human nature is exactly the same in every age. Only the tools and ways of expressing things change. Some nasty letters would be extremely familiar to the bloggers of today...Anything but dull!

Avid Reader said...

When I was living in London I had a chance to visit the Charles Dickens House Museum and the guide talked quite a bit about this. I was so surprised! We tend to assume classic writers were saints just because they lived centuries before us, but how much more interesting are their real lives!

Jenny O. said...

That, paired with the fact that he was no longer attracted to Catherine, who had gained a substantial amount of weight, justified Dickens actions to at least himself. Ten children, and then tossed out like an old, threadbare rug.

Carey said...

Great post!! I actually did choke up a little when I got to the part about Catherine giving her letters from Dickens to Kate so that "the world [would] know he loved her once." Such a beautiful line. Thanks for sharing!!

Allie said...

Wow! I didn't know that either! And I pride myself about knowing a bit about these guys! It goes to show you that you never know what went on in an author's head before they put pen to paper!

Read the Book said...

Dickens, Dickens, Dickens, Dickens, Dickens, I LOVE DICKENS!!!! I loved this post. The end.

mel u said...

I have read the Claire Tomalin book also-parts of it are a bit speculative but for sure it is worth reading-I am going to try to post on Dickens on Feb 7 in honor of his 200th birthday-

JessiKay89 said...

Wow! I didn't know this about Dickens. Very interesting post :)

Emilee said...

Thanks for sharing that. I've read some Dickens, and am currently slogging my way through Great Expectations, but I knew almost nothing of his personal life. When I read Dickens I like to remember that most of his books were printed in serial form and the settlers in America couldn't wait to get their hands on the next installment.

Erin said...

I didn't know any of this, including that Wilkie Collins was Dickens' protege!

LifetimeReader said...

Wow. You've absolutely right that knowing about the author can expand our understanding of the context in which their works were produced. This particular story is so upsetting. Makes me want to pick up more and more bios of authors.

alexandra george said...

wow!!! I was just blown away by this story, you are right, his life was more interesting than his stories, or at least just as interesting....
I seriously love this blog, you have so many amazing thoughts here. I will ad it to my favourites bar so that I cah check it out every day. thanks for posting this
have a nice day
xoxo

Anonymous said...

Reflecting on Dickens' relationship with Ellen Ternan adds much to your study of his life and enjoyment of his works. He was discreet about the affair out of concern for his image in the Victorian Era and potential impacts to his literary and commercial success, revealing a great deal about his human nature and personality. She was also generally secretive about it but (gossip though it may be) is alleged to have said in later life "I so loathed the old man's touch". Speaking of secrets, imagine Miss Ternan mourning his death for some time, passing herself off as a 23 year old at 36, marrying a 24 year old clergyman, and living out her life in Victorian respectability. Discovering after her death that she was older than known and had been an actress, her son burned her papers. A web search will turn up photos of her at various ages, and even the grave to which she took her secrets. Likewise, of course, for Mr. Dickens, adding color to our considerations. It really is a shame that so much of Dickens’ papers were deliberately destroyed by him and others. Deprived of the sweet details in their own words, the whole truth regarding their feelings and motivations will forever remain a mystery. So, we pursue our reveries and console ourselves that the mysterious is yet more delicious than the known.

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