The Mystery Of Charles Dickens
Perhaps no public man in the English-speaking world, in the last
century, was so widely and intimately known as Charles Dickens. From
his eighteenth year, when he won his first success in journalism, down
through his series of brilliant triumphs in fiction, he was more and
more a conspicuous figure, living in the blaze of an intense publicity.
He met every one and knew every one, and was the companion of every
an and woman. He loved to frequent the "caves of harmony" which
Thackeray has immortalized, and he was a member of all the best Bohemian
clubs of London. Actors, authors, good fellows generally, were his
intimate friends, and his acquaintance extended far beyond into the
homes of merchants and lawyers and the mansions of the proudest nobles.
Indeed, he seemed to be almost a universal friend.
One remembers, for instance, how he was called in to arbitrate between
Thackeray and George Augustus Sala, who had quarreled. One remembers how
Lord Byron's daughter, Lady Lovelace, when upon her sick-bed, used to
send for Dickens because there was something in his genial, sympathetic
manner that soothed her. Crushing pieces of ice between her teeth in
agony, she would speak to him and he would answer her in his rich, manly
tones until she was comforted and felt able to endure more hours of pain
Dickens was a jovial soul. His books fairly steam with Christmas cheer
and hot punch and the savor of plum puddings, very much as do his
letters to his intimate friends. Everybody knew Dickens. He could
not dine in public without attracting attention. When he left the
dining-room, his admirers would descend upon his table and carry off
egg-shells, orange-peels, and other things that remained behind, so that
they might have memorials of this much-loved writer. Those who knew him
only by sight would often stop him in the streets and ask the
privilege of shaking hands with him; so different was he from--let us
say--Tennyson, who was as great an Englishman in his way as Dickens, but
who kept himself aloof and saw few strangers.
It is hard to associate anything like mystery with Dickens, though
he was fond of mystery as an intellectual diversion, and his last
unfinished novel was The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Moreover, no one
admired more than he those complex plots which Wilkie Collins used
to weave under the influence of laudanum. But as for his own life, it
seemed so normal, so free from anything approaching mystery, that we can
scarcely believe it to have been tinged with darker colors than those
which appeared upon the surface.
A part of this mystery is plain enough. The other part is still
obscure--or of such a character that one does not care to bring it
wholly to the light. It had to do with his various relations with women.
The world at large thinks that it knows this chapter in the life of
Dickens, and that it refers wholly to his unfortunate disagreement with
his wife. To be sure, this is a chapter that is writ large in all of his
biographies, and yet it is nowhere correctly told. His chosen biographer
was John Forster, whose Life of Charles Dickens, in three volumes,
must remain a standard work; but even Forster--we may assume through
tact--has not set down all that he could, although he gives a clue.
As is well known, Dickens married Miss Catherine Hogarth when he
was only twenty-four. He had just published his Sketches by Boz, the
copyright of which he sold for one hundred pounds, and was beginning the
Pickwick Papers. About this time his publisher brought N. P. Willis
down to Furnival's Inn to see the man whom Willis called "a young
paragraphist for the Morning Chronicle." Willis thus sketches Dickens
and his surroundings:
In the most crowded part of Holborn, within a door or two of the Bull
and Mouth Inn, we pulled up at the entrance of a large building used
for lawyers' chambers. I followed by a long flight of stairs to an upper
story, and was ushered into an uncarpeted and bleak-looking room, with
a deal table, two or three chairs and a few books, a small boy and Mr.
Dickens for the contents.
I was only struck at first with one thing--and I made a memorandum of
it that evening as the strongest instance I had seen of English
obsequiousness to employers--the degree to which the poor author was
overpowered with the honor of his publisher's visit! I remember saying
to myself, as I sat down on a rickety chair:
"My good fellow, if you were in America with that fine face and
your ready quill, you would have no need to be condescended to by a
Dickens was dressed very much as he has since described Dick Swiveller,
minus the swell look. His hair was cropped close to his head, his
clothes scant, though jauntily cut, and, after changing a ragged
office-coat for a shabby blue, he stood by the door, collarless and
buttoned up, the very personification of a close sailer to the wind.
Before this interview with Willis, which Dickens always repudiated, he
had become something of a celebrity among the newspaper men with whom he
worked as a stenographer. As every one knows, he had had a hard time in
his early years, working in a blacking-shop, and feeling too keenly the
ignominious position of which a less sensitive boy would probably have
thought nothing. Then he became a shorthand reporter, and was busy at
his work, so that he had little time for amusements.
It has been generally supposed that no love-affair entered his life
until he met Catherine Hogarth, whom he married soon after making her
acquaintance. People who are eager at ferreting out unimportant facts
about important men had unanimously come to the conclusion that up to
the age of twenty Dickens was entirely fancy-free. It was left to an
American to disclose the fact that this was not the case, but that even
in his teens he had been captivated by a girl of about his own age.
Inasmuch as the only reproach that was ever made against Dickens was
based upon his love-affairs, let us go back and trace them from this
early one to the very last, which must yet for some years, at least,
remain a mystery.
Everything that is known about his first affair is contained in a book
very beautifully printed, but inaccessible to most readers. Some years
ago Mr. William K. Bixby, of St. Louis, found in London a collector of
curios. This man had in his stock a number of letters which had passed
between a Miss Maria Beadnell and Charles Dickens when the two were
about nineteen and a second package of letters representing a later
acquaintance, about 1855, at which time Miss Beadnell had been married
for a long time to a Mr. Henry Louis Winter, of 12 Artillery Place,
The copyright laws of Great Britain would not allow Mr. Bixby to publish
the letters in that country, and he did not care to give them to the
public here. Therefore, he presented them to the Bibliophile Society,
with the understanding that four hundred and ninety-three copies, with
the Bibliophile book-plate, were to be printed and distributed among
the members of the society. A few additional copies were struck off,
but these did not bear the Bibliophile book-plate. Only two copies are
available for other readers, and to peruse these it is necessary to
visit the Congressional Library in Washington, where they were placed on
July 24, 1908.
These letters form two series--the first written to Miss Beadnell in
or about 1829, and the second written to Mrs. Winter, formerly Miss
Beadnell, in 1855.
The book also contains an introduction by Henry H. Harper, who sets
forth some theories which the facts, in my opinion, do not support;
and there are a number of interesting portraits, especially one of Miss
Beadnell in 1829--a lovely girl with dark curls. Another shows her in
1855, when she writes of herself as "old and fat"--thereby doing herself
a great deal of injustice; for although she had lost her youthful
beauty, she was a very presentable woman of middle age, but one who
would not be particularly noticed in any company.
Summing up briefly these different letters, it may be said that in
the first set Dickens wrote to the lady ardently, but by no means
passionately. From what he says it is plain enough that she did not
respond to his feeling, and that presently she left London and went to
Paris, for her family was well-to-do, while Dickens was living from hand
In the second set of letters, written long afterward, Mrs. Winter seems
to have "set her cap" at the now famous author; but at that time he was
courted by every one, and had long ago forgotten the lady who had so
easily dismissed him in his younger days. In 1855, Mrs. Winter seems to
have reproached him for not having been more constant in the past; but
You answered me coldly and reproachfully, and so I went my way.
Mr. Harper, in his introduction, tries very hard to prove that in
writing David Copperfield Dickens drew the character of Dora from Miss
Beadnell. It is a dangerous thing to say from whom any character in
a novel is drawn. An author takes whatever suits his purpose in
circumstance and fancy, and blends them all into one consistent whole,
which is not to be identified with any individual. There is little
reason to think that the most intimate friends of Dickens and of his
family were mistaken through all the years when they were certain that
the boy husband and the girl wife of David Copperfield were suggested by
any one save Dickens himself and Catherine Hogarth.
Why should he have gone back to a mere passing fancy, to a girl who
did not care for him, and who had no influence on his life, instead
of picturing, as David's first wife, one whom he deeply loved, whom he
married, who was the mother of his children, and who made a great part
of his career, even that part which was inwardly half tragic and wholly
Miss Beadnell may have been the original of Flora in Little Dorrit,
though even this is doubtful. The character was at the time ascribed
to a Miss Anna Maria Leigh, whom Dickens sometimes flirted with and
When Dickens came to know George Hogarth, who was one of his
colleagues on the staff of the Morning Chronicle, he met Hogarth's
daughters--Catherine, Georgina, and Mary--and at once fell ardently in
love with Catherine, the eldest and prettiest of the three. He himself
was almost girlish, with his fair complexion and light, wavy hair, so
that the famous sketch by Maclise has a remarkable charm; yet nobody
could really say with truth that any one of the three girls was
beautiful. Georgina Hogarth, however, was sweet-tempered and of a
motherly disposition. It may be that in a fashion she loved Dickens
all her life, as she remained with him after he parted from her sister,
taking the utmost care of his children, and looking out with unselfish
fidelity for his many needs.
It was Mary, however, the youngest of the Hogarths, who lived with the
Dickenses during the first twelvemonth of their married life. To Dickens
she was like a favorite sister, and when she died very suddenly, in her
eighteenth year, her loss was a great shock to him.
It was believed for a long time--in fact, until their separation--that
Dickens and his wife were extremely happy in their home life. His
writings glorified all that was domestic, and paid many tender tributes
to the joys of family affection. When the separation came the whole
world was shocked. And yet rather early in Dickens's married life there
was more or less infelicity. In his Retrospections of an Active Life,
Mr. John Bigelow writes a few sentences which are interesting for their
frankness, and which give us certain hints:
Mrs. Dickens was not a handsome woman, though stout, hearty, and
matronly; there was something a little doubtful about her eye, and
I thought her endowed with a temper that might be very violent when
roused, though not easily rousable. Mrs. Caulfield told me that a
Miss Teman--I think that is the name--was the source of the difficulty
between Mrs. Dickens and her husband. She played in private theatricals
with Dickens, and he sent her a portrait in a brooch, which met with
an accident requiring it to be sent to the jeweler's to be mended. The
jeweler, noticing Mr. Dickens's initials, sent it to his house. Mrs.
Dickens's sister, who had always been in love with him and was jealous
of Miss Teman, told Mrs. Dickens of the brooch, and she mounted her
husband with comb and brush. This, no doubt, was Mrs. Dickens's version,
in the main.
A few evenings later I saw Miss Teman at the Haymarket Theatre, playing
with Buckstone and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mathews. She seemed rather a
small cause for such a serious result--passably pretty, and not much of
Here in one passage we have an intimation that Mrs. Dickens had a
temper that was easily roused, that Dickens himself was interested in
an actress, and that Miss Hogarth "had always been in love with him, and
was jealous of Miss Teman."
Some years before this time, however, there had been growing in the mind
of Dickens a certain formless discontent--something to which he could
not give a name, yet which, cast over him the shadow of disappointment.
He expressed the same feeling in David Copperfield, when he spoke of
David's life with Dora. It seemed to come from the fact that he had
grown to be a man, while his wife had still remained a child.
A passage or two may be quoted from the novel, so that we may set them
beside passages in Dickens's own life, which we know to have referred to
his own wife, and not to any such nebulous person as Mrs. Winter.
The shadow I have mentioned that was not to be between us any more,
but was to rest wholly on my heart--how did that fall? The old unhappy
feeling pervaded my life. It was deepened, if it were changed at all;
but it was as undefined as ever, and addressed me like a strain of
sorrowful music faintly heard in the night. I loved my wife dearly; but
the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I
enjoyed, AND THERE WAS ALWAYS SOMETHING WANTING.
What I missed I still regarded as something that had been a dream of
my youthful fancy; that was incapable of realization; that I was now
discovering to be so, with some natural pain, as all men did. But that
it would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more,
and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner, and that this
might have been I knew.
What I am describing slumbered and half awoke and slept again in the
innermost recesses of my mind. There was no evidence of it to me; I knew
of no influence it had in anything I said or did. I bore the weight of
all our little cares and all my projects.
"There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and
purpose." These words I remembered. I had endeavored to adapt Dora to
myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to adapt myself
to Dora; to share with her what I could, and be happy; to bear on my own
shoulders what I must, and be still happy.
Thus wrote Dickens in his fictitious character, and of his fictitious
wife. Let us see how he wrote and how he acted in his own person, and of
his real wife.
As early as 1856, he showed a curious and restless activity, as of one
who was trying to rid himself of unpleasant thoughts. Mr. Forster
says that he began to feel a strain upon his invention, a certain
disquietude, and a necessity for jotting down memoranda in note-books,
so as to assist his memory and his imagination. He began to long
for solitude. He would take long, aimless rambles into the country,
returning at no particular time or season. He once wrote to Forster:
I have had dreadful thoughts of getting away somewhere altogether by
myself. If I could have managed it, I think I might have gone to the
Pyrenees for six months. I have visions of living for half a year or so
in all sorts of inaccessible places, and of opening a new book therein.
A floating idea of going up above the snow-line, and living in some
astonishing convent, hovers over me.
What do these cryptic utterances mean? At first, both in his novel and
in his letters, they are obscure; but before long, in each, they become
very definite. In 1856, we find these sentences among his letters:
The old days--the old days! Shall I ever, I wonder, get the frame of
mind back as it used to be then? Something of it, perhaps, but never
quite as it used to be.
I find that the skeleton in my domestic closet is becoming a pretty big
His next letter draws the veil and shows plainly what he means:
Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help
for it. It is not only that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that
I make her so, too--and much more so. We are strangely ill-assorted for
the bond that exists between us.
Then he goes on to say that she would have been a thousand times happier
if she had been married to another man. He speaks of "incompatibility,"
and a "difference of temperaments." In fact, it is the same old story
with which we have become so familiar, and which is both as old as the
hills and as new as this morning's newspaper.
Naturally, also, things grow worse, rather than better. Dickens comes to
speak half jocularly of "the plunge," and calculates as to what effect
it will have on his public readings. He kept back the announcement of
"the plunge" until after he had given several readings; then, on April
29, 1858, Mrs. Dickens left his home. His eldest son went to live with
the mother, but the rest of the children remained with their father,
while his daughter Mary nominally presided over the house. In the
background, however, Georgina Hogarth, who seemed all through her life
to have cared for Dickens more than for her sister, remained as a sort
of guide and guardian for his children.
This arrangement was a private matter, and should not have been brought
to public attention; but it was impossible to suppress all gossip about
so prominent a man. Much of the gossip was exaggerated; and when it came
to the notice of Dickens it stung him so severely as to lead him into
issuing a public justification of his course. He published a
statement in Household Words, which led to many other letters in other
periodicals, and finally a long one from him, which was printed in the
New York Tribune, addressed to his friend Mr. Arthur Smith.
Dickens afterward declared that he had written this letter as a strictly
personal and private one, in order to correct false rumors and scandals.
Mr. Smith naturally thought that the statement was intended for
publication, but Dickens always spoke of it as "the violated letter."
By his allusions to a difference of temperament and to incompatibility,
Dickens no doubt meant that his wife had ceased to be to him the same
companion that she had been in days gone by. As in so many cases, she
had not changed, while he had. He had grown out of the sphere in which
he had been born, "associated with blacking-boys and quilt-printers,"
and had become one of the great men of his time, whose genius was
Mr. Bigelow saw Mrs. Dickens as she really was--a commonplace woman
endowed with the temper of a vixen, and disposed to outbursts of actual
violence when her jealousy was roused.
It was impossible that the two could have remained together, when in
intellect and sympathy they were so far apart. There is nothing strange
about their separation, except the exceedingly bad taste with which
Dickens made it a public affair. It is safe to assume that he felt the
need of a different mate; and that he found one is evident enough from
the hints and bits of innuendo that are found in the writings of his
He became a pleasure-lover; but more than that, he needed one who could
understand his moods and match them, one who could please his tastes,
and one who could give him that admiration which he felt to be his due;
for he was always anxious to be praised, and his letters are full of
anecdotes relating to his love of praise.
One does not wish to follow out these clues too closely. It is certain
that neither Miss Beadnell as a girl nor Mrs. Winter as a matron made
any serious appeal to him. The actresses who have been often mentioned
in connection with his name were, for the most part, mere passing
favorites. The woman who in life was Dora made him feel the same
incompleteness that he has described in his best-known book. The
companion to whom he clung in his later years was neither a light-minded
creature like Miss Beadnell, nor an undeveloped, high-tempered woman
like the one he married, nor a mere domestic, friendly creature like
Ought we to venture upon a quest which shall solve this mystery in the
life of Charles Dickens! In his last will and testament, drawn up and
signed by him about a year before his death, the first paragraph reads
I, Charles Dickens, of Gadshill Place, Higham, in the county of Kent,
hereby revoke all my former wills and codicils and declare this to be my
last will and testament. I give the sum of one thousand pounds, free
of legacy duty, to Miss Ellen Lawless Ternan, late of Houghton Place,
Ampthill Square, in the county of Middlesex.
In connection with this, read Mr. John Bigelow's careless jottings made
some fifteen years before. Remember the Miss "Teman," about whose name
he was not quite certain; the Hogarth sisters' dislike of her; and the
mysterious figure in the background of the novelist's later life. Then
consider the first bequest in his will, which leaves a substantial
sum to one who was neither a relative nor a subordinate, but--may we
assume--more than an ordinary friend?