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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

kind of
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

without complaint.

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

to mouth.

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

he replied:

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

sometimes caricatured.

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

an actress.

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


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

universally admired.

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

Georgina Hogarth.

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

as follows:

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?