The dark side of Dickens

charles-dickensI love a new discovery by literary scholars, because it gives us all hope of finding something entirely new. Many will have mixed feelings about the latest Dickens discovery, though: a couple of weeks ago, it was revealed in the Times Literary Supplement that this British treasure, an institution in himself, tried to have his wife put away in an institution. John Bowen’s research led him to previously unexamined letters by Catherine Dickens’s neighbour which make it clear that, having left his wife in order to pursue his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan, Dickens then tried that old cliche of the nineteenth century, having your inconvenient wife labelled as mad, and shut up both physically and metaphorically.

It’s a story out of sensation fiction – or, indeed, out of Dickens’s novels, though he eschews the asylum for other institutions such as the workhouse. But Dickens knew all about asylums, being on good terms with psychologists such as John Conolly, and friends with various of the Commissioners for Lunacy. The nineteenth century saw a number of changes in the asylum system, designed to make it work better, be kinder, and to provide cures rather than captivity, where possible. One of the changes brought about by the Lunacy Act was to make it harder for someone to be incarcerated by a member of their family who wanted them out of the way, and this probably worked in Catherine Dickens’s favour.

Dickens’s interest in the new science of psychology is apparent in his fiction and non-fiction. He creates his characters psychologically (though some with more realism than downloadothers given his tendency to play across genres); he explores the psychological effects of tragic or restricting events on the lives of his characters, and he writes about asylums he has visited, most notably in his article ‘A Curious Dance round a Curious Tree‘ after visiting St Luke’s Hospital for the Insane. He notes that the asylum is ‘gloomy’ and ‘cheerless’, points out that far more women than men (and mostly lower-class women at that) are admitted, and is not reluctant to emphasise the sadness and shortcomings of the system. Bowen’s research throws light on Dickens’s hypocrisy; in the article, Dickens wrote:

To lighten the affliction of insanity by all human means, is not to restore the greatest of the Divine gifts; and those who devote themselves to the task do not pretend that it is. They find their sustainment and reward in the substitution of humanity for brutality, kindness for maltreatment, peace for raging fury; in the acquisition of love instead of hatred; and in the knowledge that, from such treatment, improvement, and hope of final restoration will come, if such hope be possible. It may be little to have abolished from mad-houses all that is abolished, and to have substituted all that is substituted. Nevertheless, reader, if you can do a little in any good direction, do it. It will be much, some day.

It’s shocking to me that Dickens, with this understanding, and as a man who performed mesmerism to attempt to heal a ‘hysterical’ woman, who demonstrated sympathy and a wholesome charitable attitude in his novels and journalism (at least on the face of it), was prepared to go to such lengths to remove his formerly much-loved wife and mother of his children from his life, and potentially to a system which he must have known could only make her truly ill, in the end. Thomas Harrington Tuke, descendant of William Tuke who founded the Retreat, the 220px-Catherine_Dickens_in_1852Quaker asylum at York which paved the way for a more humane system of care for the insane, seems likely to have been the reason for the failure of Dickens’s plot.

Poor Catherine Dickens – separated from nearly all of her ten children, not to mention the husband she had loved,  called fat and dull by her husband who had found a younger and more exciting woman, to then have her sanity called into question. Dickens was a celebrity; then, as now, people don’t want to believe badly of him. I don’t think it means we should view his work differently: he is the writer he always was, but now there is perhaps a different edge to the misogyny of his remarks in the novels. We always knew Dickens wasn’t a saint, but this particular kind of unsaintliness is especially repugnant at the moment, with #MeToo and the accusations of harassment rocketing round the world. After all, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Victorian patriarch who expected an angel in the house; this is an unfaithful husband who is prepared to condemn his blameless wife to a living death.

Of course, what all this shows us is how much mental health has always been weaponized against women. We don’t know exactly what Dickens said was wrong with Catherine mentally, but it was probably hysteria. It’s always hysteria, in the nineteenth century – that specifically, biologically female disease which could be manifested in anything from disobedience to fits, fainting to irritability. Women, with their uncontrollable bodies which menstruate and produce children, have been figured as socially unruly and in need of restraint for centuries; in the nineteenth century, men got quite good at controlling women using their mental health, and even now the media and the public are often quick to denounce women, be they celebrities or politicians, as hysterical. Edward Bulwer-Lytton (also a friend of Dickens) actually did manage to have his sane wife, Rosina, put in an asylum (though she got her own back with a book, A Blighted Life, and by publicly wrecking his political career). Now, we have a word for this kind of behaviour: gaslighting, when a woman is made to doubt her own sanity. This article points out the links between Dickens’s behaviour and that which is still ongoing. Men – some men – have always felt the need to control women; it’s just not very comfortable to find out that one of them is our best-loved novelist.



  1. Whenever I wanted to discuss the difference between valuing an artist’s skills and devaluing his personal behaviour, the students were asked to consider Dickens. He met his wife Cath­erine when she was 14; she had 10 children before being dumped for HER younger, slimmer sister Mary (who died at 17) and the young teenage actress Nelly Ternan.

    Many years ago I saw a painting of Charles Dickens building a wall to seal off Catherine from the rest of the world. She was sitting inside her cell, passively knitting, as Dickens silently went about his task. He was not just a slick womaniser; he was a cruel beast to his wife.

  2. He was. It’s very sad, but I suspect this discovery will quickly be absorbed and ignored since Dickens is such a ‘national treasure’…

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