Catherine Dickens 1815-1879: His “Dearest Pig”

 There are fatal encounters in this life some of which do not turn out well for either of those appointed by time and fate to meet.  Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens probably met at the home of her father George Hogarth in 1835.  They quickly became engaged.

Charles was on the rebound from a failed courtship of a determinedly flirtatious girl named Maria Beadnell who had, after the manner of flirts, ended up marrying a young man with greater expectations than his own.  He was at a loose end and he was invited home to one of his editors’ houses, and the rest was history.

Catherine at about nineteen or so was an early Victorian pin up with brown hair, big blue eyes, a pink face and a curvaceous figure that was going to run to fat in later life.  She was captivated almost at once by Dickens’ energy and his humor, his bright waistcoats, may have helped as well.  He, on the other hand, liked Catherine’s “calm”.

They married in 1836, after being engaged for less than a year.  Dickens had already begun The Pickwick Papers.  From there onwards life must have taken on a surreal pace for the former Catherine Hogarth.  She found herself married to a celebrated, bestselling, famous, renowned, phenomenon, and finally, legend in his own time.  It can’t have been easy.  Just to make it more interesting, she spent the whole of this high speed circuit through the clerestory of that capitalist cathedral, nineteenth Century Britain, pregnant.

She was to bring nine children into that world, and whether because of Dickens’ domestic punctilio, or because of her own house keeping standards, lost only one to a premature death, an unusual record for the period.  She accompanied her husband to America in 1842, and proved game enough.  Traveling pretty far west and weathering it all nearly as well as Dickens himself, though often falling down and bruising or scraping or denting herself in the process, for Catherine was – clumsy.

Being the wife of one of the most famous literary men of the era, Catherine entertained a good deal, pseudonymously wrote a cook book (What Shall We Have For Dinner?) , and became quite fat.  She was sluggish by nature, inclined to sitting down as often as possible.  Then there were those continual pregnancies, she could never see her knees, and after the first ten years, perhaps she gave up knee sighting as a lost cause.

In 1857 the whole marriage came to a screaming halt.  It had not been going as well as it might have for some time.  The reasons cited (by Dickens) were his wife’s jealousies, and her state of mind which may have been depressed.  Perhaps the fact of her younger sister’s continual presence in the house might also have proven a strain.  Dickens seemed to like to have a seraglio of females around, to minister to his domestic comfort if not to his sexual one, and it must have altered the equal weight between husband and wife to throw one hero-worshipping sister-in-law continually into the husband’s side of the scales.  But in 1857 Dickens acted in an amateur theatrical which employed professional actresses, one of whom, the blonde and pretty Ellen Ternan, thoroughly caught his eye.  She was all of eighteen.

The marriage collapsed.  Dickens pursued Ellen while claiming that he wasn’t, Ellen’s respectable Mother, evidently found her respectability less important than she had previously thought, and her daughter’s not important at all.  In any event sometime that year or so, Mrs. Dickens received the gift of a jewel, a gold bracelet, intended for Miss Ternan. When the truth came out, Mrs Dickens erupted.

The breach between husband and wife was never healed.  Dickens who was for once in the wrong, could not admit it. The more he could not admit his guilt the crueler he was to Catherine, making the separation between them ultimately a bitter one. He procured her a house on the other side of London and made it known that none of her children was to visit her if they intended to stay on good terms with him.  He would return to Gad’s Hill, his mansion which his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth ran for him as his de facto house keeper, and was frequently away to wherever it was that he was keeping Ellen Ternan at the time.  It was a harried existence at best.

Not all of London took Dickens’ side in the matter.  Jane Carlyle suggested cattily that a man who gave his wife a hard time, gave her the Dickens!  And Thackeray felt compassion for Catherine remarking that he hated to think of that poor matron turned out of her own house.  Dickens  did not take the same view.  Once they were separated he refused ever to see his wife again.  In deed he died without doing so.  After his death Catherine’s request was that the letters he had written her should be published so that the world would know that he had loved her once.

But perhaps in the end, Catherine should have behaved like Maria Beadnell, she should have turned Dickens down flat whatever his expectations, because all he gave her in the end were Hard Times.

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