1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence
In November 1838, 23-year-old Catherine Dickens, the happily married mother of two—a one-year-old son, Charley, and an eight-month-old daughter, Mary—received a letter from Charles, away on a trip. It ended with these words: “God bless you my darling—I long to be back with you again, and to see the sweet Babs—Your faithful and most affectionate Husband.”
In June 1858, twenty years later Charles wrote to his best friend, John Forster, bemoaning his present marital unhappiness and tracing its source to that same time:
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 . . . we are strangely ill-assorted for the bond there is between us. . . . What is now befalling me I have seen steadily coming, ever since the days you remember when Mary was born; and I know too well that you cannot, and no one can, help me.
What went wrong? How did “my darling” turn into “poor Catherine”? More to the point, when did the marriage begin to go wrong for Dickens—almost from the beginning as he suggests, or only in more recent years?
Charlie Takes a Wife
In 1834 George Hogarth, editor of London’s Evening Chronicle, hired Charles Dickens to write some articles for him. Growing fond of the talented and ambitious young man, Hogarth invited him to meet his family at his home south of the Fulham Road, a somewhat rural neighborhood sandwiched between Kensington Gardens and the Thames. Charles was impressed with the Hogarths, who four years earlier had arrived in England from Edinburgh, where Mr. Hogarth had been a friend of Charles’s idol, the famous author Walter Scott. They were a cultured and contented family, definitely a cut above his own.
Best of all, he liked 19-year-old Catherine, the oldest of the Hogarth’s nine children. Cheerful, bright, and happy, with a good sense of humor (though rumored to have a penchant for bad puns), warm-hearted and compliant, Catherine was everything Charles could want in a woman. Pretty too, even sexy in a quiet way, with her heavy-lidded blue eyes, what are often called “bedroom eyes,” uptilted nose, red lips, and shapely figure.
Unlike Charles’s former love, Maria Beadnell, Catherine was intelligent, an avid reader and a serious musician, a companion with whom he could discuss his work. And she was versed in the practical arts of housekeeping and child care. Though richly endowed with culture and children, the Hogarths, had few servants. Along with her 15-year-old sister, Mary, her best friend and closest companion, Catherine attended to domestic chores, including caring for her youngest siblings, a pair of one-year-old twins.
1838 portrait by Samuel Laurence
But she also enjoyed a normal share of excursions, gossip, sleepovers, flirting, and parties, such as the one Charles invited her to for his 23rd birthday. She wrote, “Mr. Dickens improves very much upon acquaintance he is very gentlemanly and pleasant.”
He became a constant visitor to her home, played with the younger children, made himself agreeable. Once, dressed as a sailor, “he jumped in at the window, danced a hornpipe, whistling the tune, jumped out again.” Little more than six months after they met, he proposed. Catherine accepted. How could she resist this handsome, clever, ambitious, amusing young man? He called her, “darling Tatie,” “darling Pig,” “dearest Mouse.” He sent her a thousand kisses in his letters. He demanded she come make breakfast for him, so he could see her smiling face as soon as he woke up.
He was always “Charles in Charge.” Less than three weeks into their engagement, Catherine, miffed for some reason, treated him to a dose of cool reserve. Furious, he returned home and dashed off a letter. Her “sudden and uncalled for coldness” had “surprised and deeply hurt” him. “If a hasty temper produce this strange behavior, acknowledge it. If a feeling of you know not what—a capricious restlessness of you can’t tell what, and a desire to teaze, you don’t know why—give rise to it—overcome it.” If she’s grown tired of him, she’s to say so at once. “I shall not forget you lightly, but you will need no second warning.” If she feels anger when she reads this letter “or to use a word more current with your sex—‘spirit’,” she’s to let it go.
Heeding his implied threat, she was careful to avoid showing ‘spirit’ again. She did complain of his frequent absences, however, saying he was more interested in his writing than in her. Everything he did, he insisted, using a well-worn excuse, he did for her.
Whether for Catherine or to gratify his own ambition, Charles did work hard. A respected journalist, he had a growing reputation as an author of stories and sketches. A publisher suggested he gather his sketches into a book. Thrilled, he wrote more sketches to fill up the volume. On February 7, 1836, his 24th birthday, Sketches by Boz, illustrations by George Cruikshank, was published to great success.
Three days later, publishers Chapman and Hall told him a well-known artist, Robert Seymour, had an idea for a series of engraved illustrations showing the comic hunting and fishing mishaps of a club of sporting gentleman. Would Dickens write short bits of text to accompany the illustrations? Charles, who had a good share of chutzpah, agreed on two conditions: first, instead of him writing text to accompany Seymour’s drawings, Seymour would illustrate text that Dickens would write; second, since Dickens knew nothing about sports (the topic was old hat anyway), he’d write about a wide range of scenes and people. Chapman and Hall agreed. Seymour, though irked that his plan had been twisted out of shape by this hack upstart, had to agree too.
Contracts were signed, deadlines decided. Now all Charles had to do was write the book—after first coming up with characters and a plot. “I thought of Mr. Pickwick,” he said. Two days later The Pickwick Papers was underway. The first number came out on March 31, 1836. Two days later, on April 2, he and Catherine were married
<to be continued>