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Dickens and the Great Unmentionable


A Paper delivered by Professor Robert  Giddings, of Bournemouth University

at Birkbeck College, University of London,  on 20th March 2004,as a contribution to  a conference on Dickens and Sex, held at the University of London Institute of English Studies.



Presenting this paper poses a bit of a problem for me. You see, I have tried all the various methodologies that have been on offer to me over the years – Chestertonism (yes, I’m that old); Freudianism; Edmund Wilsonianism; Marxism; Leavis; all-purpose liberalism; French Neo-Marxism; Structuralism and all stations to Post Modernism.


I finally gave up all hope of finding one, single satisfactory key to Dickens after Dr. Leavis’s Great Change of Heart with Dickens the Novelist 1970 when FRL publicly confided that he had admired Dickens all the time really (the greatest volt-face since Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws.


I can now see that the big trouble I have had all the time was the fact that I could not accept the basic premise, (of Leavis’s The Great Tradition) that Dickens was to be judged by comparison with the other great names in the “English Novel”, most of whom, it seemed (inevitably) were 19th century social realists.


From our viewpoint Charles Dickens seems to be a quintessential literary fact of the Victorian period. We cannot think of Victorian England without him, without his help, and -- one might be tempted to say -- to see Victorian England through his very eyes. His vision is part of the way we actually define Victorianism. The very reputation of Victorian England is in large part a Dickensian matter -- our very construction of   Victorianism  owes much to Dickens.


Yet Charles Dickens was already a quarter century old, his fame established with Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist before Victoria came to throne, and he died over thirty years before the end of her reign. Such characteristically Victorian books as Through The Looking Glass, Middlemarch, Under the Greenwood Tree, The Egoist, and The Mayor of Casterbridge

were published after Dickens's death in June 1870. As a "great Victorian novelist" he was not always there. It took some years, and much critical effort, to secure him this position. There was much in fighting, and a very wide range of critical positions were to be canvassed before anything like the agreed academic acceptance we might easily take for granted today.


But I am quite unable to see him as a Victorian. It maybe because I am a Bathonian, grew up in the Palladian city and can say I come from the 18th century. And I started to read Dickens more or less at the same time that I was reading Fielding, Sterne, Smollett and Goldsmith that I always tended to regard Dickens as the last (and probably the greatest) of all our 18th century novelists.


So I have to say at the outset, that researching the sex life has eventually compelled me to toe the line and accept Dickens as a Victorian. This paper might account for my conversion.


Dickens’s immense all-embracing vitality and zest for life continues to be great attraction. And yet. And yet. The sex is invariably played down. Much has conspired to bring this about.


Direct connections between his biographical details and the fiction may be easily drawn but may be equally unreliable. Dickens tried to keep his secrets. He burned much of private correspondence, although he was notoriously (and cruelly) publicly indiscrete about the failure of his marriage to Catherine. Forster, his first major biographer, followed the party line and kept stum as to what interesting skeletons might tumble out should certain cupboard doors be opened…


But as the years passed various witnesses published memoirs, and new biographical materials became available. Freud and the Marxists gave us all new ways of looking at human life as well as new ways of deciphering evidence. Edmund Wilson’s Wound and the Bow 1941 contained an essay that proved to be something of a recruiting sergeant for Freudian and Marxist readings of the Immortal.


Feminism and Post Feminism added new impetus to examination and analysis of formally rather buried aspects of Dickens.  In recent years Victorian sexuality has become an important area of investigation by such writers as Marcus Stone, Ronald Pearson, Michael Mason and Judith Walkowitz[1]. Notable biographers such as Peter Ackroyd and Claire Tomalin[2] benefited considerably from these labours and brought their wisdom to bear upon the insight and evidence. [3]


Charles Dickens was always fascinated by the power of sexuality, both in his private life and in terms of exploring sexuality in his creative imagination. But both personally and creatively he found himself in conflict with social convention and censorship, as well as with his own personal censorship. This is all part of his fascination.

Undoubtedly one of the most famous and beloved men of his time. A man who seemed to speak for his age and seemed to be not just an author, but also a personal friend. As Charles Norton Eliot commented:

No one thinks first of Mr Dickens as a writer. He is at once, through his books, a friend. He belongs among the intimates of every pleasant-tempered and large-hearted person. He is not so much the guest as the intimate of our homes. He keeps holidays with us, he helps us to celebrate Christmas with heartier cheer, he shares at every New Year in our good wishes: for, indeed, it is not in his purely literary character that he has done most for us, it is as a man of the largest humanity, who has simply used literature as the means by which to bring himself into relations with his fellow-men”.[4] 


 At his burial in Westminster Abbey the Times wrote:


Statesmen, men of science, philanthropists, the acknowledged benefactors of their race might pass away, and yet not leave the void which will be caused by the death of Dickens.... Indeed such a position is attained by not even one man in an age. It needs an extraordinary combination of intellectual and moral qualities.... before the world will consent to enthrone a man as their unassailable and enduring favourite…”


Yet this friend of us all kept his cards very close to his chest. To get anywhere close to these hitherto obscured areas of his biography and publications we need to learn to read the signs, to read beneath the lines, to risk surmise and unearth tactfully reticent evidence.


But why should we pry into Boz’s personal life?

Will it help us to a richer understanding of his creative activities?

No. I don’t think so.


Will it enable us psychologically better able to understand why his fiction made and continues to make upon his readers?

I don’t think so.



We study these aspects of Charles Dickens because they are interesting in themselves, and because he is so important that we can never know enough about him. This paper draws on letters and other biographical evidence to reveal some clues as to his youthful days in London before his marriage; takes up hints and suggestions in the fiction (especially Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and Great Expectations) and explores areas of his personal behaviour before and during his estrangement from Catherine and his liaison with Ellen Ternan.


Dickens and Young Women

Dickens is renowned, of course, as a writer who saw the world through the eyes of a child and whose work has numerous moving and amusing examples of child figures. Yet serious immersion in his fiction and a bit of biographical knowledge certainly suggests he had quite a big thing about young girls.


There’s much good evidence from his early days to show he had a romantically susceptible young heart. As a teenager he was very much a young man about town. He certainly seems to have gained an insider’s awareness of the ways of this wicked world.


Of his earliest amorous forays he wrote:


 I broke my heart into the smallest pieces, many times between thirteen and three and twenty. Twice, I was very horribly in earnest; and once really set upon the cast for six or seven long years, all the energy and determination of which I am owner. But it went the way of nearly all such things at last, though I think it kept me steadier than the working of my nature was, to many good things for the time.  If anyone had interfered with my very small Cupid, I don’t know what absurdity I might not have committed in assertion of his proper liberty; but having plenty of rope he hanged himself, beyond all such chance of restoration”.[5]


He was seventeen when, in 1829, a friend of his musical sister, Fanny, introduced him to Maria Beadnell. Maria was a very pretty girl, two years older than Dickens. Her dark hair fell in captivating ringlets. Her father was in the management of a local bank. The Beadnell family lived in Lombard Street, and Charles – well known for his fine singing of comic songs -- was invited to their musical evenings,[6] where Maria's sisters sang, played the flute and Maria played the harp.

Dickens was enchanted. He fell passionately in love with her and came to believe his entire future happiness depended on her. He waxed jealous of her pet dog, Daphne, when it was clasped to her bosom. (Shades of Dora and Gip!) Maria was a flirt and Dickens was not sure if she returned his love. However, there was no ambiguity about Maria's parents' attitude to him -- frankly he was not good enough for her.

Dickens resolved to impress Maria by becoming an actor. For several years he had been exploring London’s nightlife and was an avid playgoer. He particular loved comic performers and music hall.[7] The master of the one-man show, Charles Mathews, was a particular favourite. He worked up several of  Mathews' routines as well as other well-known roles, which he declaimed when he was out on his walks. He also took a series of lessons with Robert Keeley, well-known actor who had starred in productions at Covent Garden, the Lyceum (and later partnered William Charles Macready).

When Dickens considered himself ready for the stage, he wrote to Mathews and asked for an audition, describing himself as a natural mimic with  "a strong perception of character and oddity". He was invited to audition before Mathews and Charles Kemble (one of the greatest actors of the day, with a range as wide as Garrick's, a great Falstaff, and brilliant in Shakespeare's major roles). However, on the day Charles had a very bad cold and wrote saying he was unable to come but would make another appointment.

Something else turned up -- his uncle, John Henry Barrow, who had been a reporter on The Times, had started a journal, the Mirror of Parliament, in which he hoped to rival Hansard in reporting parliament. He offered Charles a job. He also worked for an evening paper, the True Sun. Eventually in 1835 Dickens was writing for the Morning Chronicle. He earned a splendid reputation as a parliamentary reporter.

He was now earning good money, as much as twenty-five guineas a week, but Maria Beadnell's father still refused to consider him worthy of his daughter. She was sent abroad for schooling. [8]


Finally, after four years of his devotion and her flirtation, in May 1833 the romance came to an end. Maria Beadnell was immortalized in Dolly Varden ("a roguish face ... a face lighted up by the loveliest pair of sparkling eyes.... the face of a pretty, laughing girl; dimpled and fresh, and healthful -- the very impersonation of good-humour and blooming beauty") in Barnaby Rudge and Dora ("...She had the most delightful little voice, the gayest little laugh, the pleasantest and most fascinating little ways, that ever led a lost youth into hopeless slavery...") in David Copperfield.


In May 1854 he met Maria again  -- she was now fat and empty-headed Mrs. Winter -- and is cruelly portrayed as Flora Finching:


"Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much. Flora, who had been spoiled and artless long ago, was determined to be spoiled and artless now. That was a fatal blow". (Little Dorrit).


He continued the life of a man about town. In 1834 Dickens became acquainted with George Hogarth, a fellow journalist with the Morning Chronicle. [9] The paper began an evening edition three times a week and Hogarth was made Editor, he commissioned sketches from Dickens. Dickens then got to know the Hogarth family socially and visited them at their house in York Place, Fulham Road.  They had nine children, including four daughters -- Helen, two;  Georgina, eight; Mary, fifteen; and Catherine (Kate) who was nineteen when Dickens first met her.

The Hogarths loved him, as he was so full of fun and willing fully to join in whatever was going on. Kate soon captivated him, a buxom lass with glossy dark hair, blue eyes, full lips, a slightly retrousse nose and ready humour. She enjoyed Dickens's company enormously. Her younger sister, Mary Scott Hogarth, who was fifteen, looked up to him.

Dickens’s professional career was now beginning to take off. He’d signed the contract to write Pickwick Papers in February 1834[10]. In the spring of 1835 Catherine and Charles were engaged. The family was delighted.  Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth were married at St. Luke's, Chelsea, on 2 April 1836 and spent their honeymoon at Chalk, near Gravesend.  They returned to set up home at Furnival's Inn, with Fred Dickens.

With the well-known story of Mary Scott Hogarth and the novelist’s obvious infatuation with his young sister-in-law war enter fascinating but dangerous Freudian waters. Significantly Mary was such a constant visitor that she was almost part of the household. Dickens was busy writing Pickwick while still doing parliamentary reporting. Mary moved in with the family at their new house in Doughty Street (now the Dickens House Museum). He was now busy at work on Oliver Twist.

God seemed to be in His Heaven, and all was right in the world, when, on the evening of Saturday, 6 May 1837, Dickens and his wife went to the St James's Theatre. They had taken Mary and had an enjoyable evening. After returning home, and wishing each other good night, Dickens heard Mary cry out in pain. He ran to her bedroom, followed by his wife. The doctor was sent for. But she was beyond help. She died the following afternoon. He describes his grief in a letter to Mrs. Hogarth:

This was about 3 o'clock on the Sunday afternoon. They think her heart was diseased. It matters little to relate these details now, for the light and life of our happy circle is gone -- and such a blank created as we can never supply.

The entire family was thunderstruck. Mary's mother was insensible for a week.  Catherine and Charles were dumbfounded. To a friend he wrote a day after Mary died:

You cannot conceive the misery in which this dreadful event has plunged us. Since our marriage she has been the peace and life of our home -- the admired of all for her beauty and excellence -- I could have better spared a much nearer relation or an older friend, for she has been to us what we can never replace, and has left a blank which no one who ever knew her can have the faintest hope of seeing supplied.

To his very close friend, Tom Beard, he wrote:

"Thank God she died in my arms and that they very last words she whispered were of me ... I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed. I knew her inmost heart and her real worth and value. She had not a fault..."

It seems that Dickens paid for the funeral and certainly intended to be buried in the same grave. He wrote the words for her tombstone:

"Mary Scott Hogarth. Died 7th May 1837. Young, Beautiful and Good, God in His Mercy Numbered Her With His Angels at the Early Age of Seventeen".

He wore her ring. In writing to Mary's mother, to thank her for sending him a lock of Mary Hogarth's hair, he said:

I have never had her ring off my finger by day or night, except for an instant at a time, to wash my hands, since she died. I have never had her sweetness and excellence absent from my mind so long. I can solemnly say that, waking or sleeping, I have never lost the recollection of our hard trial and sorrow, and I feel that I never shall.... I wish you could know how I weary now for the three rooms in Furnival's Inn, and how I miss that pleasant smile and those sweet words which, bestowed upon our evening's work, in our merry banterings round the fire, were more precious to me than the applause of a whole world could be...

John Forster, who knew him well, recorded in his Life of Charles Dickens 1872 that Dickens's grief and suffering were intense, and affected him for years. He certainly could not work for months.  His love for Mary would never diminish, he claimed to Forster. On 25 October 1842, three years after her death, he wrote to Forster:

The desire to be buried next to her is as strong upon me now as it was three years ago; and I know (for I don't think there ever was love like that I bear her) that it will never diminish....

In May 1842, when he stood at Niagara Falls, he thought of Mary Scott Hogarth:

.... what would I give if the dear girl whose ashes lie at Kensal Green had lived to come so far along with us -- but she has been here many times ... since her sweet face faded from my earthly sight.

He told Forster he dreamed of her constantly and in 1844 he recounted a dream:

.... I recognized the voice.... I knew it was poor Mary's spirit. I was not at all afraid, but in great delight, so that I wept very much, and stretching out my arms to it as I called it ‘Dear’...

In 1848 he wrote "This day eleven years, poor dear Mary died..."

The memory, the dreams, never left him. As Forster recorded:

With longer or shorter intervals this was with him all his days. Never from his waking thoughts was the recollection altogether absent; and though the dream would leave him for a time, it unfailingly came back... in the very year before he died, the influence was potently upon him. 'She is so much in my thoughts at all times...that the recollection of her is an essential part of my being, and is as inseparable from my existence as the beating of my heart is.' Through later troubled years.... whatever was worthiest in him found in this an ark of safety...'

What was all this about?

Dare we speculate?

Was Dickens in love with his sister-in-law? Years later these matters still preyed on his mind as they clearly haunted his imagination while writing The Battle of Life: A Love Story in September 1846.[11]

She represented an angelic female perfection whose corporeal manifestation in human form was a miracle in his sight. Her loss was irreparable. It left a wound from which he was never to recover. She died. But Mary Scott Hogarth never left Dickens's mind. He was completely unbalanced by her sudden death. He was forced to postpone writing the monthly parts of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist.

And it seems to me that her death left him with an irresistible magnetism towards beautiful young women.  This was to lead him into the arms of Ellen Ternan and to the idealized, innocent, saintly, young female figures -- Little Nell, Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson and Amy Dorrit --which recur throughout his work. But we must not lose sight of the fact that these feelings were real. They were not affected.

The Strange Case of Young Miss Christina Weller

On 26 February 1844 he took the chair at the Mechanics’ Institute in Liverpool. As part of the entertainment he was to introduce a young lady to play the piano. Her name was Christina Weller and of course the name Weller amused him no end. But when he turned and looked at her his heart leapt in his breast, and in his own words in a subsequent letter he: “saw an angel’s message in her face … that smote me to the heart”. [12] We have some good evidence as to the importance of this moment in the novelist’s life. He was forty-two years old, had been married to Catherine for six years and had fathered several children.  Yet he obviously fancied young Miss Weller (as they say) something terrible, for as he led her to the piano he whispered in her ear that some day she would change her name and be very happy. He watched enchanted as she played. At the end of the evening he asked her father to lunch with him the next day. His dreams were haunted with visions of her face and her green dress as she played the piano. HE wrote a silly set of verses:


I put in a book once, by hook and by crook,

The whole race (as I thought) of a ‘feller’,

Who happily pleased the town’s taste, much diseas’d,

---And the name of this person was Weller.


I find to my cost that One Weller I lost –

Cruel Destiny so to range it!

I love her dear name, which has won me some fame,

But, Great Heaven! How gladly I’d change it.


He left to speak at the Birmingham Polytechnic Institute the following day, but promised to send her a copy of Tennyson’s poetry, given to him by the poet. He wrote to his friend T. J. Thompson, who had also met the enchanting Miss Weller, he wrote that “I cannot joke about Miss Weller; for she is too good; and interest in her (spiritual young creature that she is, and destined to an early death, I fear) has become a sentiment with me…Good God, what a madman I should seem, if the incredible feeling I have conceived for that girl could be made plain to anyone!”


He had been back at London for barely a week when he had a letter from Thompson on 11 March to say that he had fallen in love with Christina Weller:


 I felt the blood go from my face to I don’t know where… and my very lips to go white. Never in my life had the whole current of my life so stopped, for the instant, as when I felt, at a glance, what your letter said. Which I did, correctly. For when I came to read it attentively, and several times over, I found nothing new in it”.


Thompson somehow hesitated to take the next step and propose. He was a widower. He was older than Christina. He asked Dickens’s advice. He got his answer by return:


If I had your independent means… I would not hesitate… But would win her if I could, by God. I would answer it to myself, if my word’s breath whispered me that I had known her but a few days, that hours of hers are years in the lives of common women. That it is in such a face and such a spirit, as parts of its high nature, to do at once what less ethereal creatures must be long in doing”.


There is something else rather strange in all this. It is more than possible that he was reliving his relationship (whatever that relationship was) with Mary Scott Hogarth, for he was sure that Christina was destined for an early grave. (Shades of Little Nell!) He advised her father to ensure she was well looked after, had plenty of rest etc. otherwise she would be seriously at risk:


I could not bear better her passing from my arms to Heaven than I could endure the thought of coldly passing into the world again to see her no more…


But Christina did not die. She married Thompson and bore him two daughters, one of whom was to become the distinguished painter of military and historical subjects, Lady Butler, the other, poet and essayist, Alice Meynell.[13]


The attraction of an older man for a much younger woman was a big thing in Dickens’s emotional personality. We find echoes throughout the fiction – a sinister echo in Harthouse’s attempts on the virtue of Tom Grandgrind’s daughter and a romantic treatment of theme in the love of Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorritt.


In the novelist’s life the striking example is his relationship with Ellen Ternan, whom he met in 1857, when he was forty-five and she was eighteen, which we will have to consider in a moment.


Dickens and Fallen Women

But for the moment against this idealization of the Young Woman, we have to place the concept of the Fallen Woman. And dare to ask if Dickens had personal experience of the demi-monde? It seems to me that Dickens himself was a somewhat guilty client of working girls but was anxious to humanize what is after all an exploitative trade. The evidence for this is not wholly circumstantial. When he finally moved his family from Tavistock Place to Gad's Hill in September 1860 he had a major turn out of his correspondence. There was a large bonfire in which nearly all the letters from his friends were burned.

Obviously, we shall never know what interesting evidence these might have contained, but from the hints which remain in letters which have survived, as well as some mysterious but nevertheless revealing clues in his behaviour recorded in evidence elsewhere and from what can be inferred, it is certain that Dickens had an adventurous and varied sex life from the days of his adolescence, which obviously involved far more than going to the music hall, the theatres and spending convivial evenings drinking with friends.  He writes so knowingly of the demi-monde in his fiction, and young females fall to preying males his fiction.  He is familiar with all the ways of the wicked world. He knows all about the customs and usages of the traffic in which young seamstresses supplemented their income, and when, where and how they were to be picked up.

Dickens has come down to us an advocate of family values, loving marriage partnerships, purity and sound morals, but all the evidence suggests that his days as a young man about town involved far more than going to places of public entertainment and hostelries. 

In one letter which has survived we learn that in 1841 he wrote to Daniel Maclise, attempting to entice him on a trip to Margate, offering as bait the fact that: "...there are conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) And I know where they live". He had only been married to Catherine a few years by this time. Much evidence is now coming to life to suggest that  -- like Thackeray, and Wilkie Collins[14] and the rest of them  -- Dickens was a consistent sexual adventurer.

His first major biographer, his friend John Forster, suppressed much, but Dickens tried to burn all links with the past when made his bonfire of this correspondence in which his letters from Macready, Ainsworth, Forster, Maclise, Lytton, and many others, went up in smoke.  (He asked his friends to destroy his letters to them, but fortunately not of them obliged).  His young children remembered having "roasted onions in the ashes of the great". Dickens himself said that he wished "every letter I had ever written was on that pile" but many of his letters survived, and some of them are very interesting evidence in this respect. I shall return to this area in a moment.

It seems clear to me that Dickens was well aware of the sexual exploitation of women. His novels show that he was cognizant of the hidden side of Victorian sexuality -- seduction, promiscuity and prostitution. His very earliest fiction shows him going through the usual motions in lamenting such goings on and these themes recur throughout his fiction. Nevertheless, whatever he learned of the enormous economic and social pressures that were the root cause of 19th century prostitution, had little impact on his fictional portrayals of fallen women, whom he usually portrays in stereotypical terms.[15]


Prostitution, endemic in London, Dickens had found deeply shocking (on the face of it) since he got to know the ins and outs of this great, sprawling city. The Commissioner of Police deposed to the Society for the Suppression of Vice that in London there were 7,000 prostitutes, 933 brothels and 848 other "disreputable houses" -- the tone of his evidence was that his officers were doing a good job in suppressing vice. Other sources suggest this was a conservative estimate, and that there were more like 80,000, who entertained 2,000,000 clients a week (an estimated twenty-five per girl).[16]


Dickens himself had experience of the attempts made to help fallen women. He joined forces with the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts 1847-58 in her Urania Cottage project to rescue prostitutes from a life of sin, prepare them for emigration to Australia in the eventual hope of the social reintegration.[17]She is a most excellent creature”, Dickens said of Miss Burdett Coutts, “and I have a most perfect affection and respect for her”. [18]


The regimen evolved by Dickens and Miss Burdett Coutts for Urania Cottage was based on co-operation with the police to offer an alternative life for these unfortunates rather than simply returning them, inevitably, to life on the streets following release from custody. The governors of the London prisons had the power to send any woman who wished straight to Urania Cottage on release from prison. Here she would be accommodated and placed on probation where a period of good behaviour would be followed by a period of training to encourage order, punctuality, cleanliness, household duties (washing, mending, cooking) to build up confidence and sociability. The government was to be sounded out on the possibility of assisting to send these reformed women to the colonies where they might be married. Dickens believed that such a system could result in at least half the inmates being reclaimed and that eventually the system would be even more successful. Miss Burdett Coutts was rather more modest in her ambitions and considered that marriage might be rather to idealistic an aim.[19] It is not without interest that these plans were under development at the same time that the novelist began work on Dombey and Son. (See discussion later).


The “Fallen Woman” in Dickens’s Fiction

Dickens was aware of prostitution as a social issue from the beginning of his career. One of early sketches deals graphically if melodramatically with the subject.


The Prisoners’ Van’ was originally published in Bell’s Life in London 29 November 1835 and appears in Sketches by Boz. It’s written from the point of view of an afternoon bystander at the corner of Bow Street as the crowd gathers when the prisoners’ van pulls up to collect sentenced prisoners from the court. It contains a couple of girls, obviously sisters, one under fourteen and the other about sixteen, who are on the game.

The younger girl shows some shame and: “was weeping bitterly, not for display, or in the hope of producing effect, but for very shame; her face was buried in her handkerchief; and her whole manner was but too expressive of bitter and unavailing sorrow”, but for the older girl: “two additional years of depravity had fixed their brand upon the elder girl’s features, as legibly as if a red-hot iron had seared them”.[20]

Dickens's fiction is full of the terrors of the vice trade – from Nancy in Oliver Twist to the story of Em’ly and Martha in David Copperfield  -- not always obvious to modern readers, but the clues are there. 

As young readers we hardly twig the real relationship between Bill Sikes and Nancy and realize it is that of pimp and tart, albeit with a heart of gold: “The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets and among the most noisome of the stews and dens of London, but there was something of the woman’s original character left in her still…”  It is even possible, I suppose, to read her murder in a way that many contemporary readers might well have done, as the punishment of a whore whose good deeds ultimately fail to redeem her. Modern readers, however, may see this character’s story as exemplifying male psychical and economic domination and even symbolically to represent male domination of the female.

This theme is further explored in Nicholas Nickleby.  Unprimed modern readers may fail to pick up the clues. To understand what is going on in the scene where Uncle Ralph offers to find Kate employment with Mrs. Mantalini, that milliners’ shops were renowned places where men could pick up tarts:

Dressmakers in London, as I need not remind you, ma'am, who are so well acquainted with all matters in the ordinary routine of life, make large fortunes, keep equipages, and become persons of great wealth and fortune....

Mrs. Nickleby is too unworldly to realize that "milliner" was more or less a euphemism for prostitute. Many seamstresses took to prostitution as a means of supporting themselves. Dressmakers' shops were notorious as pick-up places for prostitutes and their clients. Readers of Nicholas Nickleby in the late 1830's would comprehend the hints from the descriptions of Madame Mantalini's premises, and the behaviour of Sir Mulberry Hawk.


The Hidden Agenda in ‘Dombey and Son’


He is well aware that it is not simply a matter of virtue and sin. But that economics plays a role in conditioning behaviour. In The Chimes 1845 he shows that he understands the terrible consequences of low paid work in the story of Lilian who decides to become a whore rather than endure “long, long nights of hopeless, cheerless, never-ending work” whereas her friend Meg continues toiling away as a poor seamstress only to end in destitution and despair.


The theme of the fallen woman/prostitute who is redeemed after emigration and attempts a return to society occurs several times in his major fiction, notably in Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son and in the Little Em’ly and Martha Endell in David Copperfield.  Em’ly, Dan’l Peggotty’s orphaned niece, runs away with David’s friend Steerforth on the eve of her marriage to Ham. She is seduced and then abandoned by Steerforth. Em’ly is found with the help of the prostitute Martha Endell who saves her from a brothel and the pair of them emigrate to Australia. This storyline was developed during the novelist’s co-operation with Miss Burdett Coutts.




These themes recur throughout Victorian fiction – (Vanity Fair East Lynne, Lady Audley’s Secret, The New Magdalen and John Caldigate to mention a few obvious examples.


The theme was also explored in Victorian painting. George Fredericks Watts’s Found Drowned 1849-50 shows the drowned body of a healthy young woman that clearly implies a suicide committed out of shame or guilt. Ford Madox Brown’s[21] Take Your Son, Sir 1851 does at least underline the male’s role in this experience. Here, a saintly woman holds out a child to its father while a mirror behind her head implies her halo. Richard Redgrave[22] exhibited The Outcast at the Royal Academy exhibition 1851, which portrayed a father casting out his disgraced daughter and her illegitimate child. Holman Hunt’s[23] typically heavily Victorian symbolic Awakening Conscience 1854 depicted a fallen woman at the moment of her repentance. She is a kept mistress portrayed at the moment she springs from her seducer-lover’s lap as they sit at the piano singing songs together. The music is ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’, while a cat plays with a fallen glove ion the floor. [24]


Probably the most pitiless portrayal of the theme in Victorian painting is Augustus Egg’s[25] heavily didactic three-parter Past and Present 1858. Past, the first painting, shows the moment that he husband heard of his wife’s infidelity. He sits in shock with the revealing letter in his hand. His wife has thrown herself upon the ground at his feet. The children, at play building a house of cards that is falling down look on anxiously. The next two pictures show simultaneous action in the Present: one shows the two daughters, now grown to adolescence, grieving the loss of their parents; the other shows the mother under the Adelphi Arches at Waterloo Bridge, holding her illegitimate child, contemplating suicide. These paintings were exhibited with the quotation:


 August 4th: have just heard that B. has been dead for more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!”


As Murray Roston suggests: “…the simultaneous convergence by writers and artists upon a specific theme, often without knowledge of each other’s work, suggests that it is symptomatic of some shared, fundamental concern of the time, one of the structural underpinnings for the generation”. [26]



Evidence suggests that Dickens had originally intended that the Edith/Dombey and Alice/Carker relationships in Dombey and Son should analogously explore the parallels between arranged marriages and prostitution and intending these would throw into sharp and favourable relief the true love between Florence Dombey and Walter Gay. Mrs. Skewton, Edith’s mother, and Good Mother Brown, Alice’s mother, should be shown in parallel. Edith’s marriage, more or less brokered by Mrs. Skewton, is essentially a financial contract. When Dombey and Edith return from Paris, he tells her the house has been redecorated according to their wishes: “I directed no expense should be spared; and that all money could do, has been done, I believe”. Mrs. Skewton answers: “And what can it not do, dear Dombey?”[27]  Edith recognises what her mother is and what she has done and it is which makes Edith want to protect Florence from Mrs. Skewton’s influence: “Am I to be told … that there is contagion and corruption in me, that I am not fit company for a girl?” she demands and Edith answers: “I have put the question to myself…. and God knows, I have met with my reply. Oh, mother, if you had but left me to my natural heart when I too was a girl – a younger girl than Florence – how different I might have been![28] This sorry portrait of a mother/child relationship is paralleled with that between Good Mother Brown and her daughter, Alice Marwood: “You think I’m in my second childhood, I know! … That’s the respect and duty I get from my own gal…” croaks the old woman.[29] After Edith and Carker have fled the country together, Dombey comes to them for information, prepared of course, to pay for it: “Money … will bring about unlikely things. I know…” Upon which Alice asks him: “Do you know nothing more powerful than money?” Mrs. Brown’s eyes as she takes the clinking coins from Dombey’s hand are: “as bright and greedy as a raven’s”. The full and terrible story of Alice’s pathetic life is rehearsed in the scene where she confronts Harriet, her seducer’s sister, and tells her how her own mother brought her up in the hope of making money out of her attractions and charms, how she was seduced by James Carker: “I was made a short-lived toy, and flung aside more cruelly and carelessly than even such things are…” She was thrown onto the streets and followed an inevitable path. She was transported in the usual manner of achieving reform and redemption, but has returned to repay her original seducer. [30] Alice dies a true repentant’s death, nursed to the end by the faithful Harriet Carker, and drifts out into eternal life as Harriet reads her consoling passages from the scriptures: “the eternal book for all the weary, and heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of the earth – the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all the dainty clay…”[31]


The initial scheme was considerably revised during the novel’s composition as Dickens was persuaded by the reactions of Francis, Lord Jeffrey, who wrote to him[32] saying he could not believe that Edith would actually commit adultery.


The Ellen Ternan Affair

Dickens never lost his love of theatre and developed into a fine amateur actor. He threw himself into amateur theatricals at Tavistock House. Wilkie Collins had written a melodrama, The Frozen Deep, inspired by Sir John Franklin's fateful expedition to the North West Passage in 1845. It was performed at the Free Trade Hall with a possible audience of over two thousand. Professional actresses, Mrs. Ternan and two of her theatrical daughters, Maria and Ellen, took the leading female parts on this occasion. Ellen Ternan was very pretty eighteen year-old, who looked even younger. She had fair hair, large blue eyes, golden curly hair hanging in ringlets and a lively personality. Dickens fell madly, intoxicatingly and indulgently in love with her. He was totally possessed. 

At this time the marriage between Charles and Catherine was rapidly deteriorating. Ellen was probably an effect rather than the cause of break-up. The performance in Manchester was a triumph. At the high-water mark of the drama, as Ellen nursed the dying Dickens in her arms, her tears fell down on to his face, poured all over him like rain. He whispered to her: "My dear child, it will over in two minutes. Pray, compose yourself." Ellen answered: "It's no comfort to me that it will be soon over. Oh! it is so sad, it is so dreadfully sad. Oh, don't die! Give me time, give me a little time. Don't take leave of me in this terrible way -- pray, pray, pray!"

The sobbing of the front rows of the audience could plainly be heard. Wilkie Collins recorded that this was the greatest performance of his play that he could have imagined: "He literally electrified the audience" of three thousand.

Domestic Crisis

Ellen took possession of his mind. He spent a great deal of time in her proximity -- travelling, rehearsing, communal meals -- and she seemed to fill the gap opened by his anticipation in meeting Maria Beadnell again, which in the event, the real Maria had failed to fulfill. Now that these performances, which had buoyed him up for so many weeks, were over, he lapsed into depression. He went on a tour with Collins through Cumberland. They went to Doncaster races. What a coincidence -- the Theatre Royal, open during the race meeting, had engaged Mrs. Ternan and her daughters for the season.

Dickens returned to London even more unsettled than before. They had been married twenty-two years. He was forty-six, she was forty-three. He was a man of ruthless, brisk, regimental routine. He could no longer tolerate his wife's clumsiness, inefficiency and haphazard way coping with life. This seems cruel. She had given birth to ten children, endured several miscarriages, and was now of ruddy complexion and ample girth. Evidence of Dickens's view of his wife's domestic and maternal capacities is the fact that Georgina Hogarth managed the household since 1842, and combined the roles of nurse and teacher to the Dickens children. The novelist himself did most of the shopping.

Nevertheless, the animosity, depth and strength of his feelings are quite startling.  His alienation from his Catherine certainly encouraged him to embark on public reading tours of his works. Some idea of the state of his mind and emotions may be gauged from this letter:

"I believe that no two people were ever created, with such an impossibility of interest, sympathy, confidence, sentiment, tender union of any kind between them, as there is between my wife and me. It is an immense misfortune to her -- it is an immense misfortune to me -- but Nature has put an insurmountable barrier between us, which never in this world can be thrown down. ...she is the only person whom I have ever known with whom I could not get on somehow or other, and in communicating with whom I could find some way to come to some kind of interest. You know that I have many compulsive faults which often belong to my impulsive way of life and exercise of fancy; but I am very patient and considerate at heart, and would have beaten out a better journey's end than we have come to, if I could..."  [33]

He even went so far as to imply that Catherine had shown little real affection for the children:

"...she has never attached one of them to herself, nor played with them in infancy, never attracted their confidence, as they have grown older, never presented herself before them in the aspect of a mother.... Mary and Katey (whose dispositions are of the gentlest and most affectionate conceivable) harden into stone figures of girls when they can be got to go near her, and have their hearts shut up in her presence as if they were closed by some horrid spring.... It is her misery to live in some fatal atmosphere which slays every one to whom she should be dearest". [34]

He was clearly madly in love with Ellen, and disaffected with Catherine. Rumours began that Ellen had become his mistress. He was furious. Dickens bought a bracelet for Ellen Ternan, which was delivered by mistake to Catherine Dickens. Kate Dickens found her mother in tears after Dickens had

requested she visit Ellen Ternan. Kate told her not to go. But she did. They would have to part. Dickens suggested Catherine go and live at Gad's Hill, while he stayed in London. She could come to town, when he wanted to stay in the country. She declined the arrangement. He suggested she live in France. She declined. She should live upstairs in Tavistock House and he would live in the lower floors. She refused. They agreed to separate in June.

He put his wife in accommodation and granted her an allowance of £600 a year.  Their eldest son, Charlie, went with her. Georgina Hogarth ran his household. On 12 June 1858 he published a cruelly self-justifying article in his journal, Household Words, of all places, explaining the situation.  Some domestic trouble of his, of long standing, the article claimed, had lately been brought to an arrangement that involved no anger or ill-will. All the details are known to the Dickens children, he said:

"By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel -- involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart.... I most solemnly declare, then -- and this I do both in my own name and in my wife's name -- that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble, at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth".

He sent this to the newspapers and many reprinted it. He fell out with Bradbury and Evans, his publishers, because they refused to publish this statement in Punch, as they thought it unsuitable for a humorous periodical. An even more tactless public statement appeared in New York Tribune, which   eventually found its way on to the pages of several British newspapers. Here Dickens publicly declared that it had been only Georgina Hogarth who had held the family together for some time:

“.... I will merely remark of her that some peculiarity of her character has thrown all the children on someone else. I do not know -- I cannot by any stretch of fancy imagine -- what would have become of them but for this aunt, who has grown up with them, to whom they are devoted, and who has sacrificed the best part of her youth and life to them.

She has remonstrated, reasoned, suffered, and toiled, again and again, to prevent a separation between Mrs. Dickens and me. Mrs. Dickens has often expressed to her sense of affectionate care and devotion in her home -- never more strongly than within the last twelve months.

For some years past Mrs. Dickens has been in the habit of representing to me that it would be better for her to go away and live apart; that her always increasing estrangement were a mental disorder under which she sometimes  labours -- more, that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better away...

Two wicked persons (he is referring to Mrs. Hogarth and her youngest daughter, Helen Hogarth) who should have spoken very differently of me, in consideration of earned respect and gratitude, have.... coupled with this separation the name of a young lady for whom I have a great attachment and regard. I will not repeat her name -- I honour it too much. Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady. I know her to be as innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters...


Far from making the situation better, this prompted further press comment and much gossip, and his treatment of Catherine alienated several of his friends and associates in the literary world -- Thackeray among them. A reliable witness, Kate Storey, who knew Dickens's daughter, recorded Kate Dickens's recollections of her father's behaviour at this time:

"My father was like a madman when my mother left home. This affair brought out all that was worst -- all that was weakest -- in him. He didn't care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home". [35]

But there was no turning back. At the same he was busy writing and undertaking a heavy schedule of public readings. [36]

In May 1859 he was at Gad's Hill with Georgina Hogarth and his children. This was to be the permanent Dickens family address for the rest of his life. They holidayed at Broadstairs. The following summer his daughter Kate married, Charles Allston Collins, brother of Wilkie Collins. He sold up Tavistock Place and made Gad's Hill the family home in September 1860. It was at this moment, when he left Tavistock House, that he burned all those letters.

Nevertheless, enough evidence survives to suggest that he visited Ellen in France (or passing the time in other ways)[37].


There is some evidence that Ellen Ternan lived in France soon after the Dickens’s marriage broke up, that she accompanied the novelist at official visits to Paris and that he frequently visited her in France. [38] It has even been suggested that she secretly gave birth to his child. His son Charles is reported to have said, "There was a child, but it died". (There is evidence of a second child born in 1867, which lived only a week). What is incontrovertible is the fact that Ellen returned with him to England in June and was on the train to London with him when there was a serious railway accident on 9 June 1865[39] at Staplehurst in Kent, where the line was under repair. Several passengers were injured and a few killed. Dickens was out of his carriage among them immediately, helping and comforting victims as well as possible. Having done all that he could he suddenly remembered he had left the next number of Our Mutual Friend in his compartment, so he returned to fetch it. He seemed cool and collected, but in fact was very badly shaken.

When he returned to Gad's Hill he was still in shock. For a month afterwards he seemed unable to recover his old spirits and his pulse was weak and he was in low spirits. He found writing very difficult, and was faint and sick by turns. He instructed his servant to take presents and comfort in various forms to Ellen:

"Take Miss Ellen tomorrow morning, a little basket of fresh fruit, a jar of clotted cream.... and a chicken, a pair of pigeons, or some nice little bird. Also on Wednesday morning, and on Friday morning, take her some other things of the same sort -- making a little variety each day".

He could not bear to travel on the railway. In fact, he probably never recovered from trauma of this accident.

He gradually forced himself to travel by rail again, using only slow trains at first, but eventually back to the normal schedule of rail transport. But even then, when the train went over points, or jolted during the journey, he turned white, shook and sweated, his spirits only returning after a dram of brandy. The accident marked him for the remainder of his life.

There is evidence that Dickens and Ellen continued their relationship and that he took various addresses with her  in Peckham and Slough.  The final monthly episode of Our Mutual Friend appeared in November 1865. In the spring 1866, despite his obviously failing health, he embarked on another reading tour. He also read in Scotland and extensively in the USA. The strain on him was considerable, and his health further suffered.

He arrived back in England on 1 May 1868. He decided while he was still in America that when he returned he would give a series of Farewell Readings and then no more.

The Farewell Readings began on 5 October 1868 at St James's Hall, London, to be followed by a tour of leading provincial cities. (These last readings included the terrifying Sikes and Nancy murder he worked up from Oliver Twist).

His association with Ellen Ternan continued, he visited her regularly. This relationship continued for twelve years, though not a great deal was really known about it until quite recently, when some secrets came to light, revealed almost in the manner of Dickens's fiction. Some information was revealed in a book, Dickens and Daughter 1939, written by Gladys Storey, a friend of Dickens's daughter Kate. Scholars tended to regard it with suspicion, and rumoured that it was based on hearsay. When Gladys Storey died in 1978, papers and diaries were found in an old wardrobe. These were handed to the Dickens House Museum, in Doughty Street. They reveal that Dickens kept a house in Peckham for Ellen, with two servants, and that in a conversation with novelist's son, Sir Henry Dickens, it is revealed that there was a son, who died in infancy. A much fuller picture of Dickens association with Ellen has therefore become possible.[40]

He began his twelve farewell readings at St James's Hall, London, on 11 January 1870.

His final reading on 15 March 1870 was attended by over two thousand and thirty people, and three times that number were turned away at the doors of the hall.

Dickens died on 9 June 1870 while still at work on his last, uncompleted novel, Edwin Drood. Charlie, Katey, Ellen Ternan were called to his side. There is convincing evidence that Ellen Ternan was with him when he died.[41]His body was buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, on 14 June. Those present included the Dickens children then in England -- Charlie, Mary, Katey and Harry -- Georgina Hogarth, Dickens's sister, Letitia, Charley's wife and his friend (and first biographer) John Forster, Frank Beard, his physician, Charles and Wilkie Collins and Dickens's solicitor, Frederic Ouvrey.

In his will he left Ellen Ternan £1,000 free of legacy duty, Georgina Hogarth £8,000 and the interest upon a similar sum to Catherine, Mary was to get £1,000 and an annuity of £300, if she remained single, should she marry her income was to be divided equally among his surviving children, who were equally to share the rest of his estate.   Charlie was to have his library and other papers, his gold watch and manuscripts of his books went to Forster. There was a rather chill paragraph, which underscored the nature of separation:

"I desire here simply to record the fact that my wife, since our separation by consent, has been in the receipt from me of an annual income of £600, while all the great charges of a numerous and expensive family have devolved wholly upon myself".

Georgina Hogarth, who had more or less run the Dickens household after Catherine left, did her best to salvage Dickens's personal reputation and maintaining his memory. With Mamie Dickens she edited a selection of his letters for publication.  She died in 1917. What was her attitude to the Ellen Ternan Affair? Had the novelist only exchanged one heartache for another? One twentieth century biographer thought so. Nelly might well have been dazzled by Dickens’s fame, flattered by his admiration and generosity but apparently she did not respond with the whole-hearted devotion he craved. He wanted a permanent relationship: “Ellen, if she had submitted to his advances after the separation, seems to have done so coldly and with a worried sense of guilt”.[42] There has, somewhat inevitably, been much discussion as to the influence of the Ternan affair on Dickens’s fiction. According to E.D.H. Johnson it influenced the naming of the heroines of the last three novels, Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend and Helena Landless in Edwin Drood.  And then we go on to ask whether the willful and imperious ways of Estella and Bella represent a noteworthy departure from the earlier ideal of saintly meekness embodied in Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, and Amy Dorrit? Even further, it’s suggested that there can be no mistaking that Dickens' later fiction explores sexual passion with an intensity and perceptiveness not shown before.[43]



When Georgina Hogarth heard that Thomas Wright was collecting materials for his biography of Dickens, she was very anxious the “certain privacies” should be preserved. Wright had, apparently, access to some evidence about the Ternan affair, including a story that Canon Benham had told him of Ellen’s confessing to intimacies with Dickens. He replied to Georgina’s letter by saying that it would have been cruel to make such revelations at that early date.[44]

Maria Beadnell (Mrs. Winter) died in 1886. Catherine never saw her husband again after their separation. She was not at his funeral. She died in 1879. In 1876 Ellen Ternan married George Wharton Robinson, a clergyman, who became headmaster of a school in Margate. She died in 1914 and was buried in the same graveyard as Maria Beadnell.

 Summing Up: I began by saying that to me Dickens seemed somehow to be rather the last great 18th century novelist than a Victorian novelist. Yet, at this stage, I think there is something extraordinarily Victorian about the case. And I find myself realizing almost how well Dickens fits Lesley A. Hall’s characterization of the Victorian father figure who married a virginal bride, holds lengthy family prayers before breakfast, has an unsatisfactory personal relationship with his wife who is soon exhausted with childbearing, bullies his sons, keeps his daughters as ignorant and as possible “and keeps a mistress in discreet establish and probably also has sex with underage prostitutes”.[45]




[1] Marcus Stone: The Other Victorians 1966; Ronal Pearsall: The Worm in the Bud 1969; Michael Mason: The Making of Victorian Sexuality 1995 and Juith Walkowitz: Prostitution and Victorian Society 1980.

[2] Peter Ackroyd: Dickens 1990 and Claire Tomalin: The Invisible Woman 1991

[3] See also Michael Slater: Dickens and Women 1983.

[4] Charles Eliot Norton  in North American Review, April 1868.

[5] Letter to Thomas Powell, 2 August 1845, quoted in Walter Dexter: The Love Romance of Charles Dickens 1936 p. 21

[6] Fanny graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 1827 after studying under Ignaz Moscheles among others. She was a fine pianist. Charles had no gift at the keyboard but was a fine exponent of comic songs, such as ‘The Dandy Dog’s Meat Man’ as well as romantic ballads. John Payne Collier: An Old Man’s Diary: Forty Years Ago, for private circulation, quoted in Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 1952 p. 55

[7] See Edgar Johnson ibid pp. 54 ff.

[8] For an account of the wholre story, see Edgar Johnson op. cit. pp.67-83.

[9] This remarkable man had been educated for the law in Edinburgh. A cellist and composer, he  was always led by his profound love of music. He married Georgina Thomson, the daughter of a friend of Robert Burns, and they moved in musical and literary circles. At one time Hogarth was legal advisor to Sir Walter Scott. Hogarth thrived in musical journalism and became music critic for the Chronicle and later, edited the paper.

[10] John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson: Dickens at Work 1957 p. 75

[11] It is a matter of considerable interest that the love of two sisters for the same man is a central theme in that curious story The Battle of Life: A Love Story 1846. It seems to me (as to others) that here we find Dickens quite unable to master his subject matter and successfully to deal with the matters he so obviously has in min. See Nicholas Clark: ‘Mary Hogarth and ‘The Battle of Life’ Dilemma: Fidelity in a Dickensian Christmas Book’, in Deep South, Volume 3, Number 3, Spring 1997.

[12] Letter quoted in Edgar Johnson op. cit. p. 496

[13] See Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 1952 pp. 496-500. Dickens visited Thompson and Christina’s family in Italy in 1853 and was quite shocked at the Bohemian way of life and the “singularly untidy state of her little girls”.

[14] See William M. Clarke: The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins 1988

[15] See Laura Hapke: ‘He Stoops to Conquer: Redeeming the Fallen Woman in the Fiction of Dickens, Gaskell and their Contemporaries’ in Victorian Newsletter, volume 69 (1986) pp 16-22

[16] Hilary Evans:The Oldest Profession 1979 pp. 104-5: see also Kellow Chesney:The Victorian Underworld 1970 pp.307 ff. and Philip Collins: Dickens and Crime 1965 pp.94-116.

[17] Angela Burdett-Coutts 1814-1906 became the richest woman in Britain save the Queen when in 1837 she inherited half the proceeds of Coutts Bank, founded by her maternal grandfather. A strongly evangelical Anglican (“God’s Almoner”), she met the novelist in 1839. He dedicated Martin Chuzzlewit to her. She attended his readings. And paid to send his eldest son, Charley, to Eton and provided Walter (his second son) with his East India Company cadetship. He enthusiastically supported her various educational and philanthropical efforts, their friendship only coming to an end at the time of his separation from Catherine.

[18] John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens 1872, ND Fireside Edition p. 300.

[19] See Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 1952 pp. 593-5

[20] Charles Dickens: ‘The Prisoners’ Van’ in Dickens’s Journalism: Sketches s by Boz and Other Early Papers 1833-39, edited by Michael Slater 1994 p. 271

[21] Ford Madox Brown 1821-93 was born in Calais and studied in Antwerp, Paris and Rome. He came to England in 1845 and associated with the Pre Raphaelites but was not really a member of the brotherhood. His Chaucer at the Court of Edward III  1851 has portraits of several of Pre Raphaelite friends. His most famous paintings are The Last of England 1855 and Work 1863.

[22] Richard Redgrave 1804-1888, subject and landscape painter; student at the Royal Academy, Ra 1851; was Inspector-general for art in the government school of design 1857 and surveyor of crown pictures. Brother of art historian Samuel Redgrave 1802-1876.

[23] William Holman Hunt 1827-1910 was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1848. This picture conforms to his principles of using painting to express serious ideas, directly studied from nature, emphasising the portrayal of events as they must have happened.

[24] A rather more complex moral judgement is at play in his fellow Pre Raphaelite brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Found that depicts a drover as he discovers his former beloved, now a prostitute, in the town.  The drover’s expression shows compassion and forgiveness.

[25] Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-63 was a student at the Royal Academy and later exhibitor. He acted with Dickens in amateur theatricals and designed costumes for his productions, including Every Man in his Humour.. See Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 1952 pp. 617, 649, 668, 711, 722, 785-6.  Dickens hoped that Georgina Hogarth, his sister in laws, might marry him, but these hopes came to nothing. Dickens commissioned his fine painting of her sewing, although he had a rather view of his artistry. British painting, he considered, was conventional and confined. See Johnson ibid pp. 858-9.

[26] Murray Roston: ‘Disrupted Homes: The Fallen Women in Victorian Art and Ltterature’ in Murray Baumgartewn and H. M. Daleski, editors: Homes and Homelessness in the Victorian Imagination, NY 198 p. 91

[27] Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son, Chapter 35

[28] Ibid Chapter 30. The plea for the natural development of the heart is echoed in Hard Times when Louisa rounds on her father, following the marriage proposal of Mr. Bounderby: “What do I know, father…of tastes and fancies… what escape have I had from problems that could be demonstrated, and realities that could not be grasped?… You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream….” Hard Times Chapter 15

[29] Dombey and Son, Chapter 52

[30] Dombey and Son, Chapter 53

[31] Ibid Chapter 58. The analogy of Alice and Edith is well discussed in H. M. Daleski: Dickens and the Art of Analogy 1970  pp. 118-20, 130 ff. See also J. Hillis Miller: Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels 1969: pp. 144 ff.

[32] Letter dated 21 December 1847. See Robert Giddings: The Author, the Book and the Reader 1991

pp. 132-3.

[33] The account of the break down in the Dickens’s marriage is largely taken from details and evidence quoted in Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 1952 pp. 917 ff.

[34] Letter to Angela Burdett Coutts 9 May 1858.

[35] Kate Storey: Dickens and Daughter 1939

[36] He compelled Bradbury and Evans to sell him their stock in Household  Word and embarked on a reading tour of eighty seven performances reading at forty four places --  in Ireland and Scotland --  as well as England.  He began a new weekly journal, All the Year Round, in which he serialised A Tale of Two Cities (until November 1859). This weekly also contained his articles The Uncommercial Traveller, as well as some of his his best journalism.

[37] See Claire Tomalin: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens 1990 pp.135-41 and 147-8,

[38] Claire Tomalin: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens 1990 p. 135 ff.

[39] Five years later, in 1870, to the very day, he was to die on the  day of Staplehurst  crash -- 9 June.


[40] It has been definitively explored in Claire Tomalin: The Invisible Woman : The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens 1990

[41] Una Pope Hennessy: Charles Dickens 1945 p 464. This is based on the authority of Gladys Storey, who was told by Kate, Dickens’s daughter. She may have been sent for by Georgina Hogarth, according to Walter Dexter. See also Gladys Storey: Dickens and Daughter 1939 p 137.

[42] Thomas Wright: The Life of Charles Dickens, New York 1936 p. 67.

[43] See. E. D. H. Johnson. Charles Dickens: An Introduction to His Novels.. New York 1969


[44] See Wright ibid p. 283.

[45] Lesley A. Hall: ‘The Other in the Mirror: Sex, Victorians and Historians’, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, October 1998.