Dickens's Women: His Life and Loves by Anne Isba

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Dickens's Women: His Life and Loves by Anne Isba

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A short biography of Charles Dickens issued to mark the bicentenary of his birth, focusing on his relationships with the most important women in his life
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 167 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 9781441107206

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The subject of the several women in the life of Charles Dickens might at first glance seem an unusual theme to build a biography around, but this fairly brief but penetrating book serves its purpose well. The author’s foreword begins by telling us that Dickens was a man who craved a love so unconditional that the yearning was unlikely to be satisfied in this world, a man in thrall to a vision of womanhood so idealized that it was incompatible with everyday domesticity.

Dickens had four brothers and three, possibly four sisters. During his adolescent years, he seems to have been at the centre of several family disagreements - for reasons which remain somewhat involved, not to say unclear- as a result of which he became jealous of his much-adored sister Fanny and nursed a powerful grudge against his mother.

After a brief affair with Maria Beadnell, the daughter of a London banker, he fell in love with Catherine Hogarth and married her in 1836. By this time he was beginning to establish himself as a writer of short stories, and novels soon thereafter. Her younger sister Mary moved in with them for a while after their wedding. Dickens was devoted to her, and he and his wife were equally grief-stricken when Mary died suddenly, probably of heart disease.

His wife bore him ten children, but husband and wife soon drifted apart. He was by no means immune to the charms of other women, and at the age of 45, he made the acquaintance of Nelly Ternan, an actress who was still then in her teens. He was immediately smitten, and the rift in the Dickens' marriage eventually widened into separation and a public statement by him in The Times, although any thought of divorce was out of the question. It caused considerable bitterness within the family, and according to his daughter Katey, He did not care a damn about what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.

For some time, a certain amount of mystery surrounded his liaison with Ternan. Was it a full-blown love affair between two people, or was Dickens merely the protector and platonic lover of an innocent young girl, and one who helped to look after her widowed mother and fatherless sisters? According to Katey, the couple had a son in secret who died in infancy. Ternan later admitted to the local parish priest that she had indeed been the author’s mistress, but remorse made them both miserable and that she now loathed the very thought of this intimacy. This information was kept a closely-guarded secret and did not find its way into print until 1935 after the last of Dickens's children had died.

A platonic, yet invaluable, relationship was formed between Dickens and the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, who was thought to be the richest woman in the land after Queen Victoria. Together they were responsible for various good works, including the setting up of schools for the free education of destitute children, and Urania Cottage, a home for 'fallen women' in which they could be trained for domestic service. Miss Coutts also tried to reconcile Charles and Catherine, but without success.

As a biography of Dickens, this short book makes an interesting read, and I was particularly grateful for the six-page chronology of his life which follows the final chapter. It does, however, leave a certain amount unexplained, in that the author speculates but is unable to put her finger on the exact causes of the estrangement between the author and his mother, then later with his wife. Nevertheless, it reveals that he was a complex, many-sided character with perhaps unrealistic expectations (a case of too great expectations, perhaps?) from those in his life. In this case, the artistic temperament of a creative yet restless soul evidently did not have the makings of a good and faithful husband. As the last sentence reads, Charles Dickens would always have wanted more.

Our thanks to Continuum for supplying us with a review copy.

For further reading, may we recommend The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens, or for a life of one of his contemporaries, Thackeray by D J Taylor. If a fictional account of Dickens' wife appeals, then you should have a look at Far Above Rubies by Anne-Marie Vukelic.

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