THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS
Perhaps no public man in the English-speaking world, in the last
century, was so widely and intimately known as Charles Dickens.
From his eighteenth year, when he won his first success in
journalism, down through his series of brilliant triumphs in
fiction, he was more and more a conspicuous figure, living in the
blaze of an intense publicity. He met every one and knew every
one, and was the companion of every kind of
an and woman. He
loved to frequent the "caves of harmony" which Thackeray has
immortalized, and he was a member of all the best Bohemian clubs
of London. Actors, authors, good fellows generally, were his
intimate friends, and his acquaintance extended far beyond into
the homes of merchants and lawyers and the mansions of the
proudest nobles. Indeed, he seemed to be almost a universal
One remembers, for instance, how he was called in to arbitrate
between Thackeray and George Augustus Sala, who had quarreled. One
remembers how Lord Byron's daughter, Lady Lovelace, when upon her
sick-bed, used to send for Dickens because there was something in
his genial, sympathetic manner that soothed her. Crushing pieces
of ice between her teeth in agony, she would speak to him and he
would answer her in his rich, manly tones until she was comforted
and felt able to endure more hours of pain without complaint.
Dickens was a jovial soul. His books fairly steam with Christmas
cheer and hot punch and the savor of plum puddings, very much as
do his letters to his intimate friends. Everybody knew Dickens. He
could not dine in public without attracting attention. When he
left the dining-room, his admirers would descend upon his table
and carry off egg-shells, orange-peels, and other things that
remained behind, so that they might have memorials of this much-
loved writer. Those who knew him only by sight would often stop
him in the streets and ask the privilege of shaking hands with
him; so different was he from--let us say--Tennyson, who was as
great an Englishman in his way as Dickens, but who kept himself
aloof and saw few strangers.
It is hard to associate anything like mystery with Dickens, though
he was fond of mystery as an intellectual diversion, and his last
unfinished novel was The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Moreover, no one
admired more than he those complex plots which Wilkie Collins used
to weave under the influence of laudanum. But as for his own life,
it seemed so normal, so free from anything approaching mystery,
that we can scarcely believe it to have been tinged with darker
colors than those which appeared upon the surface.
A part of this mystery is plain enough. The other part is still
obscure--or of such a character that one does not care to bring it
wholly to the light. It had to do with his various relations with
The world at large thinks that it knows this chapter in the life
of Dickens, and that it refers wholly to his unfortunate
disagreement with his wife. To be sure, this is a chapter that is
writ large in all of his biographies, and yet it is nowhere
correctly told. His chosen biographer was John Forster, whose Life
of Charles Dickens, in three volumes, must remain a standard work;
but even Forster--we may assume through tact--has not set down all
that he could, although he gives a clue.
As is well known, Dickens married Miss Catherine Hogarth when he
was only twenty-four. He had just published his Sketches by Boz,
the copyright of which he sold for one hundred pounds, and was
beginning the Pickwick Papers. About this time his publisher
brought N. P. Willis down to Furnival's Inn to see the man whom
Willis called "a young paragraphist for the Morning Chronicle."
Willis thus sketches Dickens and his surroundings:
In the most crowded part of Holborn, within a door or two of the
Bull and Mouth Inn, we pulled up at the entrance of a large
building used for lawyers' chambers. I followed by a long flight
of stairs to an upper story, and was ushered into an uncarpeted
and bleak-looking room, with a deal table, two or three chairs and
a few books, a small boy and Mr. Dickens for the contents.
I was only struck at first with one thing--and I made a memorandum
of it that evening as the strongest instance I had seen of English
obsequiousness to employers--the degree to which the poor author
was overpowered with the honor of his publisher's visit! I
remember saying to myself, as I sat down on a rickety chair:
"My good fellow, if you were in America with that fine face and
your ready quill, you would have no need to be condescended to by
Dickens was dressed very much as he has since described Dick
Swiveller, minus the swell look. His hair was cropped close to his
head, his clothes scant, though jauntily cut, and, after changing
a ragged office-coat for a shabby blue, he stood by the door,
collarless and buttoned up, the very personification of a close
sailer to the wind.
Before this interview with Willis, which Dickens always
repudiated, he had become something of a celebrity among the
newspaper men with whom he worked as a stenographer. As every one
knows, he had had a hard time in his early years, working in a
blacking-shop, and feeling too keenly the ignominious position of
which a less sensitive boy would probably have thought nothing.
Then he became a shorthand reporter, and was busy at his work, so
that he had little time for amusements.
It has been generally supposed that no love-affair entered his
life until he met Catherine Hogarth, whom he married soon after
making her acquaintance. People who are eager at ferreting out
unimportant facts about important men had unanimously come to the
conclusion that up to the age of twenty Dickens was entirely
fancy-free. It was left to an American to disclose the fact that
this was not the case, but that even in his teens he had been
captivated by a girl of about his own age.
Inasmuch as the only reproach that was ever made against Dickens
was based upon his love-affairs, let us go back and trace them
from this early one to the very last, which must yet for some
years, at least, remain a mystery.
Everything that is known about his first affair is contained in a
book very beautifully printed, but inaccessible to most readers.
Some years ago Mr. William K. Bixby, of St. Louis, found in London
a collector of curios. This man had in his stock a number of
letters which had passed between a Miss Maria Beadnell and Charles
Dickens when the two were about nineteen and a second package of
letters representing a later acquaintance, about 1855, at which
time Miss Beadnell had been married for a long time to a Mr. Henry
Louis Winter, of 12 Artillery Place, London.
The copyright laws of Great Britain would not allow Mr. Bixby to
publish the letters in that country, and he did not care to give
them to the public here. Therefore, he presented them to the
Bibliophile Society, with the understanding that four hundred and
ninety-three copies, with the Bibliophile book-plate, were to be
printed and distributed among the members of the society. A few
additional copies were struck off, but these did not bear the
Bibliophile book-plate. Only two copies are available for other
readers, and to peruse these it is necessary to visit the
Congressional Library in Washington, where they were placed on
July 24, 1908.
These letters form two series--the first written to Miss Beadnell
in or about 1829, and the second written to Mrs. Winter, formerly
Miss Beadnell, in 1855.
The book also contains an introduction by Henry H. Harper, who
sets forth some theories which the facts, in my opinion, do not
support; and there are a number of interesting portraits,
especially one of Miss Beadnell in 1829--a lovely girl with dark
curls. Another shows her in 1855, when she writes of herself as
"old and fat"--thereby doing herself a great deal of injustice;
for although she had lost her youthful beauty, she was a very
presentable woman of middle age, but one who would not be
particularly noticed in any company.
Summing up briefly these different letters, it may be said that in
the first set Dickens wrote to the lady ardently, but by no means
passionately. From what he says it is plain enough that she did
not respond to his feeling, and that presently she left London and
went to Paris, for her family was well-to-do, while Dickens was
living from hand to mouth.
In the second set of letters, written long afterward, Mrs. Winter
seems to have "set her cap" at the now famous author; but at that
time he was courted by every one, and had long ago forgotten the
lady who had so easily dismissed him in his younger days. In 1855,
Mrs. Winter seems to have reproached him for not having been more
constant in the past; but he replied:
You answered me coldly and reproachfully, and so I went my way.
Mr. Harper, in his introduction, tries very hard to prove that in
writing David Copperfield Dickens drew the character of Dora from
Miss Beadnell. It is a dangerous thing to say from whom any
character in a novel is drawn. An author takes whatever suits his
purpose in circumstance and fancy, and blends them all into one
consistent whole, which is not to be identified with any
individual. There is little reason to think that the most intimate
friends of Dickens and of his family were mistaken through all the
years when they were certain that the boy husband and the girl
wife of David Copperfield were suggested by any one save Dickens
himself and Catherine Hogarth.
Why should he have gone back to a mere passing fancy, to a girl
who did not care for him, and who had no influence on his life,
instead of picturing, as David's first wife, one whom he deeply
loved, whom he married, who was the mother of his children, and
who made a great part of his career, even that part which was
inwardly half tragic and wholly mournful?
Miss Beadnell may have been the original of Flora in Little
Dorrit, though even this is doubtful. The character was at the
time ascribed to a Miss Anna Maria Leigh, whom Dickens sometimes
flirted with and sometimes caricatured.
When Dickens came to know George Hogarth, who was one of his
colleagues on the staff of the Morning Chronicle, he met Hogarth's
daughters--Catherine, Georgina, and Mary--and at once fell
ardently in love with Catherine, the eldest and prettiest of the
three. He himself was almost girlish, with his fair complexion and
light, wavy hair, so that the famous sketch by Maclise has a
remarkable charm; yet nobody could really say with truth that any
one of the three girls was beautiful. Georgina Hogarth, however,
was sweet-tempered and of a motherly disposition. It may be that
in a fashion she loved Dickens all her life, as she remained with
him after he parted from her sister, taking the utmost care of his
children, and looking out with unselfish fidelity for his many
It was Mary, however, the youngest of the Hogarths, who lived with
the Dickenses during the first twelvemonth of their married life.
To Dickens she was like a favorite sister, and when she died very
suddenly, in her eighteenth year, her loss was a great shock to
It was believed for a long time--in fact, until their separation--
that Dickens and his wife were extremely happy in their home life.
His writings glorified all that was domestic, and paid many tender
tributes to the joys of family affection. When the separation came
the whole world was shocked. And yet rather early in Dickens's
married life there was more or less infelicity. In his
Retrospections of an Active Life, Mr. John Bigelow writes a few
sentences which are interesting for their frankness, and which
give us certain hints:
Mrs. Dickens was not a handsome woman, though stout, hearty, and
matronly; there was something a little doubtful about her eye, and
I thought her endowed with a temper that might be very violent
when roused, though not easily rousable. Mrs. Caulfield told me
that a Miss Teman--I think that is the name--was the source of the
difficulty between Mrs. Dickens and her husband. She played in
private theatricals with Dickens, and he sent her a portrait in a
brooch, which met with an accident requiring it to be sent to the
jeweler's to be mended. The jeweler, noticing Mr. Dickens's
initials, sent it to his house. Mrs. Dickens's sister, who had
always been in love with him and was jealous of Miss Teman, told
Mrs. Dickens of the brooch, and she mounted her husband with comb
and brush. This, no doubt, was Mrs. Dickens's version, in the
A few evenings later I saw Miss Teman at the Haymarket Theatre,
playing with Buckstone and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mathews. She
seemed rather a small cause for such a serious result--passably
pretty, and not much of an actress.
Here in one passage we have an intimation that Mrs. Dickens had a
temper that was easily roused, that Dickens himself was interested
in an actress, and that Miss Hogarth "had always been in love with
him, and was jealous of Miss Teman."
Some years before this time, however, there had been growing in
the mind of Dickens a certain formless discontent--something to
which he could not give a name, yet which, cast over him the
shadow of disappointment. He expressed the same feeling in David
Copperfield, when he spoke of David's life with Dora. It seemed to
come from the fact that he had grown to be a man, while his wife
had still remained a child.
A passage or two may be quoted from the novel, so that we may set
them beside passages in Dickens's own life, which we know to have
referred to his own wife, and not to any such nebulous person as
The shadow I have mentioned that was not to be between us any
more, but was to rest wholly on my heart--how did that fall? The
old unhappy feeling pervaded my life. It was deepened, if it were
changed at all; but it was as undefined as ever, and addressed me
like a strain of sorrowful music faintly heard in the night. I
loved my wife dearly; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated,
once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, AND THERE WAS ALWAYS
What I missed I still regarded as something that had been a dream
of my youthful fancy; that was incapable of realization; that I
was now discovering to be so, with some natural pain, as all men
did. But that it would have been better for me if my wife could
have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had
no partner, and that this might have been I knew.
What I am describing slumbered and half awoke and slept again in
the innermost recesses of my mind. There was no evidence of it to
me; I knew of no influence it had in anything I said or did. I
bore the weight of all our little cares and all my projects.
"There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind
and purpose." These words I remembered. I had endeavored to adapt
Dora to myself, and found it impracticable. It remained for me to
adapt myself to Dora; to share with her what I could, and be
happy; to bear on my own shoulders what I must, and be still
Thus wrote Dickens in his fictitious character, and of his
fictitious wife. Let us see how he wrote and how he acted in his
own person, and of his real wife.
As early as 1856, he showed a curious and restless activity, as of
one who was trying to rid himself of unpleasant thoughts. Mr.
Forster says that he began to feel a strain upon his invention, a
certain disquietude, and a necessity for jotting down memoranda in
note-books, so as to assist his memory and his imagination. He
began to long for solitude. He would take long, aimless rambles
into the country, returning at no particular time or season. He
once wrote to Forster:
I have had dreadful thoughts of getting away somewhere altogether
by myself. If I could have managed it, I think I might have gone
to the Pyrenees for six months. I have visions of living for half
a year or so in all sorts of inaccessible places, and of opening a
new book therein. A floating idea of going up above the snow-line,
and living in some astonishing convent, hovers over me.
What do these cryptic utterances mean? At first, both in his novel
and in his letters, they are obscure; but before long, in each,
they become very definite. In 1856, we find these sentences among
The old days--the old days! Shall I ever, I wonder, get the frame
of mind back as it used to be then? Something of it, perhaps, but
never quite as it used to be.
I find that the skeleton in my domestic closet is becoming a
pretty big one.
His next letter draws the veil and shows plainly what he means:
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--and much more so. We are strangely
ill-assorted for the bond that exists between us.
Then he goes on to say that she would have been a thousand times
happier if she had been married to another man. He speaks of
"incompatibility," and a "difference of temperaments." In fact, it
is the same old story with which we have become so familiar, and
which is both as old as the hills and as new as this morning's
Naturally, also, things grow worse, rather than better. Dickens
comes to speak half jocularly of "the plunge," and calculates as
to what effect it will have on his public readings. He kept back
the announcement of "the plunge" until after he had given several
readings; then, on April 29, 1858, Mrs. Dickens left his home. His
eldest son went to live with the mother, but the rest of the
children remained with their father, while his daughter Mary
nominally presided over the house. In the background, however,
Georgina Hogarth, who seemed all through her life to have cared
for Dickens more than for her sister, remained as a sort of guide
and guardian for his children.
This arrangement was a private matter, and should not have been
brought to public attention; but it was impossible to suppress all
gossip about so prominent a man. Much of the gossip was
exaggerated; and when it came to the notice of Dickens it stung
him so severely as to lead him into issuing a public justification
of his course. He published a statement in Household Words, which
led to many other letters in other periodicals, and finally a long
one from him, which was printed in the New York Tribune, addressed
to his friend Mr. Arthur Smith.
Dickens afterward declared that he had written this letter as a
strictly personal and private one, in order to correct false
rumors and scandals. Mr. Smith naturally thought that the
statement was intended for publication, but Dickens always spoke
of it as "the violated letter."
By his allusions to a difference of temperament and to
incompatibility, Dickens no doubt meant that his wife had ceased
to be to him the same companion that she had been in days gone by.
As in so many cases, she had not changed, while he had. He had
grown out of the sphere in which he had been born, "associated
with blacking-boys and quilt-printers," and had become one of the
great men of his time, whose genius was universally admired.
Mr. Bigelow saw Mrs. Dickens as she really was--a commonplace
woman endowed with the temper of a vixen, and disposed to
outbursts of actual violence when her jealousy was roused.
It was impossible that the two could have remained together, when
in intellect and sympathy they were so far apart. There is nothing
strange about their separation, except the exceedingly bad taste
with which Dickens made it a public affair. It is safe to assume
that he felt the need of a different mate; and that he found one
is evident enough from the hints and bits of innuendo that are
found in the writings of his contemporaries.
He became a pleasure-lover; but more than that, he needed one who
could understand his moods and match them, one who could please
his tastes, and one who could give him that admiration which he
felt to be his due; for he was always anxious to be praised, and
his letters are full of anecdotes relating to his love of praise.
One does not wish to follow out these clues too closely. It is
certain that neither Miss Beadnell as a girl nor Mrs. Winter as a
matron made any serious appeal to him. The actresses who have been
often mentioned in connection with his name were, for the most
part, mere passing favorites. The woman who in life was Dora made
him feel the same incompleteness that he has described in his
best-known book. The companion to whom he clung in his later years
was neither a light-minded creature like Miss Beadnell, nor an
undeveloped, high-tempered woman like the one he married, nor a
mere domestic, friendly creature like Georgina Hogarth.
Ought we to venture upon a quest which shall solve this mystery in
the life of Charles Dickens! In his last will and testament, drawn
up and signed by him about a year before his death, the first
paragraph reads as follows:
I, Charles Dickens, of Gadshill Place, Higham, in the county of
Kent, hereby revoke all my former wills and codicils and declare
this to be my last will and testament. I give the sum of one
thousand pounds, free of legacy duty, to Miss Ellen Lawless
Ternan, late of Houghton Place, Ampthill Square, in the county of
In connection with this, read Mr. John Bigelow's careless jottings
made some fifteen years before. Remember the Miss "Teman," about
whose name he was not quite certain; the Hogarth sisters' dislike
of her; and the mysterious figure in the background of the
novelist's later life. Then consider the first bequest in his
will, which leaves a substantial sum to one who was neither a
relative nor a subordinate, but--may we assume--more than an