Dickens Troubled Marriage: A Victorian Scandal
By his own account, Dickens's marriage was a dismal failure.
Charles Dickens had married Catherine Hogarth when he was 24 and she was 22. They had been engaged for a year before they were married. But the marriage appears to have been troubled from the start.
Catherine Dickens (Hogarth), Wife of Charles Dickens
It did not help that Dickens was infatuated with Catherine's younger teenaged sister Mary who lived with the couple when they were first married. Mary died unexpectedly in Dickens arms and he was inconsolable. For the rest of his life he would idealize Mary and even use her as a template for many of his virtuous female characters such as Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop
A portrait of Catherine as a young woman shows the image of a pretty young woman. But after giving birth to ten children, Catherine was now dowdy and plump. Her physical charms having faded, Dickens now found himself confronted by the fact that he and his wife had nothing in common. Unintellectual and unimaginative, though by all accounts a warm and loving person, Catherine began to repulse Dickens.
In 1858, the 45 year old Dickens met 18 year old Ellen Ternan, and actress. He fell in love with her and, in spite of Victorian conventions, made the decision to separate from his wife. Despite inequitable matrimonial laws which gave Catherine no claim to Dickens assets or income, he offered to provide fairly generously for her financially, though the custody arrangement for the children seems quite harsh. Their son Charley went to live with his mother while Dickens kept all of the other children, to be raised at Dickens' estate by Catherine's surviving sister Georgina. Most of the children would not speak to their mother again unit after their father's death.
In one letter Dickens wrote: "I believe my marriage has been for years and years as miserable a one as ever was made ... 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 ..."
What Having 10 Children Will Do To A Victorian Woman's Figure: Catherine Dickens in Later Life
Immediately rumours swirled about the real reason for the breakdown of the Dickens marriage. Some alleged that Ellen Tiernan was the cause, while other more vicious rumours suggested that the reason that Catherine's sister Georgina had been willing to stay with Dickens to help raise the children was that he was carrying on an incestuous affair with his sister in law Georgina. As salacious as these details and allegations are even today, they were especially scandalous in the sexually repressed Victorian era, in which it was taboo to even discuss these things.
The scandal grew around Dickens, and the allegation of an affair with his sister in law seemed to grow each minute. It became the subject of innuendo in the newspapers and in coffee shop gossip; rumour had it that he had fathered three children with Georgina. Reeling from these accusations, Dickens issued a statement - an early form of Victorian damage control/press release - denying the affair with Georgina or Ellen, although he did not name her. He referred to Ellen as a "virtuous and spotless creature" and blamed the rumours on two wicked people. Although he did not publicly denounce whom he thought were behind the rumours, Dickens believed that it was his wife's family. Angered by what he considered a betrayal, Dickens used his superior financial and legal position to extract concessions from his wife. He refused to provide for her support unless she publicly announced in writing that there was no affair between Dickens and his sister or the actress. Faced with no other choice, Catherine complied, and this seemed to squelch the rumours. See also Dickens' Family and Lovers
Ellen Ternan - Dickens' Mistress
In fact, of course, Dickens did have a relationship with at least Ellen. Though it is not clear to what extent they were involved before his separation from his wife, it was still adultery because Dickens and his wife never divorced. One has to wonder, given that he was lying about Ellen, whether there was some truth to the allegations of an improper relationship with Georgina. It is in fact strange that Georgina chose to make Dickens the center of her life, to the point of turning down two marriage proposals so that she could stay with her brother in law. And it is not as if a relationship with a sister in law was without precedent.
Although Dickens' infatuation with his idealized younger sister in law Mary was probably platonic, we know that he did not necessarily respect these sort of family boundaries. Perhaps the stories about Dickens and Georgina were real.