Reading Dickens at university, I found myself searching, thirsting in the end, for a female character that united strength with charm in something resembling reality. All I could see were grotesques at one extreme, coquettes at the other, and in the middle spineless, simpering, mawkish Agnes Wickfield or Ada Clare - veritable Victorian angels. Though there were many to amuse, I couldn’t find a single female character that inspired admiration. The only one that came close was Mrs Bagnet in Bleak House, but even she was a caricature.
Miriam Margulyes’ one-woman show places the women in Dickens’ life alongside the women in his books. As an answer to my question about where these women came from, it’s illuminating, and a little bit scary. A writer of comic genius and apparently boundless sympathy, he was a man of strong, strange and often cruel passion towards women.
It begins with his mother, who famously sent him back to the blacking factory after his father rescued him. He wrote with palpable bitterness, “I never afterwards forgot, I never can forget, I never shall forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” She is punished for this in the character of Mrs Nickleby, one of the most unwise, unfeeling mothers to be found in his work.
Then there’s his first love, Maria Beadnell, on whom Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield is based. Pretty, silly, shallow and utterly self-absorbed, Dora dies early in their marriage. After a horrifying reunion with Maria years afterward, Dickens resurrected Dora as Little Dorrit’s Flora Finching. Flora is Dora twenty years older, fatter and giddier. A spoiled and artless girl might be enchanting, but to be spoiled and artless in rotund middle age was unforgivable.
Perhaps most disquieting is Dickens’ ultimate marriage to Catherine Hogarth, who doesn’t seem to have warranted a literary vengeance, though Dickens came to regard his marriage to her as his greatest mistake. Two of Catherine’s sisters lived with the couple, first Mary and then Georgina; Dickens was deeply attached to both these women, but less and less to his wife, from whom he separated after 22 years of marriage. It’s hard to imagine and impossible to guess what estranged them, but it looks as though an original personal incompatibility was compounded by Catherine’s severe depression.
This seems to have begun after the birth of their first baby, whom Catherine had trouble breast-feeding. Mary wrote, “every time she sees her baby she has a fit of crying.” Not long afterwards, Mary died suddenly, causing Catherine to have the first of several miscarriages, and causing Dickens acute misery from which he never recovered. He wore her ring and carried a lock of her hair, called her a “perfect creature,” and expressed a wish to be buried in her grave. Whatever state of mind this portended in Dickens, it cannot have conduced to Catherine’s mental health. Nine more children followed, including a baby girl that died at nine months. Dickens seemed baffled by the arrival of so many children. Of their last, a son, he said: “on the whole I could have dispensed with him.” Soon after this they separated, surrounded by rumours of Dickens' infidelity.
Perhaps the most heart-tearing glimpse into the truth of their marriage comes from a comment Dickens’ friend Henry Morley made after he had met Mrs Dickens. “One sees in five minutes that she loves her husband and her children, and has a warm heart for anybody who won't be satirical.” How was such a temper to be the wife of the greatest satirist of the age?
It seems she looked in vain, as I did, for something in Dickens that would allow women who were less than angelic to escape satire.