Commentary Magazine

Charles Dickens and His Women

When Virginia Woolf said in 1925 that “there is perhaps no person living who can remember reading David Copperfield for the first time,” she was speaking for a post-Victorian generation for whom Charles Dickens was not merely a national monument—there like the dome of St. Paul’s—but a novelist read aloud in the family circle after supper or upstairs before going to bed.

Today, instead of searching for a person who can’t remember first reading David Copperfield, we might be hard pressed to find many who have read it at all. And what of the rest of Dickens’s oeuvre? In 2010, Oprah Winfrey put Great Expectations (“An unforgettable tale of fate and a chance encounter,” according to her website) and A Tale of Two Cities (“thrives on tension and conflict, all set against a bloody backdrop of the French Revolution”) on her book club list. Unpersuaded, her membership mostly sighed, grumbled, and put the books down unfinished—doubtless because they couldn’t find, in those dark, syntactically involved pages, any payout from Oprah’s promise about clues to living “in this digital age.” The publisher, Penguin, had to remainder the handsome two-in-one volumes by the truckload.

If a college professor dares assign a Dickens work today, it’s bound to be something short, chosen in the hope that students might get through it in a couple of weeks: the thin, unrepresentative Hard Times (1854) or the intricately plotted, and unrepresentative, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The midsized Great Expectations (1860–61), one of the glories of the world and representative of Dickens at his best, can make even an advanced-placement kid balk.

We are talking here about the man who was probably the most popular prose stylist who ever lived, whose A Tale of Two Cities remains the world’s best-selling novel—200 million sold, and counting. It would not be true to say that young literate people have no way of connecting to great works of the past; Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot, to name two authors of comparably lengthy novels, have preserved their reputation and their capacity to thrill. As a writer, Dickens is certainly more sheerly entertaining than they. Why then does he seem to flounder? After all, it’s long been said, and with some justice, that if Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing for TV and the movies, which thrive on what he excelled in making: melodrama with social protest, grotesques worthy of the bar scene in Star Wars (“rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles,” as George Orwell said), hilarity, pathos, and suspense. He gives present-day consumers of popular media what they already like: visual and aural signatures that make characters unforgettable, colorful settings in which objects often become creatures, people easy to love and people easy to hate.

All true, but Dickens has a failing the classical writers who have survived in our day do not have. Women elude him.

Take Copperfield’s cast of characters: He pits the domestic deity Agnes against the silly sexpot Dora, neither one of them having any other appreciable qualities; the victimized Little Em’ly becomes a prostitute; the odd Rosa Dartle is twisted into psychopathology by her passion for the abusive J. Steerforth. Such too-good, too-bad, or too-sorry figures offer us the simple satisfactions of melodrama, but adult readers prefer the complications of realism—which Dickens gives us in spades with most of his male characters. Not that realism and melodrama are the only choices. Dickens is a marvelous farceur, his inkwell overflowing with funny and frightening caricatures not just of men but of women, too—old hags such as Mrs. Skewton in Dombey and Son, who has had one face-lift too many, accomplices to murder such as Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, or inventors of idiolects such as Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit (“this Piljian’s Projiss of a mortal wale”).

And in whatever mode, Dickens is an accomplished reporter of the circumstances of women’s lives. His 400-some female characters hold dozens of occupations. They are schoolteachers, governesses, midwives, landladies, dressmakers, factory workers, laundresses, hairdressers, dancers, and of course middle-class homemakers managing their female servants, of whom there were a million in 1860s England—and many of them were younger than 15. We are aware, too, not only of social conditions in general but also of particular aspects of the “woman question”: the difficulty of divorce, the absence of married women’s property rights, the crudities of the marriage market, or, in a parallel market, the haplessness of women driven into the sex trade and wanting, some of them, a new start in life.

In these areas, Dickens certainly deserves to be considered a progressive, but even so, that doesn’t make his fictive females roundly, fully human. We’re stuck with flat sketches, however big the canvas. The same is true of the middle- or upper-class women in the novels, who, if they aren’t ideally pretty, faithful, and efficient, are lovely, lonely, and lazy, with an impulse to bolt for the sake of some man they were once sweet on. Esther Summerson and her unacknowledgeable mother Lady Dedlock, in Bleak House, fall roughly into these categories.

The roots of Dickens’s impercipience, impatience, and occasional insensitivity toward women are exposed in Claire Tomalin’s new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Press, 527 pages). Dickens’s life story informs the style, the themes, the characters, and, not least, the plots of his novels. Back in the 1970s, Tomalin began her career with the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her son-in-law, Percy Shelley, and went on to treat, among others, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, and Thomas Hardy, always doing justice to their literary accomplishments while limning the cultural contexts of their extra-literary, and especially their amorous, adventures. Shelley had been wildly promiscuous, but it was always with women more or less his own tender age (he died at 30). Neither he nor any of Tomalin’s other subjects, however, got into waters as deep as Dickens did in his 13-year affair with Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, who was the bit-part actress daughter of a star actress mother, and with whom he took up when she was a barely legal 18 and he was 45. Adding to the scandal, he was England’s darling, synonymous with Christmas cheer, gentleness to children, and the sacredness of the family.

That’s why Nelly had to be kept in the closet—that is, a private house in a London suburb where Dickens would visit under the alias of “Charles Tringham.” She was an “invisible woman,” which was the title of Tomalin’s life of her in 1990. Here, Tomalin offers little new about Nelly, who lived till 1914, but she does give the inamorata her proper place in a crucial segment of Dickens’s full history.


His bicentenary is upon us. He was born the second of eight children on February 7, 1812. His father, John Dickens, had a decent job as clerk in the Navy Pay Office. But both parents had descended from servants, a downstairs lineage that the father in particular kept quiet about. The mother, Elizabeth, had something worse to hide: Her own father, it came out two years before Dickens’s birth, had embezzled close to £6,000 from the Navy Pay Office. He fled the country and died on the Isle of Man when his grandson was 14 years old. By that time the boy had gone through his own rough patch, having been employed as a 12-year-old at a shoe-blacking factory in London for 13 months, a spell of child labor necessitated by his improvident father’s having been jailed for debt. He would later indignantly wonder that such a promising child should be thus wasted: “My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.”

When after receiving a small inheritance his father was able to pay his debts and walk free, the family rarely spoke about what they’d been through—and never spoke about what Charles in particular had been through at the blacking factory. “It was,” Tomalin says, “as though it had not happened.” Yet this experience, Dickens knew, had made him what he was, both for good and bad.

For good, insofar as he learned to be, in Tomalin’s words, “resourceful, careful, well organized, and [imbued] with a sense of his own dignity even at that tender age”—too dignified to complain about his condition to the other factory boys or to let them know his father was incarcerated. For good, also, insofar as he had discovered one of his constant themes as a writer: the suffering of children.

His boyhood traumas molded him for bad, however, in that he could never entirely forgive his parents, especially his mother, who “was warm for my being sent back” to the blacking factory—a few extra shillings for the family exchequer—even after his father’s release. There are few portraits of loving mothers in Dickens’s novels. His ambivalence toward his impecunious father is plain in the portraits, one light, one dark, of Mr. Micawber in Copperfield and Mr. Dorrit in Little Dorrit. Dickens’s father never did learn to manage money, and till his death in 1851, his well-remunerated son was forever paying his debts. Still, it’s remarkable that Dickens didn’t turn his back on his family. For years he continued to visit them, often with friends in tow, and especially at Christmas. The feasting, music, dancing, and skits we hear about in the letters as well as in his Christmas stories do more, as Tomalin notes, “to perpetuate good feeling than any number of religious homilies penned or spoken.”

For bad, also, in that this holiday conviviality was as far as Dickens usually could go emotionally. His early experiences of the world’s harshness, his sense that in the end the only person he could count on was himself, made him incapable of deep intimacy. We see this most clearly in his relations with women.

Maria Beadnell, a model for the childlike and whiny Dora, David Copperfield’s first wife, had been Dickens’s first infatuation. After jealous, feckless pursuit, from age 19 to 23, he was dismissed as socially unacceptable by her banker father. He must occasionally have paid for the services of London’s prostitutes, but they didn’t answer his deeper needs. “He wanted,” in Tomalin’s words, “to think well of women, and he wanted them to be good, not to be degraded, or to degrade their users. Marriage was the solution, for reasons of sexual hygiene, for domestic comfort, for companionship”—and for domination.

In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, the 20-year-old daughter of George Hogarth, co-editor of the Chronicle, London’s evening paper. In quickly closing with her, the rising 24-year-old novelist was committing what “he came to regard…as the worst mistake in his life.” She was sexually compliant—in 15 years she bore him 10 children—and her lack of cleverness may, Tomalin suggests, “have been part of her charm: foolish little women are more often presented as sexually desirable in his writing than clever, competent ones….He did not want a wife who would compel his imagination.”

Then why, to push ahead 21 years, did he in 1857 fall in love with Nelly Ternan? At the time, the madly busy Dickens was taking on “anything and everything,” Tomalin believes, “rather than leave himself time to reflect on his dissatisfaction with his life” with Catherine “and what he might do about it.” He wrote to his friend (and eventual biographer) John Forster that “poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it.” He would separate from her, become the protector of Mrs. Ternan and her three daughters, pay court to Nelly, and demand that his children and friends toe the line about his relationship with her—or be eternally banished.

Before separating from Catherine, he partitioned their bedroom and slept alone, as if by rejecting her body he could signal his freedom from, in Tomalin’s unsparing words, “a sexual habit that had been reduced to a humiliating form of relief, with no residue of tenderness”—as if by this abstention he could make himself, for Nelly’s sake, “pure as a boy again.” Tomalin indulges in understatement when she writes: “The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying.”

The biographer wants to “avert” her eyes from much of Dickens’s activity during 1858, when he asked Forster to negotiate with Catherine for a legal separation and then, against his friend’s counsel, published self-vindications in the Times, the New York Tribune, and his own magazine, Household Words. He disparaged Catherine, who “in her always increasing estrangement” suffered “a mental disorder,” such “that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better far away.” He defended the reputation of her younger sister Georgina against charges of disloyalty to Catherine, since Georgina, having lived as a member of the family, chose to stay on as Dickens’s housekeeper. As for the “invisible” but gossiped-about Nelly: “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”—as she was also, many people knew, about the age of his own dear daughters.

And there is some question about whether he felt so confident in Nelly’s virtue because she would not sleep with him. Eminent Dickens biographers who have read Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman—Peter Ackroyd in 1990 and Michael Slater in 2009—aren’t convinced that Nelly went to bed with the man who covered all her family’s expenses. Tomalin is persuaded, and persuades me, that Nelly and Dickens did consummate their relationship and that, across the Channel in France in 1862, she gave birth to a boy who died within his first year. In the 1890s, Dickens’s daughter Katey told George Bernard Shaw as much. Forster had kept mum about Nelly in his biography (1872–74), and for many decades anyone going public with information about a sexual affair between her and Dickens was, as Tomalin notes, condemned as “a despicable scandal-monger by his admirers, although, curiously, his ill treatment of Catherine did not worry them much.” As recently as 1939, an English publisher suppressed a scholarly book about the Dickens-Nelly relationship, perhaps fearing its findings to be actionable, “even though,” as Tomalin observes, “all those involved were dead.”

So, the Inimitable, as Dickens rightly called himself in the blessed dawn of the late 1830s, was a deeply flawed human being. It’s not only the foolish marriage, the more foolish separation, and the May-December romance with Nelly, but also what we’ve only touched on here: the gargantuan egoism. Nevertheless, his defense of the poor and the dispossessed was genuinely felt, as were his philanthropic labors to bring sex workers out of the gutter and into respectable society (usually through emigration to the colonies). He managed, quite impressively, to sublimate his solicitude for his own neglected, nearly castaway younger self into something like a Victorian model of Christian charity.

The charity surely inspired Tolstoy, who, speaking for generations of Dickens’s readers, wrote, “All his characters are my personal friends.” We may wonder, however, if the creator of Anna Karenina, even in his long, late religious phase, really felt that way about Dickens’s women: the child-bride sillies such as Dora, the child-saint angels such as Amy Dorrit, the stone-hearted dazzlers such as Estella in Great Expectations, and the all-too-virtuous heroines such as Agnes.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of essentials. Dickens’s personal vices or virtues, singly or in combination, can’t subtract an iota from, or add an iota to, his artistic achievement. Nor will a series of colorless female leads, who are never at the center of his books the way they would be in books by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, or Thomas Hardy, incite serious people to expel him from his corner in Westminster Abbey.

About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers, professor of English at Marquette University, is the author, most recently, of Norman Podhoretz: A Biography (Cambridge University Press).

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