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Trove of Letters Reveal Charles Dickens Tried to Lock His Wife Away in an Asylum

Catherine’s side of the breakup tale comes back with vengeance thanks to new analysis of 98 previously unseen missives

Author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) pictured with his wife, Catherine Dickens (1815-1879), and two of their daughters, seated in a horsedrawn carriage, circa 1850. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

Scholars have long known that Charles Dickens was cruel to his wife, Catherine. In their early letters, the novelist addressed her affectionally—“my dearest Life,” “dearest darling Pig,” he’d write—but that tone changed dramatically some two decades into their marriage once he met and began an affair with then-18-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. By the following year, Charles had divided the marital bedroom in two and taken the highly unusual (for Victorian England) step of legally separating from Catherine, who, in turn, had to move out of the family home.

At the time, Charles wrote a letter to his agent suggesting it had been Catherine’s idea to live apart and accused her of having “a mental disorder under which she sometimes labors.” The letter didn't stay private for long. As Victorian scholar Patrick Leary details in "How the Dickens Scandal Went Viral," it soon became public (likely with Charles' approval) and helped shape the narrative around the couple's uncoupling. Catherine's side of the breakup tale has remained mostly obscured from history until now.

Her rarely heard perspective comes back with vengeance thanks to a trove of 98 previously unseen letters that show Charles, to use a term floating around in the cultural milieu today, was actually gaslighting his wife as they separated.

The missives were unearthed by University of York professor John Bowen, who specializes in 19th-century fiction. He first became aware of their existance when he noticed them listed in an auction catalogue from 2014. He recently sorted through them himself at the Harvard Theatre Collection in Cambridge, where the letters ended up. "As far as I know, I was the first person to analyse them. I've not found any other reference," he tells Smithsonian.com in an email.

The letters were written by Dickens family friend and neighbor Edward Dutton Cook to a fellow journalist, and they include details about the couple’s separation, which Catherine shared with Cook in 1879, the year she died.

In them, Cook recounts: “He [Charles] discovered at last that she had outgrown his liking…He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!”

Writing about his discovery in the Times Literary Supplement, Bowen says he believes that Catherine’s allegations against her husband are “almost certainly” true and makes the case that they deliver “a stronger and more damning account of Dickens’ behavior than any other.”

This isn’t the first Dickens scholars have heard of Charles' bad behavior as the marriage soured. Researchers were previously aware of an account by Catherine’s aunt, Helen Thomson, that stated Charles had tried to coax her niece’s doctor into diagnosing her as mentally unsound. However, Thomson's record was long dismissed as a forgery (though it was ultimately shown to be authentic). Now, it adds more supporting evidence to Cook's newly resurfaced sequence of events.

Bowen believes he may have even been able to identify the doctor who refused to commit Catherine to that asylum. He identifies him as one Thomas Harrington Tuke, an asylum superintendent and onetime friend of Charles, who had garnered the novelist’s rancor by 1864 (six years after the split), when Charles referred to him as a “Medical Donkey.”

While Charles’ scheme to admit Catherine wasn’t successful, Bowen writes that his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton actually was able to get away with the same terrible plot; his estranged wife, novelist Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, was certified a lunatic and sent to a private asylum for three weeks.

For Dickens aficionados, Bowen acknowledges, the confirmation that Dickens attempted to have his wife locked away in an asylum might make for “very uncomfortable reading.” After all, Dickens enjoyed tremendous public affection during his lifetime and is remembered today as an advocate for social reform thanks to his sympathetic depictions of the plights of Britain’s poor and exploited and for establishing a safe house for homeless young women. He also visited insane asylums both stateside and in Britain and wrote appreciatively about the more humane treatment patients were receiving, in contrast to the “chamber of horrors” such facilities had historically been.

But none of this negates his treatment to Catherine. Announcing the discovery of the letters, Bowen links Catherine’s story to today’s stories of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, writing that it shows just how far “the power of elite men to coerce women” goes back.

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