Who Was Georgina Hogarth, Charles Dickens’ ‘Best and Truest Friend’?

Unpublished letters reveal new insights into the baffling relationship between the English novelist and his sister-in-law

Georgina Hogarth
Georgina Hogarth lived with Charles Dickens for nearly three decades. Charles Dickens Museum

When Georgina Hogarth was 15 years old, she left her parents’ home and moved in with her sister Catherine’s family in London. This arrangement appeared to benefit all parties: Hogarth, who would soon need to start searching for a suitor, gained access to her sister’s dynamic social scene. Catherine, who was 12 years Hogarth’s senior, was grateful for another pair of hands to help wrangle her four young children, who just so happened to adore their aunt.

But this pretty picture was complicated by Catherine’s husband, Hogarth’s brother-in-law: the English novelist Charles Dickens.

Soon after her 1842 arrival, Hogarth became Dickens’ surrogate daughter, his “little pet,” an effervescent teenager who brought vitality into his home. But as she grew older, she became something more: his trusted adviser, his beloved confidant, his “best and truest friend.”

The precise nature of Dickens and Hogarth’s relationship has long been the subject of scholarly debate. An affair between the in-laws, while rumored, has never been confirmed. Hogarth never married, though she received several proposals. When Dickens left Catherine for 18-year-old Ellen Ternan in 1858, Hogarth sided with the novelist and continued living with him until his death in 1870—28 years after she first moved into his home.

Letter and envelope
Georgina mourns Dickens in a letter written on the novelist's birthday the year after his death. © Charles Dickens Museum

Last week, the London-based Charles Dickens Museum announced it had acquired 120 of Hogarth’s unpublished letters, most of which she sent to journalist Charles Kent. Written between 1867 and 1898, the missives may provide new insights into Hogarth’s baffling bond with her brother-in-law.

“Georgina Hogarth was a major figure in Charles Dickens’ life and remains a fascinating character,” says curator Emma Harper in a statement. “Despite witnessing at close quarters the controversial and often-spiteful breakdown of her sister Catherine’s marriage, she remained close to Charles, continued to live for many years as his housekeeper and was greatly affected by his death.”

The letters cover a period that includes the final chapter of Dickens’ life—he had a stroke just after sitting down to dinner with Hogarth—and nearly three decades after his death. Hogarth became an executor of his will and guardian of his legacy, but she never recovered from the loss. In one of the letters, written on Dickens’ birthday the year after his death, Hogarth expressed her persisting grief:

I know he is happy and blessed, and indeed I do not think I would recall him to this dark world if I could—but the burden of life without him is very, very hard to bear—and sometimes, just lately especially, I feel as if I could not bear it—and people always seem to think it is wicked to wish to die. I am sure I don’t know why—at any rate, if the wish does not prevent your (self?) humbly trying to do your duty while you live—as cheerfully and contently as you can!

A selection of the letters is currently on display at the museum, which now holds the world’s largest collection of Hogarth’s correspondence. In the meantime, researchers are still meticulously parsing the trove.

“We’re hoping the letters provide some insight into Dickens’ personal life and Hogarth’s role in it,” Harper tells the Guardian’s Kate McCusker. “It’s also just lovely to have Georgina’s own words because women, at this point in time, were not recorded quite so well.”

During her lifetime, Hogarth’s confounding allegiances were a frequent subject of public speculation and ridicule. Even biographers published many varying interpretations of her role.

“Some people described her as a wicked, malevolent woman who was plotting against Catherine all the time, hoping to oust her so that she could take Catherine’s place at Dickens’ side,” says Christine Skelton, author of Charles Dickens and Georgina Hogarth: A Curious and Enduring Relationship, on the “Inimitable” podcast. “Others, writing at exactly the same time, said she was the opposite. She was a weak, insipid woman who only did what Dickens told her to do.”

More recently, Skelton adds, biographers have landed somewhere in the middle: “She was probably a pretty decent woman who made several mistakes.”

Harper tells the Independent’s Jabed Ahmed that while she hasn’t yet read all of the letters, she doesn’t anticipate finding any explicit references to an affair.

“These letters show the depth of Georgina’s emotional attachment to Dickens, which can be seen as a little bit odd,” Harper says. “It will be interesting to understand their relationship in greater detail.”

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