Letters Reveal That Charles Dickens Tried to Have His (Sane) Wife Committed to an Insane Asylum
By Emily Petsko
Some new details about the life of novelist Charles Dickens have come to light, and they aren’t exactly flattering. As Smithsonian reports, the Great Expectations author had some not-so-great expectations of his wife, Catherine (Hogarth) Dickens, whom he tried to have committed to a mental institution.
After 10 children and 22 years of marriage, the couple separated in 1858 in one of the most most public ways possible. In a letter that Dickens wrote to his agent at the time, he implied that Hogarth was the one who wanted to leave and live on her own. He also said she labored under a mental disorder and that “she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife, and that she would be better far away.” Not long after, the letter was made public—perhaps with the author’s full consent. (It did not, however, mention teen actress Nelly Ternan, with whom the 46-year-old Dickens was allegedly having an affair.)
This was the story on record for many decades, until University of York professor John Bowen recently uncovered a trove of never-before-seen letters from the Theatre Collection at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. The letters had been sent by Edward Dutton Cook, Hogarth’s neighbor after the separation, to his friend William Moy Thomas. Hogarth had confided in Cook in 1879, the year she died.
In what is perhaps the most damning letter, Cook writes, “He [Charles] discovered at last that she had outgrown his liking. She had borne 10 children and had lost many of her good looks, was growing old, in fact. He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.”
Bowen said some of the letters were uncomfortable to read. “Biographers and scholars have known for years how badly Dickens behaved at this time, but it now seems that he even tried to bend the law to place his wife and the mother of his children in a lunatic asylum, despite her evident sanity,” Bowen said in a statement. “What I discovered was both detailed and shocking, and to my knowledge, I was the first academic to transcribe and analyze these letters.”
Though it comes a little too late, Hogarth’s side of the story was finally heard. Bowen likened it to many of the shocking stories coming out of Hollywood today, describing it as a “story about the power of elite men to coerce women.”