You Don’t Know Dickens
7 lesser-known facts that may make you see the beloved author and philanthropist of the Victorian era in a new light…
1. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time at Warren’s Shoeblacking Factory and Warehouse
At the age of 12 Charles Dickens suffers a life-changing event that forever marks his life. His father, John Dickens, was arrested for debt, and sent to Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison in London. The able-bodied, older male Charles was considered old enough to work and earn some wages. For this reason he is forced out of school and sent to Warren’s Shoeblacking; a place fully-described in the semi-biographical novel Oliver Twist. Similarly, Charles works under grueling and cruel conditions that predate any workers’ rights movement.
Moved by these sad events Dickens used his talent to publish in mass and expose these realities. Through literature, he gave a voice to orphans, destitute children and mistreated workers using them as motifs that recur in his body of work. According to Dickens’s most reliable biographer, John Forster, the author had “an attraction of repulsion” that rendered him more effective when dealing with topics that directly describe images of his sad childhood. Therefore, this repetition of misery and pain during childhood as a central theme denote a need to continuously cope with the traumas of childhood.
2. He was likely manic depressive
According to his own letters, Dickens suffered consistent bouts of “depression” that would start when beginning to write a new work, and would then developing into a “mania” that powered him to complete them. It was a “balance” between deep, debilitating sadness followed by periods of acute impulsivity. According to Hershman and Lieb in the book Manic Depression and Creativity (1998), Dickens’s explosive creativity was a result of the maniac state that makes sufferers of bipolar disorder feel indestructible (p. 106). An example of Dickens’s mania is what is known as the “Dickens Summers”. According to Manic Depression and Creativity Dickens would rent a spacious summer home and have sumptuous parties for large quantities of people on a daily basis. Dedicated to the very last detail both at home and work, Dickens would also spend hours insisting on completing massive amounts of work until the last word was written.
The book explains how bipolar disorder renders those who suffer from it extremely oblivious of the wants and needs of others. The need to be the center of all attention, and the extreme shift in mood certainly profile Dickens as bipolar.
3. He was a chauvinist
Although Dickens was a charmer on the outside, he was considerably different with his own family, particularly with his wife, Catherine. Several books have been written on the matter, all depicting the relationship between Dickens and his wife as very one-sided… favoring Dickens’s side of course. For example, in the book Dickens’ Women author Miriam Margolyes cites an 1842 letter in which Dickens tells a friend that his wife is “…as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be.” According to Dickens’s published letters, he also refers to “Kate” as “baggage”, as dumb, and as an incompetent mother and housekeeper.
To make matters worse for Mrs. Dickens it seemed that each time hubby Charles would fall for another woman (and it happened often), Catherine would become pregnant. Catherine bore Charles ten children, and, according to Charles, she was to blame for every one of them. Dickens had a deep weakness for other women and did all he could to impress them. At home, however, he was stern and abusive to his very loyal wife, and his needs came before those of his family. But Dickens did not fall for just any woman. It seems Charlie’s “women wish list” comes with a bit of sauciness…
4. He was a “sexual deviant” of the time
Dickens was a good “politician” in his own right, building a “super hero of the people” persona through his many charities, and demands for social reform. This very persona conveniently hid a secret life that evidences a penchant for sexual deviance. Now, let’s make something clear: It is very easy to be a sexual deviant. All you need to do is enjoy sex in a way that deviates (detours, moves away) from what is considered “traditional” sex, that is, married, monogamous, missionary, etc. In Victorian times especially it was not difficult to be labeled a deviant.
Back to Dickens, his sexual appetites denote three specific tastes: a) very young women, b) women who defied the prudish Victorian ideal and, c) women who were also sexually deviant in nature. The first typology encompasses women in their late teens starting with Dickens’s own sister-in-law, Mary. Dickens had a deep, plutonic desire for Mary up until she died in his arms at age 17. Then came a series of other equally young females, ending in May, 1858 when a middle-aged Charles wrote to his lawyer, Frederic Ouvry, asking for a legal separation from Catherine. He had fallen deeply in love with 18-year old actress Ellen Ternan. They even moved in together and remained a couple until his death. Notice that actresses were considered less respectable women in the 19th century and that may be precisely what enticed Dickens. Moreover, the book Charles Dickens by the well-respected biographer Claire Tomalin hints at the possibility that Dickens may have even frequented the “fallen women” whom he was “helping” to “clean up” from the streets of London. Super-hero syndrome, anyone?
5. He was a manipulator
Happy ol’ Dickens made a major and infamous faux pas: he sent his teeny-bopper mistress a very cute bracelet… but it reached his wife by accident! This mistake made the news and everyone was talking about it. What was there to do? Use your social influence to spin stories against your wife. Yep. Now the poor woman is also to blame for the mistake that HE made of sending the mistress’s bracelet to poor Catherine by accident. Such is life.
Also, a sudden alliance between Dickens and his sister-in-law served as a way to publically taint the reputation of Catherine as a wife and mother. All of this was a clever, yet cheap, move for Dickens to “make well” with his people while removing any doubt about his character. Either way, the fact remains: he dumped the wife of forever, the same one who bore him the 10 kids, for an 18 year old second rate actress. And that… is just NOT cool.
6. He was obsessive compulsive
According to several biographers, most notably Foster, Dickens was obsessed with the new discoveries on electromagnetic fields. He felt that these fields rendered people powerless unless humans work in tandem with the fields. For this reason, he made his family sleep, sit, work, and conduct their daily interactions in a manner where they would supposedly go in the same direction as the field. Sleeping positions and places at table were of particular importance.
Dickens was witnessed touching things several times (often three times), and demanding that his furniture were to be put “in the correct order” for the “energy” to flow properly (kind of like Victorian Feng Shui). A master of cleanliness, he would make his children maintain their rooms organized and clean. After all, with 10 of them, why not? Most notably, Dickens was ceremonious and liked routines ad nausea. Routines were imperative to be followed and he would often lose his temper if things did not operate the way that he would calculate.
Other quirks that have been documented include excessive grooming, a constant need to accomplish mini-goals (i.e. his compulsion to complete tremendous amounts of work within one day), and a penchant for looking at himself in the mirror, which comes along with the incessant grooming of his hair. It could be argued that the fact that specific topics repeat prodigiously among his works could also be a sign of OCD as well as post-traumatic stress.
7. He was very superstitious
Dickens was connected to the London Ghost Club. This should not come to a surprise since the famous (fake) Fox sisters were already conducting the séances that would bring Ghost-mania to London during Victorian times. Whether he practiced séances as well, we will not know for sure. However, it is evident that Dickens was a fan of every trend that surfaced in society. One of these was the new hypnotism movement that was known as “mesmerism.” Ever the experimenter, Dickens would claim that hypnotism helped him and his family get rid of illnesses. However, the pressure that Dickens exerted on his family members may have led them to say just about anything to make their father happy.
Despite his chaotic love life and strange behaviors Dickens worked endlessly to earn a well-deserved reputation as a prolific and respected man of letters. He also did his best to influence social reform, personal life aside. The influence of his works is magical, creating worlds to which we have all traveled in our imagination. Clearly, there are two sides to every story. Even the moon has a dark side. We can forgive and forget this side of Dickens and continue to revel in his unmistakable genius.
Landow, George P. “The Blacking Factory and Dickens’s Imaginative World.” The Blacking Factory and Dickens’s Imaginative World. 14 Oct. 2002.. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/dickensbio3.html>
Coustillas, Pierre. GISSING’S WRITINGS On DICKENS. London: 1969. (On esoterism)
Hunter, Nigel and Edward Mortelmans. Great Lives: Charles Dickens. New York:
Bookwright Press, 1989.