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, is arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison in London. The able-bodied Charles is 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-autobiographical novel Oliver Twist. Similarly to his young protagonist, 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, making them 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 return to misery and pain during childhood as a central motif denotes a need to continuously cope with the traumas of his own childhood.
2. He possibly had bipolar disorder
According to his own letters, Dickens suffered consistent bouts of “depression” that would start when beginning to write a new work and would develop into a “mania” that powered him to complete them. It was a “balance” between periods of 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 manic state that can make people with 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. Attentive to the very last detail both at home and at 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 can make it difficult for people to register the wants and needs of others. Needing to be the center of all attention and extreme shifts in mood could certainly profile Dickens as having bipolar disorder.
3. He was a chauvinist
Although Dickens was publicly a charmer, he was considerably different with his own family, particularly with his wife, Catherine. Several books have been written on the matter, all tending to depict the relationship between Dickens and his wife from one side…Dickens’s side, of course. For example, in her play Dickens’ Women, 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 seems that each time hubby Charles fell for another woman—and it happened often—Catherine became 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. However, he was stern and abusive to his loyal wife, and his needs came before those of his family. But Dickens did not fall for just any woman. It seems Charlie’s “wish list” comes with a bit of sauciness…
4. He was a “sexual deviant” of his time
Dickens was a good “politician” in his own right, building a “superhero of the people” persona through his many charities and demands for social reform. This 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, platonic desire for Mary until she died in his arms at age 17. Then came a series of other equally young women, ending in May, 1858, when a middle-aged Charles wrote to his lawyer asking for a legal separation from Catherine. He had fallen deeply in love with 18-year old actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he lived until his death. (Notice that actresses were considered less respectable women in the 19th century, which may be precisely what enticed Dickens.) Moreover, well-respected biographer Claire Tomalin hints in her book Charles Dickens at the possibility that Dickens may have 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 teenybopper mistress a very cute bracelet… but it reached his wife by accident! The mistake made the news and everyone was talking about it. What was there for Dickens to do? Use his social influence to spin stories against his wife. Yep. Now the poor woman is blamed for the mistake that HE made of sending his mistress’s bracelet to Catherine by accident. Such is life.
Also, a sudden alliance between Dickens and his sister-in-law served to publicly taint the reputation of Catherine as a wife and mother. All of this was a clever, yet cheap, way for Dickens to “make well” with his people while erasing any doubt about his character. Still, the fact remains: Dickens dumped his wife of forever—the one who bore him 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 new discoveries about electromagnetic fields. He felt that these fields rendered people powerless unless they worked in tandem with the fields. For this reason, he made his family sleep, sit, work, and conduct their daily interactions in a manner supposedly going in the same direction as the fields. 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 be put “in the correct order” for the “energy” to flow properly (kind of like Victorian Feng Shui). A master of cleanliness, he insisted his children keep their rooms organized and clean. (After all, with 10 of them, why not?) Most notably, Dickens was ceremonious and liked routines ad nauseam; he would often lose his temper if things did not operate the way that he desired.
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 checking himself in the mirror. It could be argued that the prodigious repetition of specific topics in his works could also be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder 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—the famous Fox sisters were already conducting the (fake) séances that swept ghost-mania across London during Victorian times. Whether Dickens practiced séances as well, we do not know for sure. However, it is evident that Dickens latched on to almost every new trend that surfaced in society. One of these new movements centered on hypnotism, then called “mesmerism.” Ever the experimenter, Dickens would claim that hypnotism helped him and his family get rid of illnesses. However, it’s easy to believe that the pressure 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 erratic behavior, Dickens worked ceaselessly to earn his 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 depths to every story. Even the moon has a dark side. We can acknowledge and account for this side of Dickens while continuing 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.