The Unfortunate Caroline Dickens

I am happy to welcome Brenda W Clough to the blog today! She is a prolific writer in several genres and a fellow member of the Historical Writers Forum, where we are celebrating Women’s History Month. Brenda shares with us the darker side of Charles Dickens – how he treated his wife.

Welcome, Brenda!

~ Samantha


The Unfortunate Caroline Dickens

Guest Post by Brenda W Clough

He was famous, but Charles Dickens was a difficult husband. There was that whole writing thing, of course, the twenty novels that are part of the foundations of English literature, the thousands of articles and letters to newspapers, the founding and editing of a couple major magazines, the campaigning for social justice and the rights of the poor. 

But his wife Caroline also had to live with him. We would describe him as a micromanager. For many years he insisted on doing the grocery shopping, not something that gentlemen did in the mid-19th century. He made all the housing and home décor decisions. And he fathered ten children with Caroline. 

So in 1857, when Charles fell in love with a pretty 20-year-old actress, Caroline was in big trouble. Divorce was legal, but impossible. The laws were lopsided, heavily favoring the husband. She would have to prove more than adultery. She’d have to prove brutality or some other extenuating circumstance. He was the social conscience of Britain – no judge would believe it.

Meanwhile Charles was also frustrated. He’d been discontented with his marriage for a few years already. By writing classics like A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist he’d set himself up as a pillar of Victorian morality, a defender of the oppressed. To divorce the mother of his ten children after over 20 years of marriage would make him look like a skunk. His career, his entire social status, was built upon a perception of rectitude. He couldn’t do it.

So Charles did it the dirty way. He began a campaign in letters and conversation with friends, creating excuses to get rid of his wife. Caroline was a bad mother. She was an uncongenial partner, fat and no longer pretty. They hadn’t had sex in years.  She never did any of the work around the house. She was nervous, semi-invalid, had the vapors, was probably insane. 

He was Charles Dickens, the most famous author of his time. The PR campaign he geared up was utterly convincing – until you actually looked at the situation. Ten children, could you really believe that they weren’t congenial partners? And, hello – who wouldn’t lose her figure, after ten pregnancies? Which would also account for being semi-invalid. Many observers agreed it was pretty seedy of Charles, to ditch his wife of 22 years for a mistress the same age as his daughter. Even his best friends urged him to stick with Caroline. Enough of social circle believed her, not him, to split literary London into hostile camps.

Charles’s goal was to get Caroline out of the house and out of his life. There was no way that she could stand up against his writing powers. And the hints of mental problems were a warning. More than one obstreperous woman in the period had been railroaded into an asylum by relatives. A faked diagnosis of insanity is the backbone of THE WOMAN IN WHITE, the novel by Wilkie Collins. 

So Caroline folded, signing a settlement in 1858 that conceded they were separated. Charles could afford to set her up in a separate household in London and pay her 600 pounds a year. He kept the family home and the kids. Only the oldest, Charles Jr., was of age and able to make his own decisions. Significantly, he chose to live with his mother. Caroline declared to relatives that she still loved Charles. 

Most importantly, Charles hung onto his reputation. People mostly believed the famous writer, not his chubby wife. Caroline retreated into a secluded life, seeing only family and friends. Meanwhile Charles did worldwide tours, reading aloud from his works to packed audiences. He continued to write novels until the end of his life. He retained his mistress Ellen Ternan, who left the stage to be with him. 

In spite of her public humiliation, Caroline still held the ace card. A legal separation wasn’t divorce. Caroline was still Mrs. Charles Dickens, his legal wife. Charles couldn’t marry Ellen, couldn’t take her to parties or into his social life. And when he died, Queen Victoria sent the condolence telegram to Caroline, not Ellen. Caroline’s final move was to leave all her letters from Charles to the British Library. They were written proof that she wasn’t insane, wasn’t a bad mother. And in them Charles declared over and over that he loved her.

Additional Reading:

Louisa Nottidge was one of the women actually incarcerated in an asylum by her relatives.  

A 2011 biography of Caroline Dickens goes into much more detail.  

There is also a biography of Ellen Ternan which was made into a movie.