Anyone who’s not a total asshat should like the writing of Charles Dickens. That is a sweeping generalization, and I don’t fucking care.
A couple Tuesdays ago was the great man himself’s 200th birthday, and shoot boy, does he literarally look good for his age. Dickens’ stories are still some of the most widely read and certainly some of the most widely adapted in the English language (he’s what Masterpiece Theater does when they’re not doing Agatha Christie’s greatest hits or other pieces of shit). He has accessible prose, genuine humor, biting satire, emotional highs and lows to rival those in a frat bathroom on a Friday night, and enduring characters that have influenced generations of writers.
A flawed man, to be sure, he had a tendency to love or hate something wholeheartedly with little grey area in between. Dickens proves the old adage (and if I’ve said it once, don’t worry, I’ll say it one more time just in case you didn’t hear), there is no better way to deal with women than on a sine curve. But truth be told, while Dickens was never the greatest clamdiver in the sea, he made up for his relative lack of sex-having by being the creepiest, most obsessive motherfucker who ever immortalized an idealized muse or eviscerated a fatty in blackletter typeface. So start your week off right with For Shame! and a take quick look at Victorian popular literature’s greatest leacher.
Before we delve into Dickens, a little background: Born in 1812 to a ne’rdowell clerk into an already large family, Dickens’ early life would have a profound effect on how he was formed as a person and writer. At age 12, he was forced to leave school to work in a blacking warehouse to bring in money to help his father get out of debtor’s prison. Because of this, he would continually revisit themes of the English treatment of poverty, child labor, the socio-economic divide, and the essential nature of education. When his father was left a small inheritance (enough to get the family out of prison), Dickens’ mother argued that he should continue to work at the factory rather can go back to school, and her never forgave her for this sentiment.
But enough of that shit. In 1830, at the tender age of 18, Dickens met a sweet 20-year-old slice, Maria Beadnell, and fell truly madly deeply in lust. She was, by all accounts, ultra-feminine but also hyper-sexualized, as attested to by this sort of really creepy painting, commissioned by HER PARENTS, of her dressed as a milkmaid. Dericious.
But, she was also of a higher social station than Dickens, and while their attachment was mutual, Maria got shipped off to “finishing school” in France to cool her pheromones, Charles spent the two years she was away mooning over her and building her up in his desperately inexperienced and horny mind to be the greatest of all greastestests. When she came back, Maria, like the tarted up slorebag she was, was distinctly indifferent towards Dickens and they soon parted ways. He never forgot his all-consuming, wild, devoted, hopeless (his words) passion for Maria. Well turns out, she really was A Ho To Build A Dream On.
She was the epitome of sexual desire, but in the way that you wanted to marry her rather than have it be a one-and-done type deal (’cause she was a high-class lay, you know?). Dickens revisited their relationship in several books, most notably in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. In the former, she is Dora, the flighty first love of David’s life, with whom he falls head over heels for at first sight. In the latter, she is the cold, cold bitch Estella, who represents wealth, beauty and social position, but who refuses to return Pip’s affection.
Also, I should probably mention, Dickens is, to a greater or
lesser more greater degree, the protagonist of all his stories. There are some things therapy just can’t get you past. Especially when therapy hasn’t been invented yet.
FUN FACT: After he was supa famous, Maria apparently recanized herself in one of Dickens’ books and rang him up (via letter, because there were no phones, OBVI). He went to visit her, and found her to be the delightful combination of a woman who still simpered and flirted like a tweenager trying to impress the guy with an earring folding shirts at Hollister, trapped in the body of an obese forty-something. He subsequently wrote her as Flora in Little Dorrit, the former fiancée of the protagonist, Arthur. BBC tells me she looked like this.
On the rebound, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836. By all accounts, despite the fact they had 10 children together, he only kind of liked her. As time went by, Dickens became increasingly annoyed with her constant lack of energy, poor housekeeping skills and inability to organize shit. I mean, I get it Charles. It’s not like 10 kids will do that to you. She must have just been shitty out of the gate.
Also, he blamed her for the fact they had 10 kids. I would say he had a part in that one, but hey, I dunno. I hear the jury’s still out on science.
Catherine’s younger sister, 16-year-old Mary Hogarth, moved in with the Dickens’ after they were first married. This was not unheard of. This was, in fact, common. Perhaps, however, the complete and unbridled obsession Charles developed for Mary was less common.
As we have observed, Charles loved putting pussy on pedestals. It was like if Beyoncé had a dowdy, lame sister, Dickens married her, then met Beyoncé at the wedding and was all, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammit.” It was clear Catherine could do no right in comparison to Mary. To Dickens, she was the swamp monster to Mary’s bathing beauty. She was the acne-plagued band geek to Mary’s genetically-blessed cheerleader. She was the Godfather III to Mary’s Godfather I & II.
Mary was fucking good, she was fucking kind, she was fucking all things a prim Victorian lady should be. She and Dickens became biffles. He let her “read what he was writing” and she gave him “feedback” and “criticism.” Charles worshiped the ground she walked on, and of course, she died tragically, suddenly, and at age 17, allowing him to forever crystalize her in his mind and literature as Blandy McLameface, the essence of perfection (see Agnes, second wife of David Copperfield, Rose in Oliver Twist, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Amy in Little Dorrit, the list goes fucking on). Apparently, she died in his arms, whispering his name. Whatever Charles, just go knock-up your wife again and repress your emotions like real men should.
Sadly, Charles was only good at one of those, and after only a few years of marriage to Catherine, he basically knew shit wasn’t going to work. I’m not going to say he checked out of the marriage, but I’m not not saying he didn’t. The only time Dickens ever missed publishing a monthly installment of a story (because everything he wrote was published serially) was when Mary died. Not on either occasion he had a child die. Nope. Kids, whatever. Dime a dozen, amirite Chuck?
Anyway, Dickens also wrote plays. The more you know. He also often starred in them, and in 1857, during the production of one of his pieces, he met Ellen Lawless Ternan. She was an 18-year-old actress, and coincidentally, the same ages as Dickens’ daughter, Kate. Heeeyfunfact.
He starred in the play with Ellen and from then on, they began an affair that lasted until Dickens’ death in 1870. Soon after meeting Ellen, Dickens publicly separated from Catherine. As in, all his stuff was in a box to the left, to the left. Because she kicked him out of the house when a bracelet and (what I imagine to have been an incredibly graphic) note meant for Ellen were delivered to the Dickens house by mistake in 1858.
This was fucking huge in Victorian England. She quit the stage and he supported her through his fabulous riches. They traveled to France together, he bought her a house, he left her a thousand pounds in his will, the usual. BUT, most salaciously, there is a distinct possibility she got pregnant and the child died in infancy.
Some scholar puts it real nice like:
“The girl’s name certainly influenced the naming of the heroines of the last three novels, Stella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilder in Our Mutual Friend, and Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The willful and imperious ways of the first two of these characters represent a noteworthy departure from the earlier ideal of saintly meekness embodied in Florence Dombey, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, and Amy Dorrit. And there can be no mistaking that Dickens’ later fiction explores sexual passion with an intensity and perceptiveness not previously apparent.”
I’ll buy it.
Most of their correspondence and anything involving Ellen was destroyed by one or both parties, so we’re grasping at straws here. OR ARE WE??????????/?
Even though Dickens voraciously denied being involved with Ellen (and to be fair, we don’t actually know if they ever did the sex—they could have just been really close, guys), there was always a rumor swirling around, which turned into a fullblown media obsession in 1939, when a book came out featuring Kate Dickens’ juicy tell-all with a horribly awkward title about her dad and his bangmaid. BOOM, how’s that for some reputation-smearing postmortem revenge, Charlie? And way to carry a grudge for like a bazillion years about your shittyass dad, Kate. We scandal bloggers thank you.
But whatever bad press Dickens got in his lifetime from leaving his wife and shacking up with a stage-inclined guttersnipe, he over-came by being the most popular author in the fucking world. So Happy Belated Birthday, Charlie “Big Dick” Dickens—may you keep on keepin’ on in whatever afterlife you’ve landed your philandering, egocentric, brilliant literary self.
Oh, and Happy (also belated) President’s Day, for all you fake-holiday lovers. God Bless us, every one!