Charles Dickens and the women who made him

To a modern reader, many of Dickens’s heroines can seem weak, foolish figures of fun. Dickens’s novels date from the 1830s to 1870, when women were legally the property of their husbands, fathers or whichever male relative called themselves “head of the family”. His heroines, including Flora Finching, Dora Spenlow and Rosa Budd – described in The Mystery of Edwin Drood as “wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish” – are often infuriating to read now. At the time of their creation, however, Dickens was emulating a popular impression of what a well-brought up young lady should be like.

Many Victorian girls and even adult women were forbidden by their families to read novels if the heroines were considered too controversial (including Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). Instead they were recommended to read “improving” books, often written by religious writers, about how girls and women should behave: think Jessica’s First Prayer by Hesba Stretton and Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem The Angel in the House. Queen Victoria famously sacked her daughters’ governess after discovering one of the princesses reading a novel.

The real women in Dickens’s life were very different from his domesticated and compliant creations, including three remarkable women in his family. Charles’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, was a servant in the household of Lord Crewe. She began as a housemaid and, after being widowed and left a single mother, worked her way up to the role of housekeeper. Her grandson retained vivid memories of her warm personality and storytelling.

Dickens’s mother Elizabeth taught her children mathematics, literacy and Latin. She and her husband, John Dickens, were also unusually progressive in believing it was their eldest child, a daughter, Fanny, whose education was more important than their son’s. (Fanny was two years older than Charles and a talented musician, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.)

As well as his family, the women Dickens chose to surround himself with show an appreciation of a sharp, female presence. There were so many fascinating women in Dickens’s life: the novelist Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who shocked society with her engagement, at 39, to a fiance who was 17 years her junior and her godson; the anti-slavery campaigner and educationalist Elizabeth Jesser Reid; and the author Elizabeth Gaskell, who Dickens tracked down in 1848 despite her writing under the pseudonym Mary Barton. Dickens encouraged Gaskell to continue writing about subjects deemed unsuitable for a female novelist, such as illegitimacy and prostitution.

One of the most influential of Dickens’s female friends was the banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts. They met in the early 1830s. A few years later she was asked to be godmother to Charles and Catherine Dickens’s first child, Charley. In 1847, Dickens and Burdett-Coutts set up their most famous joint venture: Urania Cottage in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, intended as a rehabilitation home for so-called “fallen women” (a category which covered all manner of social ills), where they could learn basic literacy and numeracy as well as cooking, sewing and cleaning. Dickens worked with prison governors to help women who were about to be released; he was passionate about rehabilitation, convinced that most female convicts were not inherently criminal but simply desperate, failed by a harsh society.

Both Urania Cottage and its founders’ friendship eventually fell victim to the breakdown of the Dickenses’ marriage, when Burdett-Coutts found it difficult to forgive her friend for his treatment of his wife.

Even Dickens’s much-maligned wife Catherine, who is often criticised as having been too compliant and too similar to his fictional heroines, was actually a sparky, intelligent woman who was simply laid low by a combination of constant childbearing and postnatal depression. In their early marriage, Catherine enjoyed a happy, adventurous life, accompanying her husband to America and Canada. She acted in a series of theatricals at home and abroad, and she wrote a book, What Shall We Have for Dinner?, intended as a guide for young housewives (preceding the more celebrated Mrs Beeton by a decade). Sadly, Catherine Dickens is usually remembered today as the saddened and wronged wife, eclipsed by her younger rival for Dickens’s affections – the actor Ellen Ternan – rather than as the bright woman Dickens married.

So why do Dickens’s female characters lack so much? Many criticise his heroines for being far too thinly sketched: they can be beautiful and good but seldom deep-thinking or intelligent. The ones with spirit and sharpness tend not to be considered sexually alluring, and, often by reason of being thwarted financially or socially, they tend not to be written about in terms of becoming wives (think of Rosa Dartle or Miss Wade).

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