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The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 208-210 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0022

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The image of Catherine Dickens found in most biographies of her husband is among Charles Dickens's most enduring creations. Taking their cue from the narrative he circulated of his marriage, generations of scholars have uncritically assumed that Catherine was what Dickens said she was: mentally unstable, an unfit and uncaring mother, too fat and too dull to be a suitable match for her husband. In the text under review, however, Lillian Nayder wrests control of Catherine's story from her famous husband, finally offering us a picture of Catherine free of his misrepresentations.

The Other Dickens, Nayder explains, "focuses on Catherine's own writings, experiences, and needs, and reconceives the plotline of her life so that her separation from Dickens is not its defining and final moment" (2). In other words, rather than allowing Catherine to be understood solely as the wife of the novelist—as playing the "Beloved" to his "Inimitable"—Nayder reveals the various personae Catherine adopted in her life and in her letters: sister, daughter of prominent parents, and member of various female communities. In a series of interludes, for example, Nayder examines Catherine's relationships with three of her sisters, Mary, Georgina, and Helen, countering the narratives Dickens offered about these women by telling their stories from their own perspectives and in their own words. In thus drawing Catherine (and her sisters) out of Dickens's shadow, Nayder rejects the logic of coverture, the legal concept that merged a woman's identity with her husband's, that made her story his (11). That is to say that Nayder represents Catherine as a victim of her culture as much as of her husband. Yet part of Nayder's recovery of Catherine's perspective requires acknowledging the ways in which she was complicit in her own subjugation: how she repeatedly surrendered her own agency and "submit[ted] to male authority and control" (170).

The project Nayder undertakes in these pages is daunting: many of Catherine's letters have been lost (including those she wrote to Dickens, which he destroyed after their separation). At times, then, Nayder is forced to piece together Catherine's own words through Dickens's responses to them—to fall back once again on Dickens's narrative of his marriage. That in so doing Nayder avoids reaching the same dismissive readings of Catherine that have persisted in Dickens criticism proves her skill as a reader—her close attention to and perceptive parsing of Dickens's manipulative rhetoric in the letters he sent to his wife and to his acquaintances. As she describes the process, reading these letters often means "reading between the lines, placing our emphasis differently from his, and recognizing Catherine's presence in her seeming absence" (169), and this method bears considerable fruit for Nayder. But The Other Dickens is no simple rereading of Dickens's letters. Nayder also succeeds in filling many of the silences surrounding Catherine's life with a wealth of archival material culled from dozens of libraries and collections. Where Catherine's own letters have disappeared, we hear of her experiences through the letters, diaries, and journals of friends and relatives; elsewhere, the Dickens's banking records bear witness to Catherine's management of their shared home (and belie Dickens's claims that Georgina had largely supplanted Catherine in this role in the years leading up to their separation). Here, too, Nayder proves herself a deft and intelligent reader, finding in these materials grounds for a compelling argument against the harsh judgments of Catherine that have dominated Dickens scholarship for years.

At times, however, Nayder seems able (and perhaps eager) to turn even the most apparently benign act on Dickens's part against him. For instance, she interprets the use of chloroform on Catherine during their son Henry's birth as Dickens's effort to rob his wife of agency. Nayder similarly criticizes Dickens's choice to wait until Catherine returned home from medical treatment in Malvern before announcing the news of their daughter Dora's death. While other biographers have seen this as an act of solicitude, an attempt to break the news to Catherine gently, Nayder seizes on it as evidence of Dickens's tendency to...



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