LONDON: As a great novelist and a master journalist, maintained tight control over what the public learned about his 1858 separation from his wife, perhaps the most scandalous story in his eventful life. But letters revealed this past week cast the episode in a new and cruel light. Dickens, they suggest, not only sought to banish Catherine, his companion of two decades and the mother of his 10 children, while pursuing an affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan. He also tried to have his wife imprisoned in an asylum.
“This is a stronger and more damning account of Dickens‘s behaviour than any other,” John Bowen, a professor of 19th-century English literature at the University of York in England, wrote in Literary Supplement on Tuesday. Dickens was careful of his image and legacy. In the 1860s, he burned the letters and papers of 20 years in his back yard. Mrs Dickens herself rarely spoke of the separation. Nearly a decade after her husband‘s death, she confided in , a theatre critic and her neighbour in London. The letters Professor Bowen analysed were based on those conversations and, according to the professor, are some of the first documents discovered that present her perspective.
Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Dutton Cook wrote in a letter. “She had borne 10 children and had lost many of her good looks, was growing old, in fact.” “He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!” he continued. “But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.” Dickens may well have been in a position to sideline his wife in this way. Many Victorian physicians, Professor Bowen wrote, would have considered assertions about his wife‘s “languor” and “excitability” sufficient basis to draw up a certificate of “moral insanity”.
According to other letters, Dickens also had what might have seemed an ideal connection: a friendship with Dr Thomas Harrington Tuke, a psychiatrist who ran a private lunatic asylum near London. But correspondence suggests that Dr Tuke rebuffed Dickens. After 1864, the novelist was calling the doctor a “wretched Being” and a “Medical Donkey”.