NEW GLOUCESTER -- “Bah, humbug."
It seems those words would have been the likely reaction of Charles Dickens’ wife regarding the famous author’s campaign to disgrace her at the end of their 22-year marriage.
Lillian Nayder, professor of English and chair of the English department at Bates College, has written a book debunking Dickens’ unfair treatment of his wife in her new book, “The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth.”
“It is stirring controversy, as I knew it would,” Nayder said. After all, her book challenges many accounts by scholars over the years.
Nayder said Catherine became a “scapegoat” of her husband who tried to paint her as an incompetent wife and an “unnatural mother,” despite raising 10 children and earning the respect of many prominent people.
“That simply wasn’t the case,” Nayder said. She acknowledged that her findings run counter to the national icon status of Dickens, and she attributes his motive for defaming his wife to a major mid-life crisis.
In her book, she says that Dickens’ attentions had turned to his 18-year-old mistress and he tried to protect his “hearth and home” image by falsely blaming her for the marriage’s breakup.
Nayder recently returned to her home in New Gloucester from a trip to London for the United Kingdom book launch. The book, published by Cornell University Press, has been available in the United States for several weeks, and reviews acknowledge its international literary importance for Dickens studies.
Naylor said her interest in Dickens goes back to her years as a graduate student. She has researched Hogath’s role as his wife over a couple of decades and thousands of miles of travel. In about a dozen trips to London and Scotland, she examined material in private archives of family and friends.
“Her letters are scattered across the globe,” Nayder said, although Dickens did not retain correspondence from Catherine. Nayder even tracked down some of her letters in Poland.
Nayder uncovered some unpublished journals which illuminated Catherine’s teen years. She also investigated the opinions of Catherine’s lady’s maids, family friends and Catherine’s three sisters.
Banking records also held important clues. Nayder said she examined every check that Dickens wrote in his lifetime, and this study supported Nayder’s contention that Catherine played a very important and responsible role in the domestic affairs of the household.
She emphasized that the fame and power of the great author’s voice became the one that defined Catherine, and the customs of the Victorian period made her defense almost impossible.
Custody of children under 21 years of age went to the husband after a divorce. After being forced from Dickens’ home, Catherine lived with the eldest son, who was 21.
Other facet of the relationship Nayder reveals is Dickens’s interest in hypnotism, then known as Mesmerism. She said he used Mesmerism on occasion in his attempts to control Catherine.
Nayder said the episodes of hypnotism could be considered “a motif for the marriage.” She said it was well known that Dickens often used people to his own advantage.
Nayder emphasized that her book does not portray Dickens as some kind of evil figure.
“He was a very committed husband for many years,” she said.
Nayder has taught classes related to Dickens to her Bates College students and she received a 1999 Phillips Faculty Fellowship to study Catherine Dickens.
Like many of her Bates students, Nayder said she finds herself attracted to the Victorian period because “it’s like studying something foreign but familiar at the same time.” Nayder’s courses explore class, gender and race issues of the Victorian era.
“It’s different enough, but it’s right around the corner," she said.
“The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth” is available online and copies are sold at the Bates College bookstore.