The dark side of Dickens: His books suggest idyllic family Christmases, but a new TV show reveals there was little festive cheer
Dark side: A portrait of Charles Dickens aged 47, by William Powell Frith
There never was such a goose and, as for the pudding, it was ‘like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-aquartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top’.
So Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, which was published on 17 December 1843 and sold out by Christmas Eve. For the inimitable Mr Dickens – whose work gave us our notion of the perfect family Christmas – the festivities that year were hectic.
He performed conjuring tricks for an hour at a Boxing Day party, producing a guinea pig from a bran tub and a Christmas pudding from a gentleman’s hat, then drank champagne and waltzed energetically with the ladies.
But probably not with his wife Catherine, who was heavily pregnant with their fifth child Francis. The young Mr and Mrs Dickens had married nearly eight years earlier, when Catherine was only 20 and had barely returned from their honeymoon when The Pickwick Papers turned Dickens into a celebrity.
But what was it like being married to the most famous man in England, the life and soul of
the party, the icon of Victorian family values In Mrs Dickens’s Family Christmas, presenter Sue Perkins discovers much of the public image was humbug.
Catherine was treated shockingly by an overbearing husband who craved for respectable family life, then felt trapped by it. He married a slim, innocent girl and didn’t like it when she turned into a well-upholstered mother of ten. Dickens adored his first son Charley, but babies kept on coming and Catherine was always pregnant.
Dickens felt the burden of supporting so many children, let alone all his impecunious relatives – but Christmases, in those early years of his marriage, must have been as cheery as anything in his fiction. At the heart of their home during the first year of their wedded life was Catherine’s angelic 16-year-old sister Mary, who came to live with them.
Dickens’ grief knew no bounds when she died in his arms the following year. But when another sister Georgina came to live with them in 1842, to help out with the children, Catherine was sidelined in her own home. Georgina, at 14, was young and eager to please. Catherine had lost her bloom – and reminded Dickens all too much of his mother.
Scrooge pictured with Tiny Tim in a scene from the screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol, originally published on 17 December 1843
‘As the years went by, there was an increasing mis-match between the Christmas of Dickens’ fiction and the reality at home,’ says Sue Perkins. The final blow to the marriage came in 1857 when Dickens – now 45 and a disenchanted husband with a surplus of energy – met pretty 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan, who appeared in one of his theatrical productions. She was only a few months older than his eldest daughter Kate and Dickens fell besottedly in love.
‘Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it,’ he complained, after two decades of marriage. To Catherine’s mortification, he blocked off the door between his dressing room and the marital bedroom. ‘Everyone in the house knew. All the servants, all the children. Catherine was profoundly wounded,’ says biographer Claire Tomalin, wrote an award-winning book about the novelist’s affair with Nelly.
Unhappy marriage: Picture of Catherine Dickens circa 1836
That Christmas, the children stayed at school over the holidays. There were no parties, no family theatricals and it was the last Christmas Catherine ever spent in the family home. Dickens hoped for a discreet separation to maintain appearances, but the marriage ended in scandal and recrimination. Rumours began – started by his mother-in-law, who hoped Catherine might have grounds for divorce – that Dickens had seduced his wife’s sister.
Consequently, Georgina was examined by a doctor to prove she was still a virgin. Hurtfully, she had taken Dickens’ side in the marital fallout. ‘Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home,’ declared Kate. Refusing to accept he was the villain in this melodrama, Dickens set about rewriting history, claiming Catherine had a mental disorder, was an unfit mother and had wanted a separation for years.
He couldn’t divorce an innocent woman, but he could force her out of her home and alienate her from her children who all – except Charley – were so in thrall to their father they hardly dared visit her. Nor could Dickens live openly with Nelly, as it would have scandalised his public – although it is said she gave birth to a child who, tragically, died.
‘It’s a pretty poor show from our national treasure, isn’t it’ harrumphs Sue Perkins. Yet, amazingly, his image as the author of Christmas remained intact and the idea of Mrs Dickens’ family Christmas entered the national psyche. It’s what every family aspires to, even today.
Mrs Dickens’s Family Christmas, BBC2, Friday 30 December, 9pm.