'She is as inseparable from my existence as the beating of my heart': Dickens's obsession with his wife's sister, which nearly destroyed him

Charles Dickens was left devastated when Mary Hogarth died

Charles Dickens was left devastated when Mary Hogarth died

Dickens must be whizzing round in his grave in Westminster Abbey. He had a horror of any sort of exposure of his privacy and in 1860, after the break-up of his marriage, he burned all his correspondence ‘because I could not answer for its privacy being respected when I should be dead’. Yet today, amid the brouhaha surrounding Dickens’s bicentennial year, his love life is the subject of increasing fascination.

For a man of such titanic life force, his sex life seems to have been rather tame. As far as we know, he was still a virgin when he married, aged 24. Up to that point, he said, he was always in love; his four-year infatuation with a capricious young woman called Maria Beadnell possessed him with overwhelming passion. When he broke off the relationship, he felt that his heart would never fully recover.

His feelings for Catherine Hogarth were less romantically charged. She was the boss’s daughter (George Hogarth was Dickens’s editor on the evening edition of the Morning Chronicle) and Dickens first encountered the 19-year-old in Hogarth’s house in Fulham. At the same time, he met her two little sisters, Mary, who was 14, and Georgina, who was six.

These three sisters became central to his life. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these relationships, however, was the one he had with Mary. His young sister-in-law was the love of his life – the inspiration for some of his most famous literary creations.

He and Mary had got on extremely well during his courtship of Catherine, but it is surprising that the girl, now 16, should have moved in with the newlyweds as soon as they returned from their honeymoon. They lived in Dickens’s small rooms at Furnival’s Inn in Holborn – surely the last thing a young couple could want.

Dickens, however, professed himself delighted by her presence. She, in turn, adored her clever brother-in-law. She later left but was back again soon enough when Catherine gave birth, nine months almost to the minute after the wedding.

Dickens was in ever-increasing demand, and the Sketches that he wrote under the name of Boz were selling so well that the family moved to a grander establishment in Doughty Street, off Gray’s Inn Road. Mary came too, very much part of the vivacious menage that also included Dickens’s younger brother Fred.

Just a month later, Dickens, Catherine and young Mary went to the theatre to see Dickens’s farce Is She His Wife When they got home, Dickens and Mary chatted until 1am. When she went to her bedroom, however, she became gravely ill. Doctors were sent for. Dickens comforted her, waiting for the fever to break. And then, after many hours in his arms, she was dead.

Dickens was shattered. When he realised what had happened, he slipped a ring off her finger, which he wore for the rest of his life. He was sent a lock of her hair by Mrs Hogarth; that, too, he kept by him, always.

Ideal woman: Mary Hogarth was the inspiration for The Old Curiosity shop's Little Nell, played by Maude Fahy, above

Ideal woman: Mary Hogarth was the inspiration for The Old Curiosity shop's Little Nell, played by Maude Fahy, above

‘You cannot conceive the misery in which this dreadful event has plunged us,’ he wrote to Mary’s grandfather. ‘Since our marriage she has been the peace and life of our home – the admired of all for her beauty and excellence – I could have better supplied a much nearer relation or an older friend, for she has been to us what we can never replace, and has left a blank which no one who ever knew her can have the faintest hope of seeing supplied.’

He was understandably shocked by Mary’s sudden death, but there is something intemperate, disproportionate, in his reaction to it. His suggestion that he would rather have sacrificed someone else – who, precisely – is alarming. His words are the words of a bereaved parent; but he felt no such emotions when, later, he lost two of his own children.

‘Thank God she died in my arms,’ he wrote of Mary’s death to his old friend Thomas Beard, ‘and that the very last words she whispered were of me  . . .  I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed.’

He was just 25. Mary’s death was a blow from which he never recovered. For the first and only time in his life, he stopped working. No new instalments of either The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist appeared. Rumours abounded as to why: the young author had run out of material, perhaps; or was a committee that had broken up.

When he resumed work on Oliver Twist, he found that he was unable to kill off the character modelled on Mary, Oliver’s teenage aunt, Rose Maylie, ‘so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful’. Rose lived.

Dickens married Mary Hogarth's older sister Catherine

Dickens married Mary Hogarth's older sister Catherine

Mary can be seen again in the character of Agnes from David Copperfield. She fixed for ever his ideal of what a woman should be – that is, a girl. She had died at exactly the age at which for him a woman was at her most perfect: she never grew fat, dull, tired, tedious.

It is hard to avoid a sense of arrested development in Dickens. Perhaps, to survive during the terrible year he had spent working in a rat-infested shoe-polish factory, he had kept alive a secret, hidden version of the 12-year-old boy that he had been – and Mary was that boy’s fantasy of being cared for and loved. She was the direct inspiration for one of Dickens’s most affecting characters (to his contemporaries, at any rate), Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. As her life ebbed away, public interest in the sickly child became hysterical on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was Dickens’s friend John Forster who had told him that Nell must die. His argument that she deserved a better fate than a conventional happy ending convinced Dickens, but he found himself almost incapable of doing the deed.

‘Old wounds bleed afresh when I only think of the way of doing it . . . what the actual doing it will be, God knows,’ he wrote. But he did it and Nell, like Mary, was arrested in her tracks before time could wreak its cruel changes on her.

A year after the book was published, Dickens was planning to go to America. He was delayed because of an agonising medical condition, but then came an event that caused him even worse pain. His wife Catherine’s grandmother died and, on her deathbed had expressed a desire to be buried next to Mary, in Kensal Green Cemetery, North-West London. At the traumatic time of Mary’s death, Dickens had consoled himself with the thought that one day he would be buried next to her.

He toyed with the idea of moving Mary’s remains to the catacomb beneath the Anglican chapel at the cemetery, where, in the fullness of time, he could join her, but he knew this was madness. Despite his lifelong horror of funerals, he was present at the grandmother’s burial next to Mary. He locked himself away for three days afterwards.

The American trip went ahead and was an astounding triumph: but in the midst of all the fanfares and the fireworks, his first thought, he confessed to Forster, was of Mary Hogarth. ‘What would I give if the dear girl whose ashes lie in Kensal Green had lived to come so far along with us. But she has been here many times, I doubt not, since her sweet face faded from my earthly sight.’

Poor Catherine; how could she compete with someone who was immortal

Hope Cottage, near Gravesend, Kent, where Dickens and Catherine allegedly spent their honeymoon. When they returned home, Mary moved in with them

Hope Cottage, near Gravesend, Kent, where Dickens and Catherine allegedly spent their honeymoon. When they returned home, Mary moved in with them

He became extraordinarily restless. His most recent book, Martin Chuzzlewit, had not been a success (although A Christmas Carol, dashed off while he was still in the middle of writing Chuzzlewit, most certainly was); its failure rankled with him and Dickens wanted to get out of England again.

He moved the family to the Northern Italian city of Genoa, and it was there, quite soon after his arrival, that Mary Hogarth, never, on his own admission, far from his waking thoughts, entered his dreams again, in spectacular fashion. He immediately knew that it was Mary’s spirit, and that it was ‘full of compassion and sorrow for me’. This realisation, he said, ‘cut me to the heart’. He woke sobbing.

The desperate need for a healing, female presence that he had found in Mary – but that had eluded him ever since, however famous he had become – was a constant. His feelings for his wife were becoming increasingly negative.

Chafing in a cage of frustration, Dickens channelled his endemic restlessness into putting on plays with his chums and touring around the country. His friend Wilkie Collins wrote one specially for him: The Frozen Deep, an Arctic melodrama in which he played the tormented hero.

Queen Victoria came to see it and was overwhelmed. It was an enormous success. They took the play to Manchester and, because of the size of the venue there, cast professional actresses in the roles that had been played by family and friends; with one of them, Ellen Ternan, he fell in love. Before long, his marriage fell apart and for the rest of his life, Ellen was his mistress.

But he never stopped thinking of Mary Hogarth, who, he wrote in the last year of his life, ‘is so much in my thoughts at all times, especially when I am successful, and have greatly prospered in anything, that the recollection of her is an essential part of my being, and is as inseparable from my existence as the beating of my heart is’.

Charles Dickens And The Great Theatre Of The World, by Simon Callow, is published by HarperPress, priced 16.99. To order your copy at the special price of 14.99 with free p&p, please call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit mailshop.co.uk/books. Simon Callow is performing a nationwide reading tour this year to mark Dickens’s bicentenary.