Dickens’ Women is the script of Miriam Margolyes' one-woman show. It draws upon many of Charles Dickens’ texts to create a vivid picture of his attitude to women in general, with details of those who shared his life, many of whom went on to inspire the females appearing in his work.
Margolyes is an avid Dickens fan but also, by her own account, a woman who would probably not be to his taste ~ being mature, with a mind of her own, and someone who would certainly not take any nonsense had she ever met with the great man in person. She is keen to point out that Dickens’ idea of the perfect woman is often portrayed in his fiction as being ‘just seventeen’, innocent and ripe for a gentleman’s picking', or set upon pedestals of yearning, so high as to be unobtainable - such as in the case of David Copperfield’s Dora, or Estella in Great Expectations, or the delectable Rosa Bud who appears in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his final, unfinished novel.
Rosa Bud (played by Tamzin Merchant) in the BBC’s adaptation of Edwin Drood
Indeed, so often are these winsome objects of male desire presented as being ‘just seventeen’ that Margolyes suggests there may have been a degree of sexual obsession – and referring to Edwin Drood again (where the opium addict John Jasper is so consumed with lust for Rosa Bud that he is driven to acts of madness) the reader cannot ignore the fact that the character's inner turmoil may have been a reflection of the author’s personal crisis of conscience – having for some time been involved in an affair with a much younger woman.
Catherine Dickens when young, and when in middle age
Dickens' affections were often bestowed on the young, the lovely, and virginal. In the early years of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, a woman described as being rather round and pretty of face (and one who grew yet rounder after sixteen years of marriage, and almost continual pregnancy), the writer was often seen out and about, squiring not only his submissive, devoted wife, but also her sister Mary.
Mary Hogarth on the left – and on the right, the ‘trinity’ of Dickens with his wife and sister-in-law by Daniel Maclise.
Mary was ‘just seventeen’ when she suddenly died in her in-laws’ house, collapsing on the stairs and expiring while held in Dickens’ arms. Of course, anyone would have been upset, but his subsequent reaction to grief was very far from normal, and how on earth must his wife have felt when, for many years afterwards, he continued to keep all of Mary’s clothes, even bringing them out to stroke, and often professing an earnest desire to be buried in the dead girl’s grave.
The situation did not end at that because, in 1842, Catherine’s other sister, the fourteen year old Georgina also came to share her relations' home and, years later, when Dickens’ spurned his wife (causing Catherine the cruellest of humiliations by publishing public letters in which he claimed her to be demented, preventing her from seeing her children and even denying her the chance to attend one daughter’s wedding day), Georgina remained in the family house as Mr Dickens’ housekeeper. And when he lay on his deathbed, hers were the arms that cradled the man – and hers were the arms into which most of his wealth was then to fall.
Quite what was going on we shall probably never know. But Miriam Margolyes exposes an enduring fascination with young women who go on to spurn their admirers, and she feels this obsession must have begun when Dickens himself was eighteen years old when, while working as a reporter in the Houses of Parliament, he met Maria Beadnell, a very pretty but frivolous girl who was quite dismissive of her suiter’s attentions – a situation revisited, as if reflected in a looking glass when reading David Copperfield, when seeing our young hero’s first meeting with the imaginary Dora Spenlow –
All was over in a moment. I had fulfilled my destiny. I was a captive and a slave. I loved Dora Spenlow to distraction.
That love was not to be returned. In the real life drama Maria thought the young Dickens to be beneath her, taunting him cruelly as ‘Boy...B.O.Y.’ Ironically, twenty years later, she had married a sawmill manager and was living in near poverty when she and the wealthy literary star somehow came into contact once more - when she did attempt to warn him that the years had not been kind, but he refused to believe that so, having kept her vision alive in his heart, replying in his letter with the greatest excitement and passion –
When you say you are toothless, fat, old and ugly, which I don’t believe, I fly away to the house in Lombard Street and see you in a sort of raspberry-coloured dress with little, black Van Dykes at the top, and my boyish heart pinned there like a captured butterfly to every one of them.
Dickens in middle age
Those were the flights of fancy of a middle-aged and married man ripe for the adventure of an affair. But, sadly for Maria, when they did come to meet again, Dickens was indeed disgusted to find that she had been truthful about her appearance. He then added insult to injury by re-using her image in his art – when cruelly describing the spoiled and silly Flora Finching in the pages of Little Dorrit – a woman who longs to rekindle a romance with the lover who left her a young pale lily but returns to be disappointed and shocked at the blowsy peony she has become.
Flora Finching is almost, but not quite, drawn as one of Dickens’ ‘grotesques’ – the older women, truly overblown, well beyond any hope of sexual allure, and fit for no more than derision and scorn.
Thus the wheelchair-bound Mrs Skewton who appears in Domby and Son is cruelly presented as mutton dressed as lamb –
Cleopatra was arrayed in full dress, with the diamonds, short sleeves, rouge, curls, teeth, and other juvenility all complete, but Paralysis was not to be deceived, had known her for the object of its errand, and had struck her at her glass, where she lay like a horrible doll that had tumbled down.
Other older women, indeed by then the writer’s own wife, were seen as run down and dilapidated, like houses decayed and untended. And, it is because of this that Miriam Margolyes feels that had Dickens been any less brilliant a writer then he might well be viewed today as something of a misogynist; one whose perfect idea of womanhood is expressed in Mrs Chirrup, in Sketches for Young Couples –
‘...the prettiest of all little women...the prettiest little figure conceivable...the neatest little foot, and the softest little voice, and the pleasantest little smile, and the tidiest little curls, and the brightest little eyes, and the quietest little manner...a condensation of all the domestic virtues – a pocket edition of the Young Man’s Best Companion...’
In other words, a living doll – and in due course he met the real doll who upset the marital apple cart.
Ellen Ternan at eighteen
Ellen Ternan was eighteen years old, a struggling actress with little to call her own in the world, whereas Dickens was a mature man of forty-five, a literary giant, famed all over the world, with a wife and several children in tow when the couple were first introduced. Dickens had been collaborating on a play with his friend, the writer Wilkie Collins, and roles had been allocated to Ellen (or Nelly as she was often called) along with her two actress sisters. Despite warnings from his friends, Dickens’ pursued Ellen ardently and matters finally came to a head when – in that most well-worn of scenarios – his wife discovered some jewels that he had bought for his lover. Dickens refused to let Nelly go and went on to set his mistress up in various households in and around London – and under various assumed names. But as his reputation was based on being a devoted family man, an upholder of ‘Victorian Values’, he was eager not to admit any fault – therefore treating his wife so shamefully, and claiming the marriage’s failure was due to Catherine’s instability, when in truth he had tired of her aging charms.
The affair was not to bring happiness; not to mention the repercussions for Dickens’ wife and children. There were rumours of Ellen bearing children who went on to die in infancy, and efforts to conceal the affair caused the writer and actress a great deal of distress which, perhaps, in addition to his unstinting workload, contributed to the stroke that eventually killed him at fifty-eight.
Kate, the daughter who married without her mother being present in church was later to try and explain the man – and her words may offer us some clue as to how he managed to get away with such appalling behaviour –
‘My father was a wicked man – a very wicked man...My father was not a gentleman – he was too mixed to be a gentleman...My father did not understand women...he was not a good man...but he was wonderful.’
There, from one who knew him best we have the puzzle of the man. He could be a selfish, self-obsessed monster and yet he was also wonderful – generous and charitable to a fault. And with all of this Miriam Margolyes concurs, thinking that his errors occurred when driven by the desires of his genius – and perhaps more essentially because, just like each and every one of us, Charles Dickens was only human.