We all know about Charles Dickens, but what about his long-suffering wife Catherine? Ahead of a new exhibition about Mrs Dickens at the Charles Dickens Museum, curator Louisa Price spills the beans on 'the Other Dickens'.
She was a writer too
In the 1850s Catherine Dickens published the cookbook, What Shall We Have For Dinner?, under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck (obviously inspired by her husband's penchant for strange names). The book provides dinner menus, catering for between four and 20 guests, and includes recipes for dishes as varied as macaroni, stewed eel, rabbit curry, toasted cheese and cold pigeon pie. The introduction is probably written by Charles Dickens himself, posing as Clutterbuck.
She was called 'Pig' and other strange nicknames
In later life, Catherine requested her daughter Katey give 136 letters written to her by Charles Dickens to the British Museum library. The letters are peppered with Dickens’s affectionate names for the young Catherine: 'Dearest Kate', 'Mouse', 'Darling Tatie' and 'Dearest darling Pig'. The last one might sounds rather close to the bone, and indeed, Charles would go on to be his wife's biggest critic.
She shunned the 'punishment' of childbirth
Catherine Dickens was rarely not pregnant — she and Charles had 10 children. By the time she was onto her eighth pregnancy with Henry Fielding Dickens in 1849, she'd had enough — and used chloroform as an anesthetic.
This was controversial because in that day and age, most believed it was God's intent that woman should suffer pain in childbirth; chloroform wouldn't really become acceptable until the 1850s, when Queen Victoria started hitting it.
She lived separately from her husband, but never divorced him
It's no secret that Charles Dickens wasn't the best husband in the world. After 22 years of living with his wife, the author had the martial bedroom split in two. Soon after, Catherine unwrapped a gold bracelet meant for her husband's lover, Ellen Ternan (ouch), and the Dickenses split for good.
They never divorced though — adultery had to be proved, and Charles didn't fancy that avenue. From 1858, Catherine lived apart from Charles in a house on Gloucester Crescent (later home of Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van), until his death in 1870.
She was a big Charles Dickens fan
Despite all her husband did to her — did we mention his life-long obsession with her dead sister? — Catherine Dickens adored Charles and his work. Her will left photographs and paintings of her husband to her sons and daughters and identifies gifts he has given her. Bequests to other family members and lists of her bookshelves reveal she owned many copies of his novels, including a full set of his journal, Household Words.
The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine is on at the Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX from 3 May-20 November. Museum entry £9 adults, £6 concessions, £4 children