As the nation prepares to celebrate the festive season, there’s one man whose name is synonymous with Christmas and whose prose depicted the season as a wonderful time for the family to get together and forget about their troubles.
But what was family life like for Charles Dickens, the subject of a season of programmes on the BBC. And, more importantly, what was it like for Mrs Dickens –Catherine – the woman who bore him 10 children and whose story is little known?
In Mrs. Dickens’ Family Christmas, a documentary for BBC Two, Sue Perkins is set to reveal the true story behind the family man who became Britain’s first national treasure. She speaks to Dickens experts and visits the British Library to see first-hand the letters Charles wrote to Catherine during their courtship, and also finds out what life was like for the Dickens children, who performed their father’s work in London’s theatres, particularly at Christmas.
Sue finds out the secrets from the Dickens family kitchen through a book that Catherine wrote about entertaining in the home and also discovers that Catherine and Charles didn’t have the idyllic life that you’d expect from a relatively wealthy upper-middle-class family. Once Catherine became what Charles may have perceived to be middle-aged and frumpy, after giving birth to his 10 children, it seems he wanted to trade her in for a younger model.
“The programme is the little-discussed story of Catherine Dickens, who was overlooked, I think, because of the extraordinary amount we know about Charles and also because he was a showman, so he was a massive self-publicist. He was the first international celebrity, the first global superstar, the first person really who considered himself as a brand and had a brand identity,” explains Sue.
“The programme reveals depths and shallows in his personality and the intense shabbiness with which he treated his partner.”
The young Charles Dickens met Catherine before he found fame and fortune and following a troubled childhood, which saw his father go to debtors’ prison (debt was subsequently a recurring theme in Dickens novels) and the 12-year-old Charles having to work in a shoe polish factory to keep the family afloat.
The couple’s passionate courtship is revealed in letters kept at the British Library – letters that Catherine gave to her daughter, Kate, on her deathbed, telling her: “Give these to the British Museum, that the world may know he loved me once.”
“It’s always a treat for me to go to the British Library,” says Sue. “It’s a really awesome place and everyone there is always so accommodating and learned and to actually hold the letters [that Charles wrote to Catherine] was very special.
“It’s quite easy to make a documentary, just talking to people and looking at secondary sources and having conversations with academics, but to look at the primary material is a rare and beautiful thing, and to see this other side of Charles Dickens was incredible. He was a babyish, coquettish, love-struck kind of guy – he was soppy, basically, and he’d lost the plot a bit. He’d gone doolally because he loved her and it was great to read that.”
The pair were engaged in 1835 and married the next year. But, before long, Charles had his eye on other, younger women (including Catherine’s younger sister, Mary, who lived with Charles and Catherine after they married and who died in 1837). He eventually fell in love with Ellen Ternan in his mid-forties (she was 18) and officially separated from Catherine in 1858, blaming her mental instability as the cause of their break-up.
Charles couldn’t divorce Catherine as she hadn’t committed adultery, so neither could remarry and, worse still, as was common practice in Victorian times, Catherine had to move out of the family home, leaving Charles to bring up the children.
“I think by modern standards it’s impossible to conceive of that but, at the time, the wife was part of the goods and chattels of the home, and so were the children, so everything would see to the man in a divorce or separation,”explains Sue.
“So much as I’ve learned a lot about Charles Dickens during the making of this that doesn’t cast a very favourable light on him, I think, to be fair, you have to say this was normal at the time. It wasn’t him ripping the children away from her, it was just standard practice.”
Among the people Sue speaks to is Lillian Nayder, an American academic and author of the book The Other Dickens – A Life Of Catherine Hogarth. “Lillian’s done some research into resurrecting the idea of Catherine, because a lot of academics pursued the line that she was, as Charles said, mentally unstable and a rubbish mother, and she sort of said well, hang on, there’s nothing to support this, apart from his own propaganda, and so she’s delved a little bit deeper. She was a great person to talk to.”
Sue also met Penelope Vogler, editor of Penguin’s Great Food, and together they recreated some recipes from Catherine’s 1852 cook book, which had the rather catchy title of What Shall We Have For Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered By Numerous Bills Of Fare For From Two To Eighteen Persons and was written under the pseudonym of Lady Maria Clutterbuck.
Sue says it was well known that it was written by Mrs Dickens: “Charles, I think, does the foreword, so there’s a slight sense that he’s never really away from controlling her, even when it’s her own thing he’s overseeing it.
“But what I like about it is they were an upper-middle class family by then, they’ve got a lot of cash, but it’s a very pragmatic cook book. It says here’s what you cook for two, for four, for six, for eight, and it’s seasonal of course because you don’t have any other options at the time. I can see myself doing some of it,” adds Sue.
The piece de resistance in the book – and in the documentary – is Catherine’s Twelfth [Night] Cake, which also doubled as her son, Charlie’s, birthday cake, in early January. Penelope bakes it with Sue’s help and explains that it was actually the forerunner of the Christmas cake we know and love today. “It’s pretty damn heavy but delicious! And I can eat a lot of cake so it’s all good,” says Sue, who clearly knows what she’s talking about, having presented (and eaten) her way through two series of BBC Two’s The Great British Bake Off.
“The book gives you this nice levity in the middle of the show which is otherwise quite a sombre affair. It’s the easy bit for me because I like talking to people and I like doing things and so there’s this nice bit where you get to appreciate a little bit about Catherine through the food she made and through the dinner parties they might have had.”
Sue says that his books aren’t for everyone but she agrees there are some outstanding pieces: “I read a lot when I was at college but really only a few of Dickens’s books work for me,” she says.
“I was always a big Wilkie Collins fan – the books are half the length and much more bang for your buck. But I think there’s some great [Dickens] stuff. Bleak House remains a great novel for me and I love David Copperfield.”
Out of all of Dickens’s novels is there one character that Sue would love to play? “Miss Havisham. I think I’d do the bitterness perfectly!” she laughs, clearly coveting the female lead in Great Expectations, the centrepiece of the BBC’s celebrations of Charles Dickens which can be seen on BBC One this Christmas, with Gillian Anderson playing the role. “Miss Havisham is psychologically the most interesting,” adds Sue.
Sue welcomed the opportunity of finding out more about the great man in the making of Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas: “I knew that he’d been married but I didn’t know that he’d separated from his wife. I knew about Ellen Ternan.
“In this documentary we try to just focus on things that people don’t know about, and try to unpick a little bit of his psychology. And it’s quite hard because the Victorian psychology/pathology, certainly around sex, is quite odd.”
Sexual hang-ups and family problems aside, who would Sue compare Dickens with today, in terms of his celebrity status? “He’s like an intellectual David Beckham I suppose – David Beckham is a global brand and he’s in control of that brand. Or Simon Cowell, maybe. You can’t find a literary superstar equivalent to Dickens though.”
Sue ponders whether Dickens would have been so successful without his hang-ups and problems. “I think two things made him great. He’d had terrible experiences as a child which meant he wanted to earn money and he wanted to be successful – he knew what the flip side of that was and he knew he didn’t want to work in a factory putting labels on shoe polish bottles.
“The other reason he was successful is that because he was slightly distant from people he could observe and create amazing characters. And he was psychologically scarred but people who are that way see more I think, in the same way as depressives – they’re depressed because they see humanity for what it is and I think he did see humanity as it is. He probably could see inside his own black heart but he didn’t want to.”
In conclusion, Sue believes that the guilt Dickens felt contributed to his death, in 1870, at the age of 58: “He worked himself to death is my thesis really, in that he could never really come to terms with what he’d done. He was vile to Catherine on the outside but I think somewhere within he did realise that, actually, his behaviour had been appalling and unjustifiable. And he basically took to the stage and kind of hammed himself to destruction really.”