For Readers, For Writers

The Problem with Charles Dickens (when great writers are terrible people)

It’s Christmas, which means Charles Dickens is everywhere.

Ever since he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 and made Scrooge a part of the lexicon, the author has been synonymous with this time of year.

And Dickens fever shows no sign of abating.

The Man Who Invented Christmas, a biographical drama about how Dickens created Scrooge, is currently doing very well in theatres and bringing in big box office dollars.

Why?

Because people love the fairytale. They love seeing miserly Ebenezer Scrooge transformed by the peace and goodwill of the holiday.

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But would they love it quite so much if they knew Dickens had a dark side?

He may have been one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian age, but Dickens was also a bit of a monster – particularly when it came to the fairer sex.

In her excellent book, Dickens’ Women, Miriam Margolyes goes as far as to call him “an abuser of women.”

She further comments that all his relationships with women were “damaged, incomplete or destructive.”

Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and they had ten children together.

In 1842, after just six years of marriage, Dickens wrote to a friend: “Catherine is as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be.”

And 16 years after that, he dumped her for an 18 year old actress. Their separation came without warning for Catherine and quickly turned ugly, with Dickens claiming she was an unfit mother and questioning her mental state.

It wasn’t the first time Dickens had looked elsewhere. He had a very close relationship with Catherine’s teenage sister Mary and continually lusted after younger women.

As The Guardian’s Victoria Cohen writes:

Poor Mrs Dickens was banished to a separate bedroom while her husband conducted many affairs, until he finally abandoned her and took their children with him. Nice guy.

Charles Dickens

So does all this matter?

The fact that Dickens was a letch and a cheat doesn’t change one word of his books. They still stand on their own merits.

Should it matter?

Probably not.

I recently read about Roald Dahl’s terrible temper, antisemitism and condescending attitude to his publishing staff.

But I still think Matilda is one of the best children’s books ever written.

And Dahl still brought a lot of joy, and a love of reading, to millions of kids around the world.

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When we love literature, we connect with it.

It becomes a part of us, and stays long after the final page has been turned.

But it’s a mistake to assume this connection extends to the author as well. That we know them, that they’re as pure as their work.

When we put our literary heroes on pedestals, we can’t be surprised if they fall off.

I wouldn’t have dinner with Dickens, but I still might get around to reading The Pickwick Papers.

Do you like reading Dickens? Do you think an author’s character matters? Have your literary heroes ever disappointed you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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