Literary great Charles Dickens may have led a deceitful life behind the limelight. According to an analysis conducted by the University of York, the author appears to have conspired to commit his wife to a mental asylum after pining for a young actress, eventually leading to the dissolution of the couple’s longstanding marriage.
For the first time, newly revealed letters analyzed by a professor at the University of York offers his wife Catherine’s perspective. On her deathbed 20 years following the duo’s separation, Catherine apparently confided her story in her friend Edward Dutton Cook, who relayed the story to his friend and journalist William Moy Thomas.
"[Dickens] discovered at last that she had outgrown his liking. She had borne ten children and had lost many of her good looks, was growing old, in fact. He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose," the letter reads. At the time, Catherine was taking twice-daily morphine injections to reduce pain.
John Bowen, professor of English and Related Literature, said the letters were “quite difficult” to read.
“Biographers and scholars have known for years how badly Dickens behaved at this time, but it now seems that he even tried to bend the law to place his wife and the mother of his children in a lunatic asylum, despite her evident sanity,” he said in a statement. According to Bowen, Catherine’s supposed mental disorder has been known in the scholarly world, but its legitimacy has long been contended.
Charles Dickens had for some time been friends with Dr Thomas Harrington Tuke, superintendent of Manor House Asylum in Chiswick from 1849 to 1888, until their friendship fell apart around 1864 when Dickens publicly expressed his disregard for the man.
“Something had clearly happened that caused Tuke, with whom Dickens had been on such friendly terms only a few years earlier, to be vilified in such a way; and it seems likely that it was his refusal to help in the plot against Catherine,” said Bowen, who believes Tuke called Dickens out on his illegitimate claim, thus ending their relationship.
Psychiatry and women’s mental health have a long and tangled history. During the Victorian era, mental healthcare – or lack thereof – was used as a way to control and oppress women’s behavior. In fact, psychiatrists were often hired by husbands and fathers “to probe their wives’ and daughters' ‘abnormal’ behaviors,” according to a report published in The Atlantic. These behaviors ranged from exhaustion to overeducation to premenstrual syndrome or, as in the case of Catherine Dickens, their husband had simply grown weary of them.
A University of Wisconsin essay suggests similar results, saying women had minimal rights even when it came to their own mental health. Between 1850 and 1900, women of “all social classes and ethnicity were admitted to mental asylums for many different reasons” but diagnoses were “numerous and unsystematic”. While some women were in fact admitted under valid pretenses, the review suggests that many were not insane and admitted for questionable reasons at the urging of the men in their lives.