Letters Show Dickens Tried to Have Wife Committed

Researcher finds contemporary relevance in a painful tale
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 23, 2019 8:00 AM CST
Dickens Tried to Put Wife in Asylum, Letters Show
Charles Dickens couldn't get a doctor to put his wife in a mental institution.   (AP Photo, File)

Newly discovered letters show a different side of Charles Dickens, and it's not pretty. His actions after starting an affair with a young actress included trying to get his wife, Catherine, committed to a mental asylum, a University of York professor who analyzed the 98 letters has found. "What I discovered was both detailed and shocking," says John Bowen. The letters were written by a friend and neighbor of Catherine's after she and Dickens separated, and give Catherine's side of the story. "He 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," one letter said, adding, "He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!" The asylum plan fell apart when a doctor refused to commit her.

As the marriage of two decades soured, Dickens legally separated from Catherine and divided their bedroom in two, per Smithsonian.com. It's a far cry from their early days, when Dickens called her "my dearest Life," and "dearest darling Pig" in letters of his own. Bowen says the neighbor's letters, which are kept at Harvard, made for "very uncomfortable reading" at times, though he found the courage of the doctor who stood up to Dickens to be one of the positive stories. "In some ways it is a 'me too' story about the power of elite men to coerce women," he says. "It is also a gaslighting story, manipulating someone into doubting their own sanity." (See why Dickens is still worth reading.)

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