Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago. If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.
This week I’ve been inspired by Renee to read a book from my TBR pile for Throwback Thursday rather than just share an old review. The book I chose – Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle, published in April 2014 – also happens to be one I received from the author many months ago that is well overdue for a review. And I’m so glad I made the effort because I really enjoyed it. So, thank you, Renee!
About the Book
Catherine was Charles Dickens’ wife whom he separated from after twenty-two years of marriage and ten children. Enamoured of a young actress, Charles scripted a fiction about his marriage in which he was the long suffering husband to a woman who was unfit to be wife and mother. He spread this story through his powerful editor friends. Catherine did not, could not, fight him. Even the law gave custody of minor children to fathers, and all her children, except one, were minor. She retreated into dignified silence which seems baffling today. Outside the Magic Circle is the story of Catherine and the repressive times she lived in.
Find Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle on Goodreads
Like many people, I suspect, my knowledge of Charles Dickens is confined largely to his books and less to the facts of his life. I think I may have known that he had a poor upbringing and possibly that there was some hint of a scandal in later life but that’s all. So this book was a positive eye-opener to me and, although I don’t think it will affect how I judge his books or his qualities as a writer, it will certainly make me think differently about him as a man.
In Outside the Magic Circle, the author seeks to give a voice to Catherine, Charles Dickens’ wife of twenty-two years and mother of his ten children. It is a fictionalized account and an admittedly partial view but then, as the author seeks to demonstrate, the picture painted by Charles of the circumstances surrounding his marriage to and separation from Catherine was partial too – in the extreme.
The Charles Dickens who emerges from the book is a master storyteller but one who couldn’t tell fact from fiction in real life. ‘He was a writer wasn’t he, and he knew how to set a plot and assign roles.’ He was used to being believed and came to believe his own propaganda. He invented a story in his mind in which he, not Catherine, was the victim and came to believe (or convinced himself) that this story was the truth.
‘So he rewrote the story of our lives, the way he rewrote an episode of his novels when he did not like it. And he believed what he wrote. He mesmerised himself, don’t you see? He wrote himself the hero’s part and consigned me as the villain.’
As well as the influenced wielded by Charles in the court of public opinion due to his reputation and celebrity status, Catherine was up against a patriarchal society where the man was favoured in divorce proceedings and the custody of children. The rights of women and the best interests of children were ignored.
Separation from Dickens leaves Catherine shunned by society and estranged from her children. It divided her family as well as one of her sister’s, Georgina, remained living in the Dickens household and continued to be an ardent advocate of Charles in his lifetime and beyond. Georgina comes across as a nasty piece of work who helped to poison the atmosphere in the household, even at the expense of her sister’s marriage.
Even when recalling earlier, and she believes happier, times in her marriage it seems Catherine – and everyone else in the household – was in thrall to Charles.
‘I soon learnt that Charles was never happy unless things were done exactly the way he liked.’
‘This is how it always was. He would decide something and talk me into believing that I wanted it.’
And in his treatment of Catherine there are signs of what we would today recognise as coercive control, belittling her even in public.
‘The admonishments and ill humour, and mockery, all cleverly couched in pleasant words, gradually chipped away at my confidence, and I did not realise it.’
As a woman living in more enlightened times, I wondered why she accepted his domestic tyranny and didn’t fight back. But of course, she had no allies in the household, everyone accepted Charles’ version of everything and she would not turn the children against him.
What is amazing is that, despite how badly Catherine was treated by Charles, she continued to make excuses for him, clinging on to the false hope that he had not really irrevocably cut her out of his life, out of his ‘story’. It is only when her son, Charley, eventually reveals the truth about Charles’ relationship with another woman that the scales falls from her eyes and she realises the true nature of his character.
‘I no longer made excuses for him, or tried to see the good in him and explain away the evil as the necessary aberration of genius.’
However, even after Charles’ death, Catherine refused to correct the version of their separation he had so heartlessly and publicly promoted. Instead, on her deathbed, Catherine gave copies of the letters Charles had written to her during their courtship to her daughter Kate, saying ‘Give these to the British Museum, that the world may know he loved me once.’
I found this book utterly fascinating and totally compelling. At times I was moved almost to anger at what I was reading and at other times I marvelled at Catherine’s stoical refusal to lower herself to the standards of her husband. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the lives of women about which history has nothing to say or what it does say isn’t the whole picture.
I received a review courtesy of the author in return for an honest and unbiased review. To read my review of the author#s short story collection, A Tapestry of Tears, click here.
In three words: Fascinating, thought-provoking, moving
About the Author
Heera Datta is the pen name of Gita V. Reddy. Gita V. Reddy is a writer of fiction for middle graders and adults. She enjoys thinking up tales of different genres. She has written mysteries, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and even an animal tale for children. She wrote and illustrated her first picture book for kids in August, 2015. She plans to write a few more because the experience was very satisfying. Her collection of short stories, A Tapestry of Tears was published in November 2016.
Ms Reddy was born in India, is a post graduate in Mathematics, worked in a bank for twenty-six years, is married to a physics professor, has a son doing research in neuro-electronics, and loves literature. Yes, her life is as mixed up as the multiple genres she writes. She enjoys painting and spending time with her family, and LOVES walking in the rain.
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