A pair of exchanged lockets might look like evidence of an illicit romance. But two such “highly personal and private” tokens of affection – one containing a lock of Charles Dickens’s hair and the other of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth – are actually proof of something more tragic and complex, according to the curator of an exhibition to open next month in Dickens’s former central London home.
“We are enormously pleased to be showing these previously unseen items, which we acquired last year, for the first time,” said Louisa Price of the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street. “They tell a story that had a direct influence on at least one of his best known works – Oliver Twist – which he was writing when his sister-in-law, Mary, suddenly died.”
The museum’s new show, More! Oliver Twist, Dickens and Stories of the City, covers the period from 1836 per 1837, when Dickens was writing his famous second novel, about an orphan boy who falls foul of a band of pickpockets based in a den in Saffron Hill, not far from Doughty Street.
It was an intensely busy time for the celebrated writer, who had just moved into this new home with his wife, their young son Charley, and the teenage Mary. His days and nights were full of socialising, editing and contributing to a literary magazine, as well as working on Pickwick Papers e Nicholas Nickleby.
“Mary and Catherine were close in age and were best friends as well as sisters,” said Price. “She effectively also became Dickens’s sister with the marriage and he became extremely fond of her. They all did a lot together and Mary’s letters to relatives show she felt he was a wonderful man who had made her sister very happy.”
Tragedy struck, tuttavia, 184 years ago last Thursday when the trio returned from watching one of Dickens’s plays being performed in the West End. Hogarth, 17, suddenly collapsed and died the following day.
A letter from Dickens broke the news to his publisher, Edward Chapman, a few hours later: “My dear sir, we are in deep and severe distress. Miss Hogarth after accompanying Mrs Dickens & myself to the theatre last night, was suddenly taken severely ill, and despite our best endeavours to save her, expired in my arms at two o’clock this afternoon.”
A failure of Hogarth’s heart was blamed, but today an aneurism, or stroke, is suspected as the more likely cause of death. It was a shock that altered Dickens for ever, throwing a shadow over his imaginative life.
He responded immediately by creating the character of Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, a young girl who becomes ill, but happily recovers. “She was not past seventeen. Cast in so slight an exquisite a mould, so mild and gentle, so pure and beautiful; that earth seems not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions,” Dickens wrote of Rose.
Price sees the impact of Hogarth’s death as a kind of creative “haunting” for Dickens and one which is also thought to have influenced his later portrayal of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.
“Dickens’s grief became increasingly dramatic over the weeks, and even years, afterwards,” Price said, explaining that he wore a ring he had taken from her Hogarth’s body, often dreamed of her and said he wished to be buried with her.
The locket with Mary’s hair to go on display was given to Dickens later by her other sister, Georgina, who also came to live with the family. This is the sister who eventually stayed on with her famous brother-in-law to look after his 10 children when his marriage to Catherine broke down 20 years later due to a love affair with the actress Ellen Ternan.
All the same, Price argues, speculation about whether Dickens had married “the wrong sister” are misplaced. “It might seem quite weird, but only from our 20th century point of view. From a Victorian viewpoint the gift of lockets and the level of affection reflected a close family bond.”
Price believes Dickens’s accounts of his marriage once he had left, often implying Catherine was unbalanced or even an alcoholic, have unduly coloured opinion: “That view ignores the happy, committed relationship he shared with Catherine through the 1830s and 1840s. She was an incredible woman from a very musical family, and totally up for the vibrant life her husband wanted to live, travelling and raising children together. After he left, she carried on leading an active life, but there’s an inclination to accept Dickens’s version of her.”
Catherine stayed silent about the breakup, while the great author was more vocal, said Price, although at the time she did say she was comforted by the fact her sister Georgina was still living with her children. The two sisters were reconciled after Dickens’s death in 1870.
Cindy Sughrue, director of the museum, said the exhibition, which runs from 30 June to 17 ottobre, comes at the end of a year that threatened to be the museum’s last. “As we are not expecting to welcome many international visitors this summer, we hope that people from across Britain will take the opportunity to enjoy Dickens’s home without the crowds. Oliver Twist is our local story; so much of the action takes place around this part of Londra."