Charles Dickens: The Contrasting Realities Behind Victorian Morality

By Simpy Sharma

Portrait of Dickens, c. 1850, National Library of Wales

The reign of Queen Victoria was prosperous and peaceful in the Great Britain. Because of its various industrial and colonial expansions, England prospered to the point where it became a global power at the time. And society was divided into two classes: upper and lower. The aristocracy enjoyed the luxury that life offered, whereas the poor could not afford basic necessities such as running water and heat. Their roles had been delegated to them. This capitalist economy was expanding at a breakneck pace, leaving those behind who couldn't keep up with the speed and change. Not only were the roles of both strata of society predestined, but the roles of men and women were also deterministic and based on societal expectations. Society as a whole played a significant role in characterising the roles of women, who were expected to care for the children of the family as well as the requirements of her husband. In the Victorian era, a wife's accomplishment could be analysed by her husband's contentment, both physically and financially. From the outside, the duplicitous society bragged about moral values, but from within, meaningless and lifeless relationships sought comfort outside the four walls of the dwelling. The so-called Victorian morality was more of a decoration of a perfect civilised society, with interiors as vacant as poor people's houses. Men were permitted to have mistresses for additional physical gratification, whereas women were restrained to their homes, living their lives according to the set example of perfectionism of caring for the household. The public figures or influential people were more vulnerable to Victorian morality because they seemed to be unceasingly striving to put their best foot forward and constitute an appearance of general populace' liking.

Charles John Huffam Dickens, A brilliant writer and critic from the Victorian era have similar stories to recount. Despite a prolific writing career, his personal life had always been a struggle between publicising the era's perceptions and notions and a contrasting reality. His controversial life includes all of the fundamental constituents that were considered taboo upon at the time. The establishment of marriage was a central component during the Victorian times, whilst the writer had always been associated with various females other than his wife in an inappropriate manner. To comprehend, we must begin with his childhood, which contains the initial fabrication of his psyche.

Elizabeth Dickens

Charles John Huffman Dickens, born in 1812 and raised in Portsmouth on the English coast, had a similar story to tell. He was one of many great English authors who died in 1870. He also had a tensed relationship with his mother. She was the one who put him to work in a factory. He was forced to work at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, a shoe polish factory where Charles worked long hours. He couldn't forgive his mother for having removed him from school. In his novels, he always seemed to prosecute mothers. The gratification he used to get from attempting to make the mother persona in his novels deteriorate is vindictiveness against his own mother. The torturous days he ended up spending in that factory left a deep impression on young Charles' psyche, leading him to loathe his mother. The desire to retaliate against the mother characters in the narratives was a direct consequence of his own suffering caused by the actions of his mother. Charles' desire to break free from the clutches of his mother, Elizabeth Dickens, drove him to express his venom through his writings. The emotional gap he encountered as a child became the main reason for the portrayal of such women. He hungered for the motherly unconditional love and care that was available to other children but not to him. He was a mere source of earnings for his mother, as evidenced by her refusal to allow him to attend school after having received a small inheritance that supported the family financially.
"I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” Charles Dickens

Maria Beadnell

Charles Dickens' first love did not go well. Maria, a banker's daughter, met him in 1830 when he was 18 years old and instantly fell in love with her. Dicken's unfruitful career drove him to make impulsive decisions, such as choosing acting as a career to convince Maria's father, Mr Beadnell. Her father, on the other hand, outright rejected him due to his reckless decisions and did not deem him to be an appropriate suitor for his daughter. The failed love had a profound effect on Dickens, and references to Maria could later be seen in leading ladies such as Dora in David Copperfield. Maria was sometimes completely oblivious to his emotional responses, and sometimes she acknowledged his fondness. She later attempted to contact him after he had become a well-known author. Unfortunately, nothing worked out. He pursued her for three years, even writing numerous romantic poems to entice her. His early literary text includes a wide range of verses brimming with love, devotion, and the hope of perpetual oneness.

Catherine Dickens

Dickens' marriage to Catherine in 1835 appears to indicate a quick recovery from his intensely passionate but ultimately unsuccessful relationship with Maria. The young wife was wholly swayed by her husband's prominence and position in Europe. They travelled throughout America and Europe in the early years of their marriage. Catherine, like any other devoted wife, did everything she could to care for her husband. It was a fairy tale for her, but after having children, Catherine became insanely busy in fulfilling her responsibilities of a devoted wife and caring mother. Dickens grew apart from his wife inadvertently due to the overwhelming life responsibilities of ten children and the obvious effects of age on mind and body. Dickens was disenchanted with her worn-out body after giving birth to ten children. Her physical allure had faded. He even thought she was imbecilic. Sources has it that once he wrote to his friend John Forster, “Catherine and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it.” Subsequently, he filed for divorce and eventually got separated on the basis of multiple factual information that appear to many to be false, one of which was her being clinically insane.

Ellen Tiernan

Actress Ellen Ternan, 1858.

During the infamous years of Dickens' divorce and falsely accusing his once love of life, he met an 18-year-old actress named Ellen Tiernan. This was widely speculated that it was his romantic fling. When he met her, her sister, her mother, and she were the actors in his play. He even bought a house for her where he used to meet her clandestinely, and they had a child who did not survive infancy and died. They interchanged a large number of letters, which they eventually destroyed in order to safeguard his Victorian ideal man image. It was later identified as one of the primary reasons for his divorce from his wife. In the Victorian era, having such scandalous associations outside of marriage was frowned upon. Probably for this reason, the two eventually destroyed all correspondence between them so that none of them would be held accountable for being a part of such a controversy. It was more of an exertion for Dickens to safeguard his own image because of his prominence and popularity in the literary community.
Mary Scott Hogarth

Mary Scott Hogarth

Dickens wife had 2 Sisters including her and all of them were a central part of his life. He was most attached with Mary. 16-year-old Mary moved with the newly wed the moment they returned from their honeymoon. It is said that Dickens was delighted by her presence and she used to admire and adore her clever brother-in-law for his wit, intelligence and popularity. He used to stay up late talking to her. They had a friendly relationship and applauded each other tremendously. His heart was broken the most by her untimely death. In his arms, she died of a heart attack. He even removed a ring from her fingers and kept it as a memento of her until his final days on Earth. He named one of his daughters Mary in her commemoration. Many of her female protagonists are based on her, which would include Rose Mylie in Oliver Twist and Agnes in David Copperfield.

Dickens' most significant ethical instruction all through his life was to keep on working on one's weaknesses and strive for an improved future because fixing everything in life is beyond humans' capability. When one perceives his scandals and affairs, the statement he promoted appears to be ambiguous. Having said that, the benefit of the doubt can always be provided, bearing in mind that a person's psychological needs must be addressed in a scientifically and clinically proven manner, not in the light of societal impressions or widely held ideologies, as these belief systems are often considered true when a large segment of the population expresses doubt instead of looking deep inside once life and sufferings or struggles.