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Dickens wanted to put wife in asylum

York research reveals that Dickens tried to have his wife committed to an asylum

Photo Credit: Jeremiah Gurney

Previously unseen letters
have shed new light on Charles
Dickens’ troubled relationship with
his wife Catherine – revealing that
at one point he attempted to have
her committed to a mental asylum.

A new cache of letters unearthed and analysed by a University of York professor tells the story
for the first time from the point of
view of his abandoned wife. The
letters reveal Dickens’ attempts to
have his wife incarcerated failed after a doctor found there was no evidence that Catherine suffered from
a mental disorder. The 98 letters are
held at Harvard University. Professor John Bowen, from the University of York’s Department of English
and Related Literature, was given
access to the letters and was the first
to recognise their enormous importance.
Bowen notes: “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.” The accusation comes in a letter
from Edward Dutton Cook, Catherine’s next-door neighbour from
where she lived after her separation
from Dickens. The letters were sent
from Cook to his friend and fellow
journalist William Moy Thomas. As
Catherine was dying, she told them
about how Dickens had behaved 20
years earlier, after he met the young
actress Ellen Ternan and decided to
break up their long, hitherto happy
marriage. The letters give a convincing account of the break-up of
the marriage, directly from Catherine herself.

This tale is mostly disheartening. But as Bowen states, there is a
positive in the behaviour of Dr. Tuke
“who had the courage to stand up to
Dickens and say no, your wife is not
insane."

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