Dickens and London
     Dickens and Women

Like most Victorians, Charles Dickens believed that a woman should be 'the angel of the house', devoting her life to housekeeping and child rearing. Many women rebelled, seeking professional training and careers, especially as artists. Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott (1842) is often interpreted as a metaphor for the conflict and artists loved illustrating it.  The Lady was cursed and had to stay imprisoned in a tower weaving a tapestry and only look at the outside world through a mirror.  She saw Sir Lancelot riding by, fell in love and rebelled.  She left her tower, climbed into a boat and floated down the river to Camelot, dying before she reached the city. Click The Lady of Shalott to read the poem. 

Lady of Shalott 
William Holman Hunt (1905)

The Lady of Shalott
Elizabeth Siddall (1853)

The Lady of Shalott 
John William Waterhouse (1888)

In the three illustrations shown above William Holman Hunt shows the lady at the moment she rebels and looks out of the window at Sir Lancelot and activates the curse; she stares in horror at the tapestry which is attacking her as at unravels.  Many other (male) artists followed Holman Hunt's approach.  But one illustration by a women of the same scene survives: a drawing by Elizabeth Siddall.  Siddall portrays the Lady viewing her new opportunities with a calm interest, and her tapestry unraveling away from her, posing no threat. William Waterhouse shows a different scene: the lady embarking in a boat to drift down to Camelot and her death.

Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 but seems to have fallen in love with younger women throughout his life.  In 1837 Catherine's younger sister Mary Hogarth died suddenly and tragically at age seventeen when she was staying with them.  Dickens reacted hysterically, keeping her clothes and up to two years later occasionally taking them out to look at them and longing to be buried beside her.  From 1842 another younger sister, Georgina Hogarth then aged fourteen, started to live with them.  In 1857 Dickens met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and started a relationship with her that lasted until his death. In 1858 he insisted on separating from Catherine, after 22 years of marriage and the birth of ten children. She moved into a separate home, initially with her oldest son Charles but later lived alone. Georgina stayed with Dickens in the role of housekeeper.

Dickens refused all suggestions that he might visit Catherine.  She saw something of her children, although she was not allowed to attend the wedding of her daughter Kate in 1860. Kate said: 'My father was a wicked man - a very wicked man …. My father was not a gentleman - he was too mixed to be a gentleman …My father did not understand women …. he was not a good man, but he was not a fast man, but he was wonderful.' And, of her mother, 'We were all very wicked not to take her part; Harry does not take this view, but he was only a boy at the time, and does not realise the grief it was to our mother, after having all her children, to go away and leave us. My mother never rebuked me. I never saw her in a temper. We like to think of our geniuses as great characters - but we can't.'