Hannah Gal

Charles Dickens and Georgina Hogarth: A curious and enduring relationship

Charles Dickens and Georgina Howarth A Curious And Enduring Relationship

“My life has been a curious one, and not the ideal of a happy woman’s existence – and I have often felt it hard and wondered whether it was all a mistake and a waste!” Georgina Hogarth

Georgina Hogarth was Charles Dickens’s sister in law. At 15 the sharp and witty girl moved into the Dickens family home where she stayed for 28 years. What began as a father–daughter relationship blossomed into a genuine rapport with Dickens referring to Georgina as his ‘best and truest friend’.

When the iconic author left his wife and mother of his ten children, Catherine, Georgina refused to leave Dickens. She remained in his household fueling rumors of an affair and even illegitimate children. Dickens left Georgina the equivalent of almost £1 million and all his personal papers in his will. But why did Georgina betray her sister Catherine? Why did she fall out with her family and risk her reputation in order to stay with Dickens? And why did the Dickenses’ daughter Katey say it was ‘the greatest mistake ever’ to invite a sister-in-law to live with a family?

In her 2023 book Charles Dickens and Georgina Hogarth A Curious And Enduring Relationship, author Christine Skelton attempts to find the answers to these quandaries. “Georgina’s commitment to Dickens was unwavering” said Skelton, “but it is far from clear what he did to deserve such loyalty, there were several occasions when he misused her in order to protect his public reputation.”

Here, Skelton speaks of ‘multifaceted Dickens’, the special bond between Hogarth and Dickens, the historic importance of the letters he has sent her over the years, and why she later wondered if hers was a wasted life. I start by asking Skelton what attracted her to the ‘curious and enduring relationship’.

HG How did the book come about? What made you decide to write it?

CS I have a longstanding interest in the Victorian period and read many biographies of significant, influential characters. Dickens captured my interest because he was a multifaceted person. The first biography I read (Peter Ackroyd’s), revealed that writing was just one of his talents – he was an actor, a producer and playwright of theatre dramas and comedies, a composer of a libretto, a conjuror, a social commentator; one day he might be taking part in the fashion for holding seances in his drawing room whilst during the day he was involved in running a home for homeless women, and more. I began reading as much as I could about this ‘man of genius’ and through that, became aware of Georgina Hogarth.

She was a shadowy presence in the background of biographies of Dickens’s personal home life and it was never clear what her place was – was she a member of the family or someone who’d been brought to live with them to help look after the children and take on a few household duties? And, when she did get more than a passing acknowledgement of her living in the family home, why was there such disagreement amongst the authors as to what she was like?

None of the biographies gave a sense of the young girl who joined the family or what she was like as a young woman. We only got to hear about her during the Dickens’s separation and then she was presented variously as: a manipulative scheming woman who wanted to replace her sister, Catherine, in Dickens’s’ life; others said she was a weak ineffectual woman who did whatever Dickens told her to do; then there was the impression of Georgina as a besotted acolyte; and then again, the view of her biographer, Arthur Adrian, who depicted her as a sweet, loving, kind woman who apparently had no negative characteristics. Adrian never considered the possibility of a sexual element in her feelings towards her brother-in-law which I considered remarkable given she was a 15 year old hormonal teenager living in home of a young, handsome, charismatic famous man – the modern day equivalent would be a fan invited to share the home of her pop star hero. Added to this, none of the biographies asked why she had moved in? Or what was her relationship like with her sister Catherine especially as there was a 12 year age gap between the sisters?  What I found amazing was that I couldn’t find any biography that analysed what Dickens said about her during their 28 years of living together.

Georgina-Hogarth-standing.-From-Katie-Dickens-photograph-album. Image courtesy of The Charles Dickens Museum

Adrian never considered the possibility of a sexual element in her feelings towards her brother-in-law which I considered remarkable given she was a 15 year old hormonal teenager living in home of a young, handsome, charismatic famous man – the modern day equivalent would be a fan invited to share the home of her pop star hero.

After years spent doing research in my professional life, I thought I would use those skills to find out more about Georgina simply out of curiosity but there was no intention to write a book. Of course, once she started to emerge as a ‘real person’ who admitted, “my life has been a curious one – and not the ideal of a happy woman’s existence – and I have often felt it hard – and wondered whether it was all a mistake – and a waste!” I felt I had to set out in a publication who she was, what life was like for her and the ever-changing nature of her relationship mainly with Dickens but also with Catherine. After all the three of them were a unit for many years.

HG How did you research it? Did you have access to specific archives and private collections?

CS Most Dickens biographers have a literary or historical background. My academic discipline is as a feminist sociologist. This means I came to the research wanting to first, gather the views and experiences of women in the Dickens circle as to how they saw Dickens and his family, and importantly – take into account the socio-cultural context. For example, the Victorian period is well known for its gendered expectations of men and women. Victorian etiquette rigidly divided not only men and women, middle class and working class but enforced divisions within these groups. A young, single woman like Georgina was subject to a different set of ‘appropriate’ dress and behaviors than those expected of Catherine, as she was a married woman – and what is more, married to a ‘man of genius.

Research took at least six years and I was constantly following leads because the main sources of information, Dickens, Georgina and Catherine, had not kept their letters to one another. Dickens burned all of his from his wife and sister-in-law; Georgina admitted to Frederic Ouvry that she had burned many of Dickens’s letters to her and then cut out any passages she thought too personal; Catherine kept Dickens’s letters but, of the sisters’ correspondence I have only come across one letter from Georgina to Catherine. Very few letters from Georgina have survived that were written during Dickens’s lifetime although a few exist that were written in the last couple of years of his life.  She simply wasn’t important enough at this point for anyone to bother preserving her correspondence.

I researched the book by starting with Dickens’s letters looking for any surviving letter to Georgina which had escaped her scissors or the fire, or any mention Dickens made of her to friends.

Image courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

I researched the book by starting with Dickens’s letters looking for any surviving letter to Georgina which had escaped her scissors or the fire, or any mention Dickens made of her to friends.  From these I compiled a list of people who clearly knew Georgina. A similar approach was taken to The Dickensian magazine. Using the list, I then read biographies, memoirs, journals, searched archives holding the letters of those people. This was a particularly useful and much needed exercise as any mention of Georgina was a contemporaneous view of her at the time Dickens was alive. Also important were two articles by Eleanor Christian and the diary and letters of Christiana Weller – both women were only vaguely acquainted with Georgina but these two had both been flirted with by Dickens when they were the same age as Georgina.

The Charles Dickens Museum holds letters from Georgina to the family written after Dickens’s death; there are many to Dickens solicitor Frederic Ouvry dating from the same period.  The most significant letters are those written over 40 years to Annie Adams Fields in Boston held at Henry E. Huntington Library as occasionally Georgina reflects back on her life as a younger woman. I discovered some previously unutilized letters from Georgina to the author Edward Bulwer Lytton, the first of which clearly shows she had a massive crush on him.

Much of the research involved joining up snippets of information. For example, it was Georgina’s aunt Helen’s letter to a friend written at the time of the Dickens’s separation saying how Georgina’s head had been turned by Dickens’s flattery that led me to the accounts of Christiana Weller and Eleanor Picken who gave examples of how he flirted with them and recorded their enthusiastic responses.  Another example was linking Georgina’s sudden collapse, (as described in Dickens’s letters to a friend and his sister)to a memo written by a guest at Gad’s Hill who had seen Georgina the morning preceding the onset of her alleged heart condition that afternoon which led to the likelihood that this was most likely a mental and physical breakdown caused by her discovery of Dickens’s relationship with her, by then, friend Ellen Ternan.

HG What have you learned about the individuals writing and receiving the letters?

CS This one really stumped me I’m afraid – the letters recently acquired by the Charles Dickens Museum, between Charles Kent and Georgina Hogarth were missing when I researched the book – something I note with sadness in the Aftermath chapter of the book.  Emma Harper of the Charles Dickens Museum is currently deciphering these (and I’m not joking; Georgina’s handwriting is appalling) so I haven’t read them yet.  However, knowing how circumspect Georgina was, I think it will be a case of, once again, joining the dots.  In her letters to Annie Adams Fields she was cautious – for example, even though Annie knew about Dickens relationship with Ellen Ternan, when Georgina went to visit Ellen, rather than saying ‘I went to Margate to see Nelly’ she would say she was visiting ‘a friend’. 

HG Is education  part of your academic background ?

CS I am Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Birmingham. As a feminist education sociologist, I researched into masculinities and primary schooling and have written several books about the topics of this in relation to boys’ underachievement and teacher identities. I spent several years researching Georgina. I wrote an article published in The Dickensian in 2018 on Georgina’s fall out with Mamie (Dickens’s eldest daughter). Mamie and Georgina were sharing a house but Mamie was spending more time with a somewhat dubious clergyman and his wife. Mamie died of alcoholism and in her final days, the clergyman and his wife moved out, leaving the space clear for Georgina and Katey Dickens to take over the nursing.

Image courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

HG How would you describe Hogarth’s and Dickens’s relationship? I realize that it has evolved over the years.

CS When I read anything about Georgina and Dickens, she was always pigeonholed – children’s nurse; housekeeper; confidante. She was so much more than that to him – as he said ‘she has a higher claim … upon my affection, respect, and gratitude than anybody in this world’.  To Georgina he was ‘my dearest Charles’.

What I have done in the book is to show how, initially because of her age, their relationship moved through different stages: Father-daughter, followed by a genuine friendship when Georgina was in her 20s; things got a bit tricky when Dickens, I believe unintentionally, acted in a way that resulted in Georgina falling ‘in love’ with him. Ever the sensible person, she pulled herself together through that hormonal maelstrom, knowing full well nothing could come of it; and he carried on as if nothing had happened, but the legacy of that emotional period was that she always cared deeply for him.

The third stage is difficult to sum up in a sentence. By Georgina taking Dickens’s side in the separation their easy friendship was disrupted. As Katey Dickens described Dickens, he was like a ‘mad man’ – Georgina was loyal (even tolerating without question, if the rumors are correct, the indignity of having to go through a virginity test to prove they hadn’t had an affair). Seemingly, from Georgina’s letter to Maria Beadnell, they both agreed for her status to be changed so that she took on more of an assistant housekeeper role – Mamie was the official mistress of the house. Personally, Dickens was not as thoughtful towards her as he had been and he certainly treated her more like an employee.

The last stage saw a resumption of their earlier close friendship – at least on Dickens’s part. This came about as a result of Georgina’s breakdown and his fear of losing her and this is when he talked of her as his ‘best and truest friend’. At this stage, Georgina’s response to Dickens had some distinctly odd features which I put down to her earlier breakdown. 

Her attitude towards Dickens was, according to her biographer Arthur Adrian, ‘fervent to the point of obsession’. Personally, I think she only got as bad as this after he died but she was certainly devoted to the point when she seemed to have no opinions of her own, reiterating his word-for-word and constantly fretting over him. After 28 years together there was undoubtedly am immensely strong bond; they had stuck together through all the changes he made to the family set-up, despite this meaning she fell out with her family. He trusted her above anyone and she reveled in his affection for her.

About the Author
Hannah’s credits include Quillette, The Critic, The SpectatorUS, UnHerd, Creative Review, The Guardian (Art&Design) and The Jerusalem Post among others. Hannah’s posts have been kindly retweeted and shared by Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Warren Farrell, Sebastian Gorka, Will Knowland and Christina Hoff Sommers among others. Gal is a multi award winning documentary filmmaker.
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