Charles Dickens: looking for love in all the wrong places

On the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Dickens – Feb. 7, 2012 – his best novels remain linked to his many heartaches.

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    He was the rock star of his era, but when it came to matters of the heart, Charles Dickens found disappointment more often than fulfillment.
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Charles Dickens was an undisputed creative genius, a rock star of his era, and one of the brightest lights of Victorian England. And yet the author of some of the most beloved novels in the history of English literature was also an unrequited lover who spent much of his life nursing heartache and pining for a consoling love that he never found.

Perhaps it all started with his father, John Dickens, a charming ne'er-do-well whose stint in a debtors' prison forced his his young son into work in a horrific bootblacking factory. As readers, however, we owe a debt of gratitude to the improvidence of John Dickens, because it was that brush with those on the bottom rung of England's economic ladder that filled son Charles with a burning sympathy. "Hard Times," "Bleak House," "Our Mutual Friend" – in fact, almost all of Dickens' novels, in one way or another – were at least partially inspired by Dickens' keen desire to right the wrongs of society and to bring comfort to the have-nots of his world.

But when it came to the opposite sex, Dickens found little justice and even less comfort. His first great love, Maria Beadnell, left him for a more prosperous suitor. He would idealize her as Dora in "David Copperfield." (Later in life, however, he reencountered Beadnell and thought her fat and ridiculous. His revenge on her was the character of Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit.")

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After Beadnell left him, Dickens sought consolation in marriage with the sweet and amiable Catherine Hogarth. Catherine bore Dickens 10 children but he later said that early in the marriage he knew they were badly mismatched. In fact, they had only been married a year when Dickens became profoundly infatuated with her younger sister Mary. Mary fell ill and died – in Dickens' arms – shortly thereafter and many biographers believe that he considered her the great unfulfilled love of his life. She is also believed to have inspired the character of Little Nell in "The Old Curiosity Shop."

The tragedy of the late chapters of Dickens' life was his passion for actress Ellen Ternan. Ternan was still a teenager when they met. Dickens lost his head over the young actress and shortly thereafter quite cruelly pushed his wife out of their home, leaving himself free to pursue an affair that some biographers insist was never consummated. Others argue that it was, but Ternan herself was reported to have said that she felt great remorse over the experience and, as a result, made herself and Dickens very unhappy.

Some of Dickens' late, great works – including "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations" – are believed to have been inspired by his agitated feelings about Ternan.

Dickens died at the age of 58, exhausted and still suffering ill effects from a train accident he was in while traveling with Ternan and her mother.

Dickens was also a man of great enthusiasms, an eager traveler and explorer, a socializer never too tired to make a new friend, and a humanist never unwilling to investigate a worthy charity. But when it comes to the dark side of his work, it is most often the heartache that he never stilled that seems to have been the driver.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.

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