I’ve just finished my holiday reading, and not a moment too soon since classes start tomorrow. In addition to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the new Jonathan Franzen novel, which I read while travelling, I read Lillian Nayder’s new biography of Catherine Dickens, The Other Dickens (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010), which was too fat to take on the plane.
I was completely compelled by Nayder’s portrait of Catherine as a competent wife and loving mother, counter to Dickens’s accusations that she was so far incapable of raising her children and managing a household that her sister Georgina had to take over. One challenge of writing this biography seems to have been how many of Catherine’s letters were destroyed. Nayder inventively solves this problem by drawing on banking records and legal documents–showing that Catherine, not Georgina, was running the household until very near her separation from Dickens in 1858, as the large cheques drawn in her name suggest, and extrapolating Catherine’s tender feelings about her family from the sentimental objects she bequeathed them in her will.
As I read the book, I found myself wondering if Catherine ever liked being married to Dickens. Nayder stresses the pleasures Catherine took in her roles as mother, daughter, and sister, but Dickens does not come off as much fun to be married to, to say the least. Forgive my anachronistic perspective, but the red flag on his micromanaging tendencies had to be the conduct books on household management that he sent Catherine during their courtship. I’d take the jewelry he sent Ellen Ternan instead.
One final thing that I loved about this book was that I took it out of the Cambridge Public Library, where it was prominently displayed in the new biography section. I like thinking that new scholarship in Victorian studies is reaching a wider audience. Never mind that I now owe the city of Cambridge a late fine, the loan period being considerably shorter at a public library than at a university one. Ooops.