February 27, 2019

Charles Dickens tried to lock his wife in an asylum


It’s fairly common knowledge that Charles Dickens was a less-than-ideal husband (he carried on an affair with a young actress and eventually left his wife for her). But a set of previously unseen letters offer some alarming insight into just how dreadful he was.

Paolo Karasz reports for The New York Times that in a cache of 98 letters held at Harvard University, Professor John Bowen from the University of York discovered that Dickens attempted to have his wife, Catherine, committed to a mental asylum. His attempts were foiled, as a doctor found no evidence (!!) that Catherine suffered from a disorder. In an analysis of the letters, Bowen explains:

We already knew of the existence of a letter in which Dickens said that his wife suffered from a mental disorder. People had wondered before if he was just suggesting that or trying to frighten her, but these new letters clinch it.

The damning evidence was in a letter written by Catherine’s neighbor and confidante, Edward Dutton Cook. Catherine told Cook the story while she was dying, and Cook later relayed the account in a letter to a friend:

He discovered at last that she had outgrown his liking. She had borne ten children and had lost many of her good looks, was growing old, in fact. He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.

Bowen says the discovery “made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.” But he also points out a (barely-there) silver lining: That the doctor stood up for Catherine.

The doctor in question is now believed to be Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke, who, according to Bowen, was once a great friend of Dickens’s. Needless to say, their friendship cooled when Tuke refused to help Dickens with his scheme.



Amelia Stymacks is the former director of digital marketing at Melville House.