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Peer Reviewed

Victorian Lives, Review

Karen Laird

James D. Loy and Kent M. Loy. Emma Darwin: A Victorian Life. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2010. xi+436 pp. $39.95 (c); Lillian Nayder. The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011. xiv+359 pp. $35 (c); David Waller. The Magnificent Mrs Tennant: The Adventurous Life of Gertrude Tennant, Victorian Grande Dame. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. ix+304 pp. $35 (c).
When she was eighty-one years old, inveterate reader Emma Darwin complained to her daughter, “How few people know how to write a life” (Loy and Loy 333). The biographies that failed to live up to Emma’s expectations were, predictably, lives of famous men. With their new literary biographies, Lillian Nayder, David Waller, and James D. and Kent M. Loy all stretch the parameters of a quintessentially Victorian genre by foregrounding the lives of women who’ve long been overlooked. Skeptics will certainly debate whether these subjects merit book-length studies. In The Magnificent Mrs Tennant: The Adventurous Life of Gertrude Tennant, Victorian Grande Dame, Waller unearths a figure who has long since been relegated to the footnotes of the society pages. Nayder’s The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth and Loy and Loy’s Emma Darwin: A Victorian Life invite the vexing question of whether spouses of famous authors deserve scholarship for their own sake. It could be argued that these women’s individual claims to fame rest upon fortuitous life circumstances rather than talent. Before they married successful men, Emma Wedgwood Darwin (1808-1896), Catherine Hogarth Dickens (1815-1879), and Gertrude Collier Tennant (1819-1918) were all daughters of important, well-connected men (a manufacturing heir, a publisher, an admiral in the navy).
Yet the life stories of Mrs. Dickens, Mrs. Darwin, and Mrs. Tennant have much to teach us about the inherent drama of Victorian domestic life. Each woman suffered the premature loss of dear sisters (either to early deaths or, in Tennant’s case, a falling out). They wrote of the formidable challenges of multiple pregnancies and mourned the sudden deaths of young children. Like their longevous Queen, these devoted wives outlived their husbands by several years. Taken together, these biographies provide valuable new insight to Victorian women’s education, sisterhood, courtship practices, marriage roles, motherhood, friendship, and attitudes towards aging.
In Emma Darwin: A Victorian Life, James D. and Kent M. Loy reflect on Mrs. Darwin’s “fascinating and inspirational” life story, which they characterize as “a long and beautiful life lived positively: without complaints, self-pity, overweening pride, or regrets; marked by caring more for others than self; and filled with acts both small and large that made her world a better place” (370). It is telling that they finalize Emma Darwin’s attributes by stressing the faults she lacked. Charles Darwin extolled his wife as his “greatest blessing,” his “superior in every single moral quality,” and his “wise advisor and cheerful comforter” (ix). Loy and Loy’s biography suggests that Emma would approve wholeheartedly of Charles’s depiction of her as his “angel-in-the-house.” Proofreading Charles’s manuscripts, hosting dinners for visiting scientists, and nursing him through chronic illnesses (“Nothing marries one so completely as sickness,” she advises [226] ), Emma found her vocation as Charles Darwin’s helpmate.
Loy and Loy make excellent use of Emma’s correspondence, and they mine her more prosaic household writings for insight into her character. Much weight is placed on the daily diaries in which Emma recorded her appointments, social engagements, and illnesses. Written in short, dashed-off phrases, these are “not the sort of private journal[s] of a biographer’s dreams” (20), as the authors readily admit. While suggestive of Emma’s daily preoccupations, these diaries fall short of revealing her interior life. For example, on the day that her two-year-old son Charles Waring died, Emma wrote only one word: “Death” (164).
The death of ten-year old Annie Darwin in 1851 is poignantly recounted in this biography’s ninth chapter. Long discussed as a pivotal moment in Charles Darwin’s break with Christianity, we finally see the family tragedy from Emma’s perspective. After receiving the devastating news of her daughter’s death via a letter from her husband, Emma replied:
My feeling of longing after our lost treasure makes me painfully indifferent to the other children but I shall get right in my feelings to them before long. You must remember that you are my prime treasure (& always have been) my only hope of consolation is to have you safe home to weep together . . . (128)
This humanizing moment of grief is just one of the many places in the Loys’s biography where Emma—who lost three of her ten children in total—emerges as a completely sympathetic character.
Loy and Loy compellingly portray Emma Darwin as an inquisitive thinker whose personal beliefs and politics evolved throughout her long life. As a newlywed, Emma wrote a pleading letter to Charles meditating of the eternal consequences of his diminishing religious faith: “Every thing that concerns you concerns me & I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever” (85). After Charles’s death, she helped her son prepare his father’s papers for publication with editorial choices that speak to her own increasing tolerance. For example, she deleted one of Charles’s sentences with this rationale: “This sounds presumptuous. … To say that one’s conclusion is correct on such an immense subject as religion does strike me as dogmatic” (308).
Throughout her fourteen years of widowhood, Emma Darwin’s interests became bound up in the events of her children and grandchildren. The second half of Loy and Loy’s biography highlights many of the next generation’s accomplishments, especially daughter Henrietta’s. Ultimately, a vast web of Darwin/Wedgwood siblings, cousins, and in-laws detracts from Emma’s individual story. However, the thoroughness of Loy and Loy’s genealogical research (including detailed family trees) will be appreciated by Darwin specialists.
David Waller’s The Magnificent Mrs Tennant: The Adventurous Life of Gertrude Tennant, Victorian Grande Dame is the rarest type of biography: a gripping page-turner. Written in an engaging journalistic style, Waller’s account of Gertrude (née Collier) Tennant lives up to his somewhat hyperbolic title at every turn. Mrs. Tennant emerges here as a captivating hostess, worthy of the respect she received from the great literati and statesmen of her day.
As he explains in his introduction, Waller was entrusted with Gertrude’s oak chest containing over one thousand letters (many penned by eminent Victorians), diaries, memoirs, and inscribed first editions. Waller warns that “all the dialogue in this book is drawn verbatim from Gertrude’s papers,” which he found “jumbled, unpaginated and often undated” (272). Waller was thus unable to provide references for many of his quotations, which may understandably trouble some researchers. Nevertheless, Waller meticulously reconstructed the Tennant family’s saga from Revolutionary France to Edwardian England with this treasure trove of personal artifacts.
Born in Galway in 1819, Gertrude Collier was the daughter of a struggling naval officer who had married into the landed gentry. Gertrude’s youth in Paris was so rife with drama that her cousin, Hamilton Aïdé, unscrupulously penned a thinly veiled account of her life in his supposedly fictional Rita: An Autobiography (1856). A precocious child with a gift for language, Gertrude refused to accept the limitations imposed on young women. Although her father saw no benefit in educating his daughters, Gertrude remarkably sought and claimed her education. Chapter Seven recounts how she responded to a newspaper advertisement for “cours for young ladies on interesting subjects” (53) and became the only English student in an elite school for daughters of French nobility. She made the most of these connections, even securing an invitation to meet her favorite author, Victor Hugo. Seen through the eyes of the child Gertrude, Hugo is godlike; when she befriends him in later years (during his exile on the Isle of Wright), Hugo is all too human.
The most exciting chapters of Waller’s biography chronicle Gertrude Tennant’s intimate friendship with Gustave Flaubert, whom she met in 1842. Their lifelong correspondence constitutes Waller’s most important research discovery, as several of Flaubert’s letters are here published for the first time. Flaubert also sent Gertrude copies of all of his major works, inscribed with professions of his “inaltérable affection” for her (89). Never hesitant to voice criticism, Gertrude told her friend quite frankly that she found Madame Bovary to be “hideous” (149).
With its new insights into Hugo and Flaubert, this is an indispensible book for nineteenth-century French literature scholars. But Waller also captures new snapshots of George Eliot, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and even Rudyard Kipling, all of whom were guests at Tennant’s London salon. Historians will be intrigued by the many anecdotes involving Gladstone, as well as Andrew Carnegie’s appearance as a love interest of daughter Dolly Tennant. Waller’s biography is fittingly illustrated with photographs by Gertrude’s daughter, Eveleen Myers. It also includes reproductions of John Everett Millais’s and George Frederic Watts’s beautiful portraits of Gertrude’s daughters. In short, this is a truly interdisciplinary work that many Victorianists will find rewarding.
The most remarkable achievement belongs to Lillian Nayder, whose inaugural biography of Catherine Dickens effectively corrects one hundred and fifty years’ worth of scholarship. The Other Dickens promises to change the way we understand Dickens’s own biography, particularly his treatment of women. Nayder draws upon new evidence (including many previously unpublished letters) to offer a bold reframing of Charles and Catherine Dickens’s marriage. Most importantly, Nayder reveals Catherine Hogarth Dickens as we have never seen her before: active, cultured, entertaining, fun-loving, generous, devoted to her friends, heroic throughout twelve pregnancies, and skillful in managing a large household. She was a published author in her own right, writing What Shall We Have for Dinner? under a pseudonym. An avid reader and a lifelong supporter of the arts, Catherine regularly attended the theatre, the opera, and private musicals organized by her many friends. Although clearly devoted to her deprecatory husband, the young Catherine proved willing to stand up to him when his criticisms crossed unreasonable lines.
The Other Dickens might aptly be considered a metabiography, as Nayder continually investigates the ways that previous biographers built upon unflattering references to Catherine. Nayder also demonstrates a fresh approach to the chronological pattern of biography. She punctuates Catherine’s life story with “interludes” that each spotlight one significant sisterly relationship, thereby “reclaiming Mary and Georgina Hogarth for Catherine—acknowledging as primary their ties to their sister rather than their ‘brother’” (2). Helen Hogarth, the rarely mentioned youngest sister, is here revealed to be a devoted supporter of Catherine throughout her marital trials.
And the trials inflicted on Catherine by her initially loving husband are severe indeed. In Chapter Two, Nayder reveals the subtle ways in which Dickens groomed Catherine for the role of his wife. Through close readings of Charles’s letters to Catherine, Nayder illustrates his repeated attempts to “author the terms of their union” (51). In Chapter Three, we learn how Dickens convinced Catherine to accompany him on his first American tour and leave their children behind, in spite of her “well-founded” fears “that a half year without their parents was almost too much for some of them to bear” (121). Chapter Five recounts the terrible loss of their infant Dora’s death from the point of view of Catherine, who received a letter from her husband that her baby was “very ill” when in fact she had already died. Chapter Seven explains how, after their separation, “Catherine had no say in the plans her husband made for her sons,” which primarily entailed lifelong exile from their homeland (285). Even worse was Dickens’s utter lack of communication about the consequences of his plans for their children. For example, “after Catherine learned, in February 1864, of Walter’s death in Calcutta on New Year’s Eve, Dickens again refused to communicate with her” (285). In an ultimate act of cruelty, Dickens denied Catherine custody of her children in a will that named Catherine’s sister Georgina and her daughter Mamie joint guardians. It is somewhat reassuring to learn that many of the couple’s friends publically sided with Catherine (William Thackeray), privately expressed their empathy towards her (Elizabeth Barrett Browning), or went out of their way to seek Catherine’s company when she was exiled from Gad’s Hill (Wilkie Collins).
The question remains: why have so few previous critics come to Catherine Dickens’s defense? Nayder reveals the myriad of ways in which Dickens scholars have “reinforc[ed] the logic of coverture, which denied a married woman her own legal identity under English common law by ‘suspending’ it—merging it with her husband’s and causing her to vanish as a person in her own right” (11). Nayder exposes the misogyny engrained in criticisms of Catherine’s very body, which has been long coded as “an unthinking female body, cumbersome in its materiality and ungoverned in its ‘fecundity’” (12). Most shocking is the way in which Catherine’s own handwritten letters (written on behalf of the couple) have been appropriated as Charles Dickens’s own in The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. In Chapter Six, Nayder persuasively argues, “Equating the joint marital identity of the Dickenses with that of the husband, these misattributions reinforce the language of coverture while promoting Dickens’s claims, as literary genius, to texts authored by subordinates” (225).
One writer who had dedicated his own novel to Charles Dickens was later appalled by his friend’s mistreatment of Catherine. Shirley Brooks decided, “As a writer, I admire him; as a man, I despise him” (291). In a year that marks the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth, Nayder’s superb biography will challenge us to check our hagiographic tendencies even as we celebrate his prolific career. We can only sympathize with Charles Dickens’s childhood trauma in the blacking factory so long as we are equally willing to admit that his disposal of Catherine Dickens—and his self-righteous, malicious, and largely fictionalized narratives of her shortcomings—were nothing short of unjust. The Other Dickens is thus required reading for all Dickens scholars, who may well feel implicated in Catherine Dickens’s critical neglect after reading Nayder’s illuminating, impressive book.
Karen E. Laird earned her PhD in English at the University of Missouri. Currently a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, she is completing a book about the first stage and silent film adaptations of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Woman in White.