Charles Dickens was many things: a masterful storyteller, an ardent social campaigner and a political journalist. But he's unlikely to ever be a feminist icon.
A quote in Dickens' Women by Miriam Margolyes stops you short. In a letter to a friend in 1842, Dickens says with impassive cruelty of his wife: "Catherine is as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be."
Margolyes believes that Dickens terrified and depressed his wife and she is forthright about the writer's mental cruelty. He could not depict a mature sexual and emotional female partner for his heroes, she argues, because "his own relations with women were all damaged, incomplete or destructive."
This gave him a well of poisonous feelings to draw upon. "I think Miss Havisham was Dickens himself," Margolyes observes.
We knew he was a cad already, of course. Dickens's daughter Katey said her father never understood women. Margolyes's point is that it went beyond not understanding women to treating them callously. He never got over being rejected as a young man by Maria Beadnell. His brain was "scorched" by her dismissal with the words "mere boy", she writes.
Dickens met Maria again when she was middle-aged, toothless, fat, old and ugly (her own words). And he ran a mile, taking his revenge in fiction with a depiction of her as the "silly, spoiled" Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. His eye was on slimmer, younger models, whom he treated badly as well. Margolyes describes his behaviour towards young mistress Ellen Terner as that of "an abuser".
Margolyes is frank but this is not a heavy, unenjoyable diatribe. She is funny about Dickens. She recognises that turmoil over women was a creative spur for the man who wrote David Copperfield (perhaps Sid James would have been David Coppafeel in Carry On Dickens) and she loves Dickens the writer. Having played his creations on stage, she is able to praise his fictional women. Mrs Gamp is "a vicious, sublime creation" and the lesbian Miss Wade, from Little Dorrit, was a figure of "power and truth".
The script of her own witty show, which makes up the bulk of the book, is also full of delights. Margolyes is performing it at the Glen Street Theatre in Sydney on the day of the Dickens 200th anniversary, incidentally.
Margoyles is not the only writer in this special Dickens year to write about his issues with women. In her recent, excellent biography of Dickens, Claire Tomalin slightly hedges her bets on whether the Victorian novelist - who helped found a charity at Urania Cottage to help "fallen women" - frequented prostitutes.
In Dicken's Women: His Life And Loves, Anne Isba says that he "infantilised" his wife Catherine - who had two miscarriages and bore him 10 children before being dumped. Isba also details the weird relationship Dickens had with his sister-in-law Mary. When she died at 17, Dickens expressed a wish to be buried next to Mary when he passed away, writing to a friend "I cannot bear the thought of being excluded from her dust."
The most telling evidence that all was not tickety-boo in the Dickens's psyche comes when Isba catalogues his infatuations with teenage girls and his fantasies of being a hero to young (attractive) women. In a letter to Lavinia Watson in 1857 - when he was 45 - Dickens wrote:
"I wish I had been born in the days of ogres and dragon-guarded castles . . . I wish an ogre with seven heads had taken the princess who I adore - you have no idea how intensely I love her! - to his stronghold on the tip of a high series of mountains and there tied her up by the hair. Nothing would suit me half so well this days, as climbing after her, sword in hand, and either winning her or being killed."
Hmm, sword in hand. Perhaps it was wise of Dickens to burn his private papers and destroy his diaries every year.
And yet, and yet. The flawed man left us the magnificent novels. And Margoyles, a lover of literature, takes the balanced and generous overview that he was a genius but not a good man, adding that when she reads him "his humanity transcends his cruelty."
The Telegraph .