Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle by Heera Datta.


Set in 19th century London.


Catherine Dickens, the wife of the great Charles Dickens and mother of his ten children, suddenly finds herself abandoned by her husband after twenty-one years of marriage. He provides her with a house and even a financial settlement on condition that she sign a draconian agreement that separates her from her minor children and forbids her from speaking publicly about the matter. (Or the 18-year-old actress he has taken up with.) Of course, Mr Dickens speaks publicly and often about his wife as well as issuing press releases vilifying her as an unfit mother and even suggesting she had a mental problem.

The problem for Ms Datta was to create a character in the respected author and champion of underprivileged women, who would do such a terrible thing to an undeserving wife; and also to create a character for Catherine that would show why she didn’t fight, why she passively signed an agreement that left her bereft of her children and painted her as the one at fault in the failed relationship. The author succeeds brilliantly.

We see Catherine go through a range of emotions, in turn, miserable and hopeful, angry and accepting, pitiful and passive. But we never see her step outside the role of a woman who has been so dominated by a controlling man that she has little will of her own. We may not admire her but we never despise her. We want to cry with her for the repeated blows and give a great cheer when she finds a little joy.

Ms Datta digs deeper into the pathos of Catherine’s situation to discover that when she is with old friends she is uncomfortable. She worries they wonder how she has adapted, if she knows about the actress, and what kind of mother she really was. But she is also uncomfortable with prospective new friends who don’t know who she is because she has nothing to talk about with them, no husband, no children, no household concerns. It is another, cruel layer of aloneness.

It is always fascinating for authors to read about great figures of literature, but I believe anyone who reads this book will never see Charles Dickens in the same light again.

This is a sad book, but well worth reading. I heartily recommend it. Find it here:


The Goldsmith’s Wife by Anita Seymour

I found this an easy read, a family drama set in the late 17th century. The lady of the title is Helena, whose husband, Guy Palmer, sets up a mistress – a not-uncommon practice of gentlemen of that era. When she finds out, Helena, who is already strongly attracted to William, indulges in an affair. Helena’s relationship with the two men provides the trunk of the story, but there are many branches to hold the reader’s interest all the way through. The characters are all likeable and believable. In fact, it wasn’t until I had finished the book that I realised what was lacking: an antagonist. Did it spoil the story? Not at all.

I only wish I had read the first book of the series first. That would have helped me get a grip on a crowded list of characters, as well as explaining why space was given to characters who had no role to play. (Holdovers from the first book, I suspect.)

Recommended as a light read.