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: