Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle by Heera Datta.

 

Set in 19th century London.

Catherine-dickens-young

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:

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Catherine+dickens%3A+Outside+the+magic+circle

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My review of On Different Shores by Rebecca Bryn

This review was first published in Discovering Diamonds, the go-to place to get honest reviews of historical fiction.

The story begins in tried and true fashion: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, in this case to another man. Young Jem, a common labourer, does the honourable thing by standing aside so that Ella will marry the man chosen for her, the son of a prosperous farmer, who can give her a better life. Unfortunately, the husband turns out to be a coarse brute. The story really gets interesting when Jem, along with his two cousins, commits a murder and is sentenced to be transported to a penal colony. Never mind that she is married and has borne Jem’s son, Ella determines that somehow she will follow her love to the other side of the world.

Two things illuminate this book for me. First is the little nuggets of 19th century farming life Ms Bryn describes without in any way intruding on the story. Second is Ella’s awakening, as she learns little by little how few rights she has over herself and her child. As one of the men in her life says in all sincerity: ‘Why would you need rights? You’re a woman. Your pretty little brain isn’t equipped to deal with important decisions. You need the protection and support of a man, a husband.’ These words encapsulate the views of the time perfectly, especially as they are spoken by a good man.

Jem pays a terrible price for an atrocious act committed in a moment of madness, and Ella’s determination to join him leads her to adopt drastic measures. Yet it is not difficult to sympathise with the two.

I do have a couple of little gripes. The author uses pronouns instead of proper names far too often, leading to some confusion. Also, in the early chapters, I found the motivations of the two central characters difficult to believe. But these things in no way reduced my enjoyment of the book. Once the story got going it gained momentum with each page until, at the last, I was left wanting more. As it happens, books 2 and 3 are available.