"that spirit which directs my life" — Charles Dickens (cited in Ackroyd, 346)

decorated initial 'M' ary Scott Hogarth (1820-1837, beloved sister-in-law and companion of Charles Dickens, died (probably of heart failure or stroke) on 7 May 1837, the Sunday following a double triumph for 25-year-old Charles Dickens: the publisher's informing Dickens of the extraordinary sales of the twelfth monthly number of Pickwick Papers and the appearance in print that very day of the fourteenth monthly number, and the performance at the St. James's Theatre of a farce written by Dickens, Is She His Wife?, or, Something Singular!. After a night's illness, Mary died on the Sunday afternoon. From her lifeless fingers Charles took a ring which he was to wear in memory of her his entire life. He dreamt of her every night for months after her death, and wrote of her to his confidant John Forster as "that spirit which directs my life, and . . . has pointed upwards with an unchanging finger for more than four years past" (letter dated 29 January 1842; cited in Ackroyd, 346, and Slater, 101). He recollected afterwards, "she died in my arms, and the very last words she whispered were of me . . ." (cited by Slater in Oxford Companion, 274) —but, given Dickens's egocentricity, we would be surprised if her last words had NOT been of him.

Finally beginning to realize that the money he was making as a writer would enable him to lead a more upper-middle-class existence, and having celebrated the birth of his first child (Charles Culliford Boz, otherwise known as "Charles Dickens, Junior") on 6 January 1837, Charles Dickens looked about for a suitable (i. e., more "genteel"), more spacious house, and found 48 Doughty Street (where Dickens lived from April 1837 until December 1839, and where he wrote major works: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Barnaby Rudge). After Dickens took the house on a three-year lease at the rate of eighty pounds per annum, he, Catherine, Dickens's brother Fred, and Mary moved in on 25 March 1837. Having moved from the cramped quarters of Dickens's bachelor rooms at Furnival's Inn, Holborn, the Dickenses had scarcely settled into their new Georgian-terraced residence in Bloomsbury when Mary was stricken. For the brief time that she lived with Catherine and Charles during her sister's confinement, Mary had been "Charles's intimate friend, a privileged sister and domestic companion" (Kaplan 92). As the video series Dickens of London suggests, she very likely was the first to hear particularly good bits of Pickwick and Oliver that Dickens had just penned. He valued her opinions and reactions to his work even above those of his young wife Catherine, trusting that her observations and reactions represented those of the common reader.

Daniel Maclise's version of Little Nell, one of the saintly and virginal
young women Dickens created from his memories of Mary.

Numerous critics and biographers, in particular the noted Dickens scholar and former editor of The Dickensian, Dr. Michael Slater, have written extensively on the massive influence that the memory of the dead seventeen-year-old Scottish girl exerted upon Dickens throughout his career. A wealth of material on the subject in print and on the internet, and an increasing interest in her as evidenced in recent Dickens biographies by Fred Kaplan and Peter Ackroyd, complements the relative paucity of meaningful references to her— and particularly to Dickens's dreams of her— in John Forster's authoritative Life of Charles Dickens, published shortly after the novelist's death at the age of 58. Perhaps Forster thought Dickens's obsession with the memory of his young sister-in-law none of the public's business. The great friend, legal adviser, and biographer of Dickens does, however, give the epitaph which Dickens (as a brother-in-law so devoted that visitors to London's Kensal Green Cemetery thought him her brother) composed for her: "God numbered her among his angels." She apparently was, according to others who knew and even those who merely met her, "sweet, beautiful, and lighthearted" (Slater, Oxford Companion, p. 272). But her sweetness of disposition and somewhat conventional brunette beauty captured by Phiz cannot alone explain the profound influence that his memories of her, sometimes shaped as visions and sometimes as vivid dreams, exerted upon Dickens. As numerous critics have noted, Mary probably served Dickens as the basis— the spiritual essence, as it were— of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (the child-character's death in January 1841 brought back the pain of Dickens's parting from his sister-in-law on Sunday, 7 May 1837), of Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, of the protagonist's seventeen-year-old sister Kate in Nicholas Nickleby, and of Agnes in David Copperfield. For his own, real-world children, Dickens used the name "Mary" for the first girl in the family, born 6 March 1838, just under a year after Mary Scott Hogarth's death.

One may argue, as do both Slater and Ackroyd, that Dickens's obsession with his memories of Mary severely limited his capacity to understand and graph the female psyche. Only after the arrival in his life of an eighteen-year-old actress, the blonde and assertive Ellen Ternan, does Dickens begin to use another model for his young women, particularly for Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and for Estella Havisham in Great Expectations (1861). In his chapter "Mary" in Dickens and Women (1988), Slater adds that the little governess in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Ruth Pinch, is almost certainly a version of Mary, Ruth's sexless intimacy and joyous rapport with her brother Tom mirroring perhaps what Dickens felt his relationship with Mary had been in the three years he knew her. Slater's analysis of Ruth-as-Mary even provides an added— and not ironic— implication to Dickens's using "Eden" as a place-name in the novel:

he had just suffered the loss of a very dear young relative to whom he was most affectionately attached, and whose society has been, for a time, the chief solace of his labours' (no concessions to wedded bliss there!). 'That pleasant smile and those sweet words which [were] bestowed upon an evening's work in our merry banterings round the fire were more precious to me', he later wrote to Mary's mother, 'than the applause of a whole world would be.' In his diary he stated, 'I shall never be so happy again as in those Chambers three Stories high [in Furnival's Inn] — never if I roll in wealth and fame. I would hire them, to keep empty, if I could afford it.' [see The Pilgrim Edition of Letters of Dickens, I, 257, 259, 260, 263, 266 note 4, 323, 629, and 630; quoted from Slater, p. 82.]

When he began to achieve wealth and fame a very few years later, he found, I believe, a better way of immortalizing the Eden of his adult years than by the museum-fantasy he had confided to his diary. He ears to be recreating it in his enduring fictional world, first in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), where it is (to the pure at least) purely a brother/sister idyll. Ruth Pinch, that 'blooming little busy creature', keeps gleeful house for her child-like brother, Tom, in a 'triangular parlour and two small rooms' in Islington: As she sat opposite to Tom at supper, fingering one of Tom's pet tunes upon the table-cloth, and smiling in his face, he had never been so happy his life. [Martin Chuzzlewit, Ch.37] (Slater, "Mary," p. 83)

To the list of saintly and virginal young women whom Dickens created from his memories of Mary we should almost certainly add Lilian, the child-guide of Trotty Veck's visions in The Chimes (1844, reflecting the 30 September dream that Dickens had in Genoa of the spirit of Mary looking like a Raphael Madonna), Dot Peerybingle, the devoted sister in The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), and Milly Swidger, the young wife who never becomes a mother in The Haunted Man (1848). Finally, Michael Slater in Dickens and Women makes a highly plausible case for Marion in the 1846 Christmas Book The Battle of Life as an exemplification of Mary in both her self-sacrificing character and romantic position between Alfred and Grace:

Dickens wanted to tell a story which should show in high relief the way in which ordinary human beings [96/97] fought every day 'bloodless battles' of moral courage and self-sacrificing love triumphing over personal considerations. The effect was to be obtained by setting his story on the site of an ancient battle 'where thousands upon thousands had been killed', the kind of battle famous in history though actually a shame and disgrace to humanity, a manifestation of 'the evil passions of men'.

Once he had further decided that the 'bloodless' modern battle of the story was to take the form of a striking instance of sisterly self-sacrifice, that theme so perennially dear to his heart, it was perhaps inevitable that his mind should turn to thoughts of Mary, his lost perfect sister, and that her replacement in his household, her younger sister, Georgina, should also come into the picture. On the sixth anniversary of Mary's death, in May 1843, when sixteen-year-old Georgina had been nearly a year resident under his roof, Dickens had written to her mother:

I trace in many respects a strong resemblance between [Mary's] mental features and Georgina's —so strange a one, at times, that when she and Kate and I are sitting together, I seem to think that what has happened is a melancholy dream from which I am just awakening. The perfect like [sic] of what she was, will never be again, but so much of her spirit shines out in this sister, that the old time comes back again at some seasons, and I can hardly separate it from the present.

The leading characters in The Battle of Life are two sisters called Grace and Marion — an example, Steven Marcus observes, of Dickens beginning, 'surely unconsciously', to play 'what in the interests of brevity I will call the alphabet game'. For so closely does the characterization of the two girls relate to the characters of Georgina and Mary Hogarth that it can hardly be purely fortuitous that the fictional names begin in each case with the same initial letter as the names of their respective originals. The ages of the originals are reversed, however, Grace being the elder but only by 'four years at most'. Georgina was, at the time Dickens was writing The Battle, three-quarters of the way through her nineteenth year, and death had frozen Mary in Dickens's mind at the age of seventeen.

Georgina, whom Dickens was to come to refer to as his 'little house keeper', is reflected in the 'quiet household figure' of Grace with her 'home-adorning, self-denying qualities . . . and her sweet temper, so gentle and retiring' and Mary in the more beautiful younger sister Marion, who becomes invested, during the course of the story, with an exalted spiritual quality. This manifests itself in a certain expression of face that Dickens confesses himself unable to put a name to, 'a something shining more and more through all the rest of its expression':

It was not exultation, triumph, proud enthusiasm. They are not so calmly shown. It was not love and gratitude alone, though love and gratitude were part of it. It emanated from no sordid thought, for sordid thoughts do not light up the brow, and hover on the lips, and move the spirit like a fluttered light, until the sympathetic figure trembles. [97/98]

Both the sisters love the same young man, Alfred Heathfield. He is as near to being their brother as is compatible with decency for he is their father's ward and has been brought up with them. Grace suppresses her feelings for the sake of her beloved Marion, whom Alfred has asked to marry him when he shall return from a three-year absence required by his career. Marion can read her sister's heart, however, and in her great love for her, determines to sacrifice her own love for Alfred and to vanish mysteriously on the day of his return; she is certain that, if she stays away long enough, his heart will turn to Grace. It costs her much agony to do this not only because of her own love for Alfred but also because of the pain it will cause her father (the girls' mother, of course, is dead) and the pain of separation from her adored sister, but she heroically carries out her resolution and, as she had foreseen, Grace and Alfred do eventually marry. They have a little daughter whom they name after her, just as Dickens and Catherine had named their first daughter after Mary. Six years after Marion's disappearance Alfred and his wife are sitting in the garden of their home and Dickens mingles, in his description of how Marion is still a presence among them, the way in which he himself thought constantly of Mary, 'unchanging, youthful, radiant', and the way in which Georgina seemed to him to recall her, as he had written to Mrs Hogarth. Where was Marion, the narrator asks:

Not there. Not there. She would have been a stranger sight in her old home now, even than that home had been at first, without her. But a lady sat in the familiar place, from whose heart she had never passed away; in whose true memory she lived, unchanging, youthful, radiant with all promise and all hope; in whose affection . . . she had no rival, no successor; upon whose gentle lips her name was trembling then.

The spirit of the lost girl looked out of those eyes. Those eyes of Grace, her sister, sitting with her husband in the orchard, on their wedding-day [i. e., the anniversary of that day], and his and Marion's birth-day.

It is at this point that 'the lost girl' is restored to them. She appears like one coming back from the dead, a vision of a 'figure, with its white garments rustling in the evening air' but —

It was no dream, no phantom conjured up by hope and fear, but Marion, sweet Marion! So beautiful, so happy, so unalloyed by care and trial, so elevated and exalted in her loveliness, that as the setting sun shone brightly on her upturned face, she might have been a spirit visiting the earth upon some healing mission. [98-99]

She is, she tells Grace, 'still your maiden sister, unmarried, unbetrothed: your own loving old Marion . . .' and she addresses Alfred now as her 'kind brother'. Dickens's imagination, dwelling on Mary, has taken him one stage further than it did in Oliver Twist. In that novel he had rewritten Mary's history to give it a different ending (Rose survives her sudden terrible illness); in the Battle she does 'die' so that her sister may become the wife of the man they both love but she is miraculously resurrected, as it were, to take her place as loving sister to them both. Alfred, we notice, has not seen her for nine years, exactly the period of time that had elapsed between Mary's death and the writing of this story (the only one he ever wrote in which, for no obvious reason, Dickens was moved to tell his readers his age).

With Mary thus fixed in her sisterly role — the role that Georgina was carrying on in real life — and Georgina herself blended with Catherine in the wife-figure of Grace, Dickens, disguised as the featureless Alfred Heathfield, 'possesses all the [Hogarth] sisters now', as Marcus says, 'and everything they do has reference to him' ('Dickens's story is really saying that Mary's death was in some way a sacrifice made out of love for him'). One feels that the element of fantasy, at whatever level of consciousness or subconsciousness it was operating, has got decidedly out of hand in this story, resulting in a preposterously artificial plot and characters to match. This strains the reader's imagination in a way that contemporary reviewers were not slow to point out. Dickens himself seems to have realized that he had failed to accomplish what he had hoped and blamed the small space into which he had to cram the tale owing to the Christmas Book format; 'What an affecting story I could have made of it in one octavo volume', he lamented to Forster. But whether he could, in fact, have succeeded in gaining the requisite artistic control over the 'day-dreaming' (to use Marcus's word) that lay at the heart of the story's conception must be a matter of doubt.

For it was day-dreaming, and similar to the use made of his memories of Fanny in the next Christmas Book, The Haunted Man. He clearly was at this time (the late 1840s) much preoccupied with his past, brooding over it and reshaping it in various fictional patterns as well as embarking on an actual autobiography. (Michael Slater, "Mary" in Dickens and Women: pp. 96-99)

On 26 April 1842, when he and Catherine beheld the thundering waters of Niagara Falls, he received the distinct impression that among the many voices that he heard in the roaring torrent was Mary's. He wrote from America to Forster that he felt that in spirit after her death Mary had visited the wonder of nature "many times . . . since her sweet face faded from my earthly sight" (Forster, I, 171). Another recollection of her, dating from Dickens's self-imposed Italian (financial) exile, shows that he had gradually lost his sense of her physical appearance, but not of her voice.

Almost as soon as Dickens had moved his family from the Villa Bagnerello at Albaro to the more commodious and beautifully frescoed Palazzo Peschiere within Genoa's city walls, Dickens reported having dreamed of Mary for the first time since 1838, when "she had vanished in the wilds of Yorkshire, after he had told his dreams to Catherine" (Ackroyd 439). Towards the end of September 1844 (Slater in The Oxford Companion speculates that the precise date was the 30th), Mary appeared to him as he slept looking like a Raphael Madonna, wrapped in blue drapery, although he did not recognise the vision as his dead sister-in-law until she spoke. He cried to the spirit, as Forster reports, "Forgive me! We poor living creatures are only able to express ourselves by looks and words" (Forster, Vol. 1, p. 231; Ackroyd 439). Dickens rationalized the vision afterwards by considering such influences as the large altar in his bedroom and the mark upon the wall above it where a religious poster must once have hung, and the ringing of the convent bells next door. The exact nature of the relationship between the Christmas Book characters of Meggy Veck, Lilian Fern, Dot Peerybingle, and Milly Swidger has not been explored by biographers and critics thus far.

Slater concludes, perhaps in sympathy with Catherine, the mother of Dickens's dozen children who was displaced in his affections by a young actress when the plainness of matronly middle-age had eradicated any trace of her youthful beauty,

the woman whom the young Dickens loved not as brother but as a lover, the woman whom he married and lived with for twenty-two years, fathering a large family by her, appears to have had had less impact upon his deepest imagination and on his art than any of the other women who hold an important place in his emotional history. [102]


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

"The Dickens House Museum." London Walks. Accessed 11 March 2007. http://www.london-walks.co.uk/30/the-dickens-house-museum.shtml.

"Ellen Ternan." Wikipedia. Accessed 14 March 2007. http://en.wikipedia?Ellen_Ternan

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. 2 vols. London: Chapman & Hall, rpt. 1895.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

"Mary Hogarth" (portrait by Phiz). Accessed 11 March 2007. http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Favorites/f064.htm

Slater, Michael. "Hogarth, Mary Scott." The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, ed. Paul Schlicke. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.

— -. "Mary." Dickens and Women. London and Melbourne: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1986. Pp. 77-102.

Victorian Web Overview Victorian Web

Last modified 14 March 2007