Elizabeth Dickens

Much attention has been directed to the women in Charles Dickens’ life – most notably his wife Catherine and his lover Ellen Ternan – but it is with his mother, Elizabeth Dickens, that I have become particularly interested, writes Kaye Jones.

An attractive and vibrant woman, she was the inspiration for the foolish and self-absorbed Mrs Nickleby. She had a profound influence on Dickens’ development – both as a man and a writer – and certainly informed his view of and relationships with other women in later life. So let’s take a brief look at the inimitable Mrs Dickens…

“A Dear Good Mother And A Fine Woman”

When John Dickens married the nineteen-year-old Elizabeth in 1809, she was a “pretty, bright-eyed, vivacious-looking woman with her hair clustered in dark ringlets and a neat wasp of a waist.” Their first child, Frances, was born the following year and Charles Dickens in 1812. She took full responsibility for the children’s education in these early years, teaching reading, writing and even the basics of Latin. Dickens would later recollect that she taught him “thoroughly well” and it was certainly her influence that inspired his lifelong love of reading.

It was Mary Weller, the family’s servant at Chatham, who described Elizabeth Dickens as “a dear good mother and a fine woman.” Her testimony also gives us a rare glimpse into Elizabeth’s character:

“she possessed an extraordinary sense of the ludicrous, and her power of imitation was something quite astonishing…In like manner she noted the personal peculiarities of her friends and acquaintances. She had also a fine vein of pathos, and could bring tears to the eyes of her listeners when narrating some sad event”

Sounds like Dickens, right? Weller believed that Charles “inherited a great deal of (his) genius from his mother. He possessed from her a keen appreciation of the droll and of the pathetic, as also considerable dramatic talent.” Like her son, Elizabeth Dickens had been known to creep the boards but she fell through a trap door at the Soho Theatre and permanently damaged her legs causing a slight lameness, according to Weller. It is of course possible that Weller had a overtly rosy view of her former mistress but, exaggerated or not, her recollections are one of the few surviving accounts of Elizabeth that we have.

Mrs Dickens’ Establishment

One of Elizabeth’s defining moments is her Establishment for Young Ladies. Set up as a response to the family’s increasing financial difficulties, Elizabeth took a house on Gower Street in late December 1823 and nailed to the door a brass plate bearing the name of her new venture. All she needed now was a handful of fee-paying students. Dickens sums up what happened next:

“I left, at a great many other doors, a great many circulars calling attention to the merits of the establishment. Yet nobody ever came to the school , nor do I recollect that anybody ever proposed to come, or that the least preparation was made to receive anybody. But I know that we got on very badly with the butcher and the baker; that very often we had not too much for dinner.”

Elizabeth Dickens has often been ridiculed for her Establishment. No matter how you word it, it was a complete failure that did nothing to alleviate the family’s mounting debts. But she should, I believe, be commended for trying to do something, even if it was a misguided adventure that the family could not afford. Within months John Dickens was arrested for his debt and imprisoned in the infamous Marshalsea.

Kaye Jones

For more, see Kaye’s Charles Dickens: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats.

See also Charles Dickens and the Marshalsea Prison and Dickens’ Christmas Carol.