Sue Perkins once studied English Literature at Oxford, and her literary devotion shines through in the presentation of Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas; a revealing look into Charles Dickens and his wife, and the ‘truth behind the fiction’.
The programme delves into the unsung life of Catherine Hogarth, a woman who despite being married to a man who encapsulates our notion of Christmas (‘The English Santa’ as Sue rather grandly names him), lived her life in the shadow of a surprisingly cold and callous husband. We hear after having met at the age of nineteen, Charles was bowled over by a bonny girl who appeared to posses charming wit and impressive literary connections. As a love struck boy struggling to find his own identity he fell in love with her completely, as reflected in the love letters he unashamedly wrote, addressing her with affectionate terms like ‘darling pig’. (Akin to a Victorian chat-up line apparently. Charming…)
As Sue goes on to reveal however, this early tale of bliss did not have a happy ending. With a husband who seemed more interested in her sisters than she, and the oft-used label of ‘mental disorder’ being cruelly enforced upon her, Catherine’s story is no heart-warming tale of plum puddings and family sing-songs by the fire. It’s a case of less ‘Christmas Carol’, more ‘Hard Times’ for the woman who bore Dickens ten children.
On her journey, Sue speaks to literary scholars who have uncovered evidence which dispels the myth that Catherine Dickens was to blame for the dissolution of their marriage and Charles’ subsequent erratic behaviour and ill-health. Like the Ryan Giggs of the Victorian era, the actions of a writer who holds such legendary status and esteem appear to have once been genuinely shocking.
Also interesting are the programme’s insights into the origins of our current Christmas staples – such as the ‘Twelfth Night’ birthday cake for the couple’s eldest child morphing into our present-day Christmas cake – and the inclusion of Sue’s passionate and inventive readings. Her unique comedic perspective provides an entertaining slant on this look at the dark side of a life which people often look upon as having such a ‘moral’ and ‘cheerful’ veneer.
So when watching A Muppet’s Christmas Carol this festive season, you might momentarily think differently about our ol’ Chuck. However I don’t suppose it’ll damage his reputation in the long run; no, he is an author with a legacy too great and too cemented in our collective (Christmas) consciousness for that.