Mrs. Charles Dickens (also known as Melanie Dees Campbell of Marshall) offered an intimate portrait of her complex husband that she said not many of his casual fans may be aware of.
The members of the book club met with Mrs. Dickens at Marshall Public Library Tuesday, Dec. 18, and were entranced by dark secrets and tragic moments she shared. They seemed moved by Catherine Dickens' lingering pain from being cast aside for a younger woman after bearing 10 children.
"We women do not stay like we were when we were 18 or 20," she said. "He was obsessed with young, petite women. Ellen Ternan became my husband's mistress."
The young actress was 18 and Dickens was 45 when the affair began, Catherine said.
"I left the home." she said. "As a mother, one protects one's children."
At the time, divorce would have meant great scandal and loss of social standing and wealth. Instead, Catherine was virtually banished.
"I was given 400 pounds a year and a carriage," she said, noting that almost all her previous social connections were severed.
In spite of her sorrow, Catherine had an explanation for her husband's behavior. When he was young, his father was sent to debtors' prison and Charles had to work in a boot-blacking factory, a horrible, rat-infested place that was a shock to the system of a boy who'd grown up in the country.
After his father was released from prison, Charles' mother wanted him to continue working at the factory. Catherine said she believed Charles never forgave his mother for that and his relationship with her, and with all women, suffered as a result.
She also noted that personal tragedy may have played a part in the sundering of their marriage. Charles was particularly attached to Mary, Catherine's younger sister, who died in his arms after a brief illness.
But throughout her account, her pride in her husband's literary accomplishments and loyalty to his legacy remained.
"I don't want you to hold it against his genius," she said, and listed some of his finer characteristics. "Charles had a heart for children. He also had a heart for people with handicaps."
She noted that when he visited America in the 1840s he was outspoken in his opposition to slavery, even though it cost him sales of his literary work.
"He was aghast at how people who tried to escape were treated," she said. "He was appalled by it" and his views "got Americans very upset."
Still, he remained popular both in England and America for his beloved novels, from "David Copperfield" to "Great Expectations."
"He was a literary genius," Catherine said. "Everyone here knows him. He's almost as American as he is English."
After a pause, Catherine sighed and confessed, "Oh, I think I've shared too much."
As she concluded her portrayal of Mrs. Dickens, Campbell turned up the lights in the library meeting room and served tea to her guests.
She said getting in character was fun to do and was in keeping with late-19th century forms of entertainment.
"Victorian people did that," she said. "There was no TV. I thought it would help people learn."
Her portrayal did lead to some discussion about life in the Victorian period, especially the relative fragility of life compared to today.
"Death was close to them," Campbell said. "Get a cut or a cold and you could die. We are very insulated from death. Women and children were especially vulnerable."
Connie Grisier noted that mourning could also contribute to death. Women commonly wore black veils after losing a family member, and the dye in the veils sometimes contained arsenic.
Illness and death that at the time might have been attributed to a broken heart was, in some cases, inadvertent poisoning, she said.
Campbell was asked how she had acquired so much information about the Dickens' life, and she said it was a matter of reading widely and using Internet sources cautiously.
"You have to read more than one biography," she said. "Many make errors. If you Google, some (sources) say they were divorced, some say they were not divorced. It was legal separation. You can use the internet but you have to check authors' credentials."
Although she couldn't guarantee there would be a performance each time, Campbell urged those in attendance to return to Tea at Two sessions.
She plans to discuss Civil War-related works during the next three sessions: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 2 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29; "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26; and "Gone with the Wind," by Margaret Mitchell, 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 26. The book club will convene in the meeting room at Marshall Public Library.