YOUNG CHARLES DICKENS IN LOVE
YOUNG CHARLES DICKENS IN LOVE
by William H. Benson
February 14, 2002
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, and at age eighteen in 1830 he fell in love with Maria Beadnell. As his infatuation soared, he wrote her poetry and pages of love letters. Often he visited her, and then alone at night he would walk past her home and dream of her.
Maria was indeed pretty–petite with blonde curls. And she captivated him with her smile and her giggle and her charming good looks. That she could play music on her harp overwhelmed the intense young Charles. But Maria was also flighty and willful and never really in love with Charles. She laughed at his obsession and knew that she held almost a hypnotic power over him.
Her father was a bank manager, whereas John Dickens was a never-do-well who had spent time in a debtors prison and who had sent young Charles at age twelve to work in a factory. Maria’s parents were alarmed by Charles’s unabashed devotion to their daughter and steered her away. They believed rightly that they were a cut above the Dickens clan, and besides Charles was just a guy who knew shorthand and took notes in court for lawyers.
After three years of pursuit, Charles realized that Maria would never love him. In February of 1833 he wrote her a letter recounting all he had done to win her love. “I have been too long used to inward wretchedness and real, real misery.” She returned his letter without the formality of an envelope, and in total humiliation he wrote her a final letter and poured out his heart. “I never have loved, and I never can love any human creature breathing but yourself.”
Cupid finally had tapped on Charles’s shoulder and pointed first to an empty quiver and then to Maria, and Charles understood that none of Cupid’s arrows had struck her heart.
The game of love is never easy, for the outcomes are ill-defined. Winners are often the losers, and the losers often are better off. And life is rarely kind to the frivolous women, and it was not kind to Maria. Scarcely two years after the breakup, Charles Dickens published Pickwick Papers and was instantly famous. People referred to Maria and said, “Boy, did she make a mistake.”
Still deeply wounded, the young Dickens gradually understood that he should never again allow a woman to hold the kind of erotic power over him that Maria had, and so he married a kind, compliant, and placid woman named Catherine.
Twenty-two years speed by, and in February of 1855 he receives a letter from Maria. Once again he flies into a state of wild exuberance, and there is a flurry of letters as he yearns to recapture his youthful love. She admits that at age thirty-five she had married Henry Winter, a poor sawmill manager, and that they had two daughters. He suggests a tryst, and she agrees. But she warns him that she is now “toothless, fat, old, and ugly.” Impossible, he thinks.
They meet, and it is true that she is no longer the twenty-year-old pretty young thing. She has a head cold, and Charles soon has caught it. Her giggle annoys him. Her constant chatter bothers him. He is forty-three years old, trim, fit, vigorous, the father of ten children, and world famous. And quickly he understands that this woman bores him. Allusions to their shared past sicken him, and what once delighted him now repels him. Again he is disappointed but for a different reason.
She begs to see him again, but he writes three final letters–a string of evasions and excuses why he cannot. She finally understands that it is his turn to reject her, and so he exacts a revenge for the painful humilations that she had made him suffer twenty-two years before.
Today in an unmarked pauper’s grave in the cemetery at Kensal Green lies Maria Beadnell Winter, a footnote in the biographies of Charles Dickens.
The other great British writer wrote, “It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.”, which is to say that the intensity of love is worth the crushing pain when it evaporates. I am not convinced that Charles Dickens would have agreed.