In 1858, after 12 years of marriage and the birth of 10 children, Catherine Dickens was ejected from the home she shared with the nation's most famous literary icon. He had humiliated her through his barely disguised infidelities. But he laid the blame entirely with her, portraying her publicly as an incompetent mother and housekeeper, questioning her mental stability and the "peculiarity of her character".
Catherine was famously silent in the face of these abuses. As a result, she has been seemingly buried alive, disappearing under the "cover" of her husband's misrepresentations, losing narrative control just as, in the Victorian legal doctrine of "coverture", a woman's legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband. Scapegoated and patronised by generations of critics, she remains almost totally unknown except as "Mrs Charles Dickens". But for 42 of her 64 years she lived apart from the man who has come to define her, so is it right to think of her only through her husband?
Lillian Nayder has little time for this point of view. Her vigorous biography aims to rubbish long-standing views of Catherine, dislodging her husband from centre stage, resisting "his mesmerising powers, his tendency to seize control of narratives, and his uncanny ability to make biographers speak for him from beyond the grave".
Nayder is unimpressed with Peter Ackroyd's presentation of Catherine in his renowned biography as a staid, static figure. Even Michael Slater's pioneering 1983 work Dickens and Women, which aimed to correct the picture of Catherine as a "mere drag" on the genius' "triumphal chariot", is dismissed as too Charles-centric.
The Other Dickens fights the assumption that Catherine's significance, and that of her sisters, lies in their relationship with the great man. Some highly impressive archival research uses her letters to place the emphasis squarely on the complexity of the woman born Catherine Hogarth, her multiple identities and social roles.
The story Nayder unravels, she claims, "helps us understand the working of her culture, and ours". It certainly provides the former, painfully illuminating the troubled nature of Victorian middle-class womanhood. We get a powerful sense of the vulnerabilities of all wives in a culture that denied them property and custody rights. But we are also invited to appreciate the multiple roles and the range of voices inhabited by women such as Catherine and her circle, and their varied responses to gender inequities.
As for "our" culture, the book makes a powerful case that "we may be closer to the Victorians than we think". Modern life, Nayder suggests, retains a persistent imperative for women to see themselves as subordinate, encouraging them to submit to narratives as pernicious as those in her book. Catherine may have remained silent about her husband's conduct, but this book restores her voice as a salutary lesson to be heeded by current generations. Understanding what it meant to be a victim of 19th-century male misrepresentations mightn't be such a bad idea.
For all the attempts to dislodge him, however, Dickens' imposing presence still permeates this exercise in women's history. Despite attempts to avoid his influence, he remains in the book's title, and for better or for worse acts as its centre of gravity. Nayder has two aims: to recuperate Catherine as a force in her own right, but also to put an end to "our continued sentimental embrace" of her husband as a literary icon. And it is the latter sense that remains most strongly with readers. The "other Dickens" of the title turns out to be not just the misunderstood and discarded heroine, but the grubby private face of this most talented of fabricators and storytellers.
The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth
By Lillian Nayder
Cornell University Press, 360pp, £22.95
Published 14 December 2010