‘A ghastly absurdity’: The Senility of Dickens’ mother

Elizabeth Dickens (1789-1863) has been named as the primary inspiration for both Mrs Nickelby and Mrs Micawber, fixing her in the popular mind as a flighty and confused woman, with an unending devotion to her financially inept husband.  Dickens’ biographers have been similarly unforgiving, with some recognition of her good nature and cheerful manner.  Dickens (like most people?) had a complicated relationship with his mother.  They were close in some ways, yet it seems he could never forgive her for removing him from school to put him to work in a blacking factory during his youth.1

The adult Dickens financially supported his parents to a large extent, and this continued following Elizabeth’s widowhood in 1851.  Ten years later, when she was 71, it became clear to Dickens that his responsibilities towards his mother would have to extend beyond sending an occasional cheque:

When I got home last night, I found a note from the lady with whom my mother lives, who is terrified by the responsibility of her charge, and absolutely relinquishes it.

Dickens now had to find some new ‘good hands’ to take care of his mother, a task he felt ‘at great loss to settle’.2 A few months later, his brother Alfred died.  Financial responsibility for the widow and her five children fell to Charles, but with it came a solution to the problem of his mother.  Elizabeth was moved in with Helen Dickens, and Helen was paid to nurse and support her until her death.  This was to come only three years later, but in the intervening time, the elder Mrs Dickens was to prove a worrisome charge.  In August 1860, Dickens described his mother’s condition thus:

My mother…is in the strangest state of mind from senile decay: and the impossibility of getting her to understand what is the matter, combined with her desire to be got up in the stables like a female Hamlet, illuminates the dreary scene with a ghastly absurdity that is the chief relief I can find in it.3

 Dickens, now at the height of his fame, had friends in high places.  He engaged William Charles Hood, medical superintendent of the great Bethlehem Hospital (known in the popular imagination as ‘Bedlam’) to treat his mother, lamenting that she was ‘on the whole…rather worse than I had supposed her to be’.4  The doctor’s ministrations did not, apparently, make Elizabeth any easier to deal with, but Dickens did not wish to hear Helen’s complaints on the matter:

I really cannot bear…the strife she gets up in my mind about the whole business.  I was completely disgusted and worn out by her on this last occasion.5

In an earlier letter detailing his mother’s mental ailments, Dickens had concluded that ‘Life is a fight and must be fought out’.6  The end to Elizabeth Dickens’ fight came in September 1863, and was no surprise to Dickens, who felt that she had ‘long been in a terrible state of decay’.7

The case of Dickens’ mother gives me a small, but useful, insight into the management of old-age mental change in the upper echelons of society, something I am finding hard to get a sense of.  The desire to ‘keep it in the family’ prevailed, as was often the case with upper-class mental illnesses, especially at a time when the hereditary nature of insanity was just beginning to gain attention.  The solicitation of advice from Hood adds weight to my argument that ‘senility’ and ‘insanity’ were (<academic caveat> in some ways </academic caveat>) much more closely associated in the nineteenth century than they are today.

 I also see some resonance with the debate over the public responsibility for the ‘senile poor’ in nineteenth century London (probably because that’s what I’ve recently been writing about).  ‘Senile dements’ presented significant challenges for the institutions in which they often ended up – be they workhouses, infirmaries, or lunatic asylums.  The managers of these institutions made no secret of the problems of managing these cases, and clamoured to have them removed.  The ‘senile’ were passed – rhetorically and literally – from institution to institution, and they were only ever admitted begrudgingly.  Elizabeth Dickens’ behaviour clearly posed a huge challenge for those who provided her primary care, and yet the person who bore ultimate responsibility for her – her son – did not want to hear about these practical issues.  He did not want to bear the ‘strife’ it caused him.  Perhaps this is a little unfair to Dickens, whose relationship with his parents was coloured by years of disappointments and difficulties, and whose position as a successful Victorian man precluded him from expectations of taking on that caregiving role himself.  I really need more examples to see how this case fits into the wider picture of upper and middle class responses to the needs of mentally changing aged relatives.  Any leads appreciated!

All letter references are from Graham Storey, Margaret Brown and Kathleen Tillotson (eds.), The Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford, 1997)

1Fred Kaplan and Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie are quite critical of Elizabeth Dickens’ character and abilities as a mother, and emphasise the coolness of Charles’ attitude towards her.  Peter Ackroyd’s more psychoanalytically inflected biography is rather more forgiving, and describes Dickens’ ‘hopeless love’ for his mother.  Claire Tomalin’s recent biography makes very little reference to Elizabeth.  Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, Dickens:  A Life (Oxford, 1979), pp. 5, 8, 16, 211, 216, 325; Fred Kaplan, Dickens:  A biography (London, 1988), p. 104; Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London, 1990), pp. 6-7

2CD to WHW, 28March 1860, vol. ix, p. 227

3CD to FD, 19 August 1860, vol. ix, p. 287

4CD to WCH, 21 June 1860, vol. ix, p. 266

5CD to GH, 24 January 1862, vol. x, p. 22

6 CD to FD, 19 August 1860, vol. ix, p. 287

7CD to EdlR, 13 September 1863, vol. x, p. 288

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