by Heera Datta
Catherine was Charles Dickens’ wife whom he separated from after twenty-two years of marriage and ten children. Enamored of a young actress, Charles scripted a fiction about his marriage in which he was the long suffering husband to a woman who was unfit to be wife and mother. He spread this story through his powerful editor friends.
Catherine did not, could not, fight him. Even the law gave custody of minor children to fathers, and all her children, except one, were minor. She retreated into dignified silence which seems baffling today. But the strength of her agony is exhibited in her words to her daughter, to whom she gave letters written to her by Charles, and told her to give them to the British Museum, “so that the world may know he loved me once.”
“This is an excellent book, both in choice of subject matter and the fictional portrayal of it.”
“The book was based on well-researched facts and documents, some of which found their way into the book. The author was able to construct a believable fictionalized version of Catherine’s life.”
“When I first picked up this book, I genuinely didn’t understand why Catherine would have remained so quiet about the downfall of her marriage while she was alive. Her character development in this tale was so thorough, though, that her refusal to defend herself soon made sense to me. What I appreciated the most about it was how intricately Ms. Datta wove these revelations into the plot. They showed up exactly when they were needed, but they were introduced so seamlessly that I didn’t notice what the author was doing until much later on in the story. Bravo!”
CIR: What inspired this book?
DATTA: At the onset, I will say I did not expect to write this book. I write for adults and for children, and though I have never confined myself to a single genre, I was never inclined towards writing Historical Fiction / Biographical Fiction. This changed when I chanced upon an article about how Charles Dickens had treated his wife and children. Catherine’s story preyed on my mind for a long time, and finally I gave her a voice in Outside the Magic Circle.
CIR: What did you enjoy most about writing this?
DATTA: Writing this book was an emotional experience. It sounds clichéd, but the book wrote itself. There were parts when I had tears while writing. So more than enjoyable, writing this book was a moving experience.
CIR: Did this require any research, and what kind?
DATTA: I read a number of articles and books about Charles Dickens’ marriage and separation. The facts were already there, uncovered some decades after his death, but I wanted to be sure. I also had to research into the legal position of women’s rights in those times. Above all, the language was very important because some of the present day words were not in vogue during the nineteenth century.
CIR: What was the hardest part of writing this story?
DATTA: The most difficult part was getting the emotions right. The book is in first person, and I had to think like a woman who maintained a dignified silence in the face of open scandal and yet, on her deathbed, told her daughter to give certain letters to the British Museum so that “The world may know he loved me once.” I had to maintain a balance between external calm and internal turmoil.
CIR: What message do you hope your readers will get out of this book?
DATTA: I have never been one for messages. I will share what I learnt from Catherine’s story. I learnt to appreciate my legal rights which are an outcome of feminist movements the world over. As recently as mid-nineteenth century, the law did not give a woman right over property, or minor children.