When did you decide you wanted to be an author? I decided to become an author while I was working as an Editorial Assistant at Random House, after I graduated from college. I was always interested in authorship, though, because my mother was a poet whose work appeared in the ‘Paris Review’ and the ‘New York Times’, among other publications.
What other jobs have you had? My professional career began in a Dunkin’ Donuts near my house when I was in high school. I worked full time at Random House in New York for a couple of years before starting graduate school at the University of Virginia. After that, I began my teaching career at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. I’ve been there ever since.
What inspired you to write this book? I was inspired to write the book by what I perceived to be the very partial and biased story that had been told about Catherine Dickens by most biographers and critics up to that point, Michael Slater’s ‘Dickens and Women’ being the exception. I thought that someone needed to do justice to Catherine and acknowledge the importance of women’s history in her case.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? The texture and importance of the relationships among (and between) the four Hogarth sisters, some of whom Charles Dickens’s had claimed for his own and used to tell his side of the story. I was particularly interested in the allegiance of Helen Hogarth to Catherine; Dickens referred to Helen as “the little serpent” because of her support for her older sister.
What was the best thing about writing this book? The best thing was undoubtedly getting Catherine’s proper story into circulation, particularly during the Dickens bicentennial, when his life and work was being celebrated. It enabled readers to question his representations of his wife, despite his fame and the power of his voice.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? The BBC decided to produce a special program focusing on Catherine Dickens at the end of 2011 (‘Mrs. Dickens Family Christmas’), which brought her story to a very wide audience in the U.K. in anticipation of the bicentenary.
Which books do you recommend people to read? I often recommend ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend’ to those who want to read Dickens’s fiction, and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Mansfield Park’ to those wanting to read Jane Austen’s. ‘Great Expectations’ is a wonderfully funny and engaging book, and ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is an interesting mix of the Victorian and the almost modern. The two novels by Austen that I’ve mentioned are her most interesting in my view because they are rather gloomy in their social perspectives and their treatment of women’s position. I also recommend Peter Carey’s ‘Jack Maggs’ for those interested in modern reworkings of Dickens. That’s a wonderful and darkly funny novel.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I was a science major in college, even though I’m an English professor and a literary critic and biographer.
Which 5 people would you like to have over for dinner? I’d like to have over five recent winners of the Booker Prize to talk about the art of fiction.
What are you working on next? I have two projects in the works at present. I’m writing a novel about Dickens’s sister Letitia Austin and their sister-in-law Harriet Dickens. The two women lived together for many years, after Letitia became a widow and Harriet was deserted by Dickens’s youngest brother (Augustus) after she went blind. I became interested in Letitia’s story when I realized that her famous brother left her out of his will. Among other things, the novel helps us to understand the meaning of her exclusion. I’m also writing a group biography of Dickens and his three brothers, Frederick, Alfred and Augustus. I’m drawing, in part, on unpublished letters and legal documents to tell that story and enjoying it very much.
Read my review of ‘The Other Dickens; A Life of Catherine Hogarth’ here.