Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle by Heera Datta

Catherine Dickens
Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle by Heera Datta
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Historical
Length: Full Length (212 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Outside the Magic Circle is part fiction and part fact; less fiction and more fact.

Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth on 2nd April, 1836, when he was an upcoming writer and reporter. Soon after marriage, he tasted spectacular success with The Pickwick Papers and in ten years, was the foremost writer of his time.

Catherine was the mother of his ten children, his hostess, she accompanied him on his American tour.

Yet, twenty-one years after they wed, Charles Dickens very publicly separated from her, denouncing her as an unfit mother and wife. He removed her from his home, his life, and the lives of his children. He never saw her again, not even when their son, Walter, died at the age of twenty-three in faraway India.

His allegations about his wife and his unhappy marriage were works of fiction, as successful and enduring as the rest of his works. The real cause of the separation was an eighteen-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, who later became his mistress.

On her deathbed, Catherine gave her daughter letters Charles had written to her and said, “Give these to the British Museum, that the world may know he loved me once.”

Outside the Magic Circle is a fictionalized account of Catherine’s life after she was plucked out of her familiar world and thrown to the wolves, as it were, by the exemplary Charles Dickens. It is told in her voice; sometimes reminiscing, at other times baffled, confused, hurt, angry. It has her tears, her love, and her quest for the meaning of her life, and marriage.

Love is supposed to last forever. What happens when it doesn’t?

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!

The cast of characters was really large. I had trouble keeping track of who everyone was and how they were connected to each other because there were so many of them. The fact that some of the younger people were named after older relatives made it even trickier to sort out everything. It would have been helpful to have a family tree or a basic list of who was who, especially in the earlier chapters when certain relationships hadn’t been made clear yet. Not having this information briefly made it awkward for me to settle into what was otherwise an engrossing read.

Mark Twain once said, “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Some of the most interesting scenes in this novel explore what happens after a juicy rumor is assumed to be true by society. It was fascinating to see how little human nature has changed over the last one hundred and fifty years or so. We may wear blue jeans now instead of ball gowns or top hats, but people today are just as susceptible to being the victim of gossip as they were when Catherine was alive.

Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle should definitely be read by anyone who loves historical fiction that was inspired by real events.

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