Rings, Chains and Bars: Dickens, marriage and separation

This post is written by Deborah Siddoway. Deborah worked predominantly as a corporate solicitor in practice in leading law firms in London and Sydney before taking a career break to have her children.  She began her MA in September of 2017, graduating in March of 2019, following completion of her thesis ‘The Twisting of the Ring: Dickens, Divorce and the Evolution of his Views on Marriage’. She won the Partlow Prize for 2019, awarded by the international Dickens Society for her paper on how Dickens’s periodic publication, Household Words, dealt with the issue of divorce and divorce law reform. She presented this paper to the Dickens Symposium in Utah in July of 2019. She hopes to further her research in the area,  with her proposed PhD dissertation entitled ‘No Escape to be Had: Divorce in the Nineteenth Century Novel’. 

1858 was the year of the Great Stink, where the monstrous heat of the summer caused the years of accumulated waste in the Thames to ferment into a foulness so awful that London was all but brought to a standstill. This dreadful backdrop provided an almost appropriate setting for one of the worst years of Dickens’s professional life.  For it was in this year, the same year that was to see the most comprehensive reform of the legal framework governing the marital relationship, that Dickens’s public persona and his private world would collide. 

This was the year in which Dickens would separate from his wife, a separation that became infamous, and fodder for a scandal hungry press, following Dickens’s rash and arguably foolish decision to advertise his separation with the ‘Personal’ statement, compounded by the publication of what would become known as the Violated Letter.  As Rosemary Ashton was to observe in her forensic account of the events of 1858 on the life of Dickens, the summer of that year was one of ‘horror’[1] for him, and while his career as a reader of his own work started to gain momentum, almost for the first year since his debut as a writer in 1833, he produced no novel or story over the course of that year, beginning A Tale of Two Cities only on 31 January 1859.[2]  As Rosemarie Bodenheimer puts it, between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, ‘Dickens had another plot to manage: the destruction of his marriage.’[3]

In examining Dickens’s portrayal of the marital relationship in his literary works, especially in the context of his own marital woes and the reform of divorce laws, it is striking how often the wedding ring and other decorative circular jewellery feature as part of the tableau Dickens presents of a fractured union. 

In 1848, in the Christmas story of The Haunted Man, Mrs Tetterby bemoans the wisdom of her marrying as she twists and twists at a wedding ring that sits too tightly on her finger.[4]  Her agitated twisting of it betrays her sense of entrapment within the marriage. In Bleak House, Mrs Bagnet’s flesh has swallowed her wedding ring, so that it can never be taken off until it mingles with her dust.[5] The sense here is that a marriage is only extinguished by death, becomes so much a part of your identity that your very flesh consumes it, becomes an inescapable part of your humanity.

Dickens’s discomfort with the marital state in Dombey and Son is suggested with the married Edith ‘turning a bracelet round and round upon her arm; not winding it about with a light, womanly touch, but pressing and dragging it over the smooth skin, until the white limb showed a bar of red’.[6]  Edith both metaphorically and physically chafes against the constraints imposed by the marital contract, and while the symbolism here is subtle, it becomes overt with the golden hoop that Carker’s parrot, that ‘chafing and imprisoned bird’, swings in within her cage. The female bird’s actions are presented as being for the ‘delight’ of Carker, with the parrot coming down to swing within a ‘pendant gilded hoop within the cage, like a great wedding-ring’.[7]  The ring is encased within a cage. Marriage becomes a prison. As the narrative builds towards Edith’s flight from her husband, the ill-assorted couple are described as being ‘bound together by no tie but the manacle that joined their fettered hands, and straining that so harshly, in their shrinking asunder, that it wore and chafed to the bone’.[8]

Dombey and Edith, with their fettered hands manacled together, are forced to march together through a marriage that becomes a ‘road of ashes.’[9]  Similarly, in Oliver Twist, as Mr Brownlow describes the marriage of Monks’s parents, it is a series of rings that bind the couple together, with the ‘wretched pair’ forced to drag a ‘heavy chain through a world that was poisoned to them both until at last they wrenched the clunking bond asunder, and retiring a wide space apart, carried each a galling fragment, of which nothing but death could break the rivets’.[10]

When Dickens set out his own thoughts on the subject of the law of divorce in Household Words, he referred to the tie of marriage as a chain, unbreakable, even in the face of ‘ferocity, drunkenness, flight, felony, madness.’[11] The symbolic use of rings and chains in connection with the marital social contract points to the indissolubility of marriage, and betrays an author who believed that this indissolubility was in conflict with individual self-determination, often incompatible with the pursuit of self-fulfilment and happiness.  

It was clear that Dickens believed that his own marriage had run its course, and that separation was no more than the ‘natural end of a course of years’.[12]  Yet at the same time, his marriage still bound him to a woman he only wanted to forgive and to forget,[13] plaguing him with thoughts that it might have been better if he had never married at all. With the many instances of the symbol of chains being used to describe the state of marriage in his writing, and with Dickens’s own marital regrets echoing through the years, his plea in Great Expectations, that you pause before committing yourself to a cause of action that affects the rest of your life has even greater potency:  

Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.[14]

[1] Rosemary Ashton, One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 3.

[2] Ashton, p. 36.

[3] Rosemarie Bodenheimer, Knowing Dickens (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007) pp. 157-158.

[4] Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man, in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings, ed. by Michael Slater (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 144.

[5] Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ed by Nicola Bradbury (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 439.

[6] Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, ed. by Peter Fairclough (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 653.

[7] Dickens, Dombey and Son, p. 554.

[8] Dickens, Dombey and Son, p. 736.

[9] Dickens, Dombey and Son, p. 736.

[10] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. by Fred Kaplan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), p. 326.

[11] [Charles Dickens] ‘The Murdered Person’ Household Words Vol XIV, No 342 (11 October 1856), pp 289-91.

[12] To Mrs Gore, 31 May 1858, in Madeleine House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson (eds), The Letters of Charles Dickens (The Pilgrim Edition), vol 8 1856-1858 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 574.

[13] To Miss Burdett Coutts 23 August 1858, Pilgrim 8:632.

[14] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. by Angus Calder (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 101.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com). My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

4 thoughts on “Rings, Chains and Bars: Dickens, marriage and separation

  1. Thanks for this post Deborah. Dickens’ separation from his wife remains a contentious subject, but an important one that we should address as responsible scholars. I’m always cautious of when to pinpoint, if we can, where the marriage brokedown – there were undoubtedly happy years at the beginning, despite Dickens’ attempts to rewrite history in the violated letter!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this, Deborah. I increasingly read and think about Dickens in light of his domestic environment. I’m sure I read somewhere the contention that he may have known the marriage to Catherine was a mistake even before they tied the knot – or do you think this is more hindsight in light of what we’ve learned more recently?


  3. Deborah’s project allowed her to combine her enthusiasm for Dickens with her professional knowledge of the law. This is quite common with our students, to use their knowledge and experience in other fields to provide a new, unique and intriguing perspective on Dickens and his works.


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