Awful Authors: The ‘Twist’ed Charles Dickens

Here on Awful Authors we will be breaking down Charles Dickens and how he was a terrible husband, racist, and how he displayed gross antisemitism in his works.

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Picture one of your most favorite, timeless authors… Got it? Well, I hate to break it to you, but they probably suck. Here on Awful Authors, we break down some of your most beloved authors and reveal that while they were amazing literary artists, they were also bad people. On today’s agenda let us see where Charles Dickens lies on our POS Meter. 


Charles Dickens is the author of many popular, successful novels from David Copperfield to Great Expectations, to A Christmas Carol, to Oliver Twist. He was appreciated by many and gained great popularity during his time in society. Some could claim that he was the first literary superstar! However, there are a few things that happened behind the scenes that people do not know of. Let’s just say that he was not as great of a person as many commonly depict him to be. 

The Affair

Charles Dickens, authors
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In 1835 he married his wife, Catherine. At first, it was all marital bliss. They had ten children, and soon thereafter Charles became rather disinterested. He became unhappy with his wife after she gained a bit of weight after the many births. Any normal husband would not care, but keep in mind that Charles Dickens was a poor excuse for one. Dickens told his friend, “Catherine and I were not made for each other… She would have been a thousand times happier if she married someone else.” 

In 1857 he met 17-year-old actress Nelly Turnan and the two fell madly in love.  He went to great lengths to hide this from his wife; conjuring fake identities, secret rendezvous, and he even developed a code system to keep his affair secret. He paid for places for the actress to stay so that they could keep meeting up. Catherine began to suspect something, and she grew to detest him so he moved out of the marital bedroom.

When you think it can’t get any worse, he even went so far as to bar the doorway of his dressing room shut so she couldn’t get in when he was cheating on her. Catherine finally confronts him, and he claims that she is just jealous and he forces her to have a social call with Nelly and being an obedient wife she did. 

Nelly turnan , authors
image via the vintage news

The affair proceeded for a year, and finally, Charles grew weary so he divorced Catherine. This is where it gets really crappy. Charles obviously had a flair for the dramatic; he excused himself out of his divorce with a BANG. 

Afraid to tarnish his social life and his reputation, he proceeds to conjure a scandal and post it in the newspaper. Going against the advice from his friends, he published a letter in a handful of papers stating how Catherine was the wrong-doer in the relationship and was the sole reason for their falling out. He claimed that she was mentally deranged, was a bad mother, and was unloving and unfit as a wife. He also denied having any affairs at all. To make matters worse, he took the children and Catherine’s sister, who was a nanny to the children. 

Ultimately, he left Catherine with nothing. He even forbade the children to have any contact with their mother. All complied except one of their daughters, Katey. Katey wrote, “The affair brought out all that worst– all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us.” Father of the year award right there. 

The Aftermath of the Affair

Dickens died in 1870, and it was Nelly who was summoned to his death bed, not Catherine. She was even forbidden from attending the funeral. Catherine never recovered from her losses, and the children even suffered emotional trauma from this. Sadly, even with all his creativity and his ability to create a cozy, fireside feeling for his readers, he was unable to conjure happiness and content in his own life. 

Charles Dickens authors
image via Getty Images

Antisemitism in Oliver Twist, and other Racist Acts

If you think that this is all and it cannot seem to get any worse, there are also accounts that state that Dickens’ work displays aspects of xenophobia; he was dismissive of cultures that he deems “primitive” and ignored the privileges of Europeans in overseas colonies. Many scholars noted the contrast between his support for his at-home liberal causes. In a letter to Emily de la Rue, Dickens wrote on his stance on Indians:

“You know faces, when they are not brown; you know common experiences when they are not under turbans; Look at dogs– low, treacherous, murderous, tigerous villains.”

Charles Dickens

He also advocated for their “extermination” and applauded the mutilation that was utilized as punishment in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens 
image via Look and Learn

Additionally, he was antisemitic. In his classic Oliver Twist, he created a controversial character of the British Jew, Fagin. Many could call him stereotypical, and he clearly embodied antisemitic tropes. In the first several pages he is referred to as “the Jew” over and over again, while all of the other characters were never mentioned of their heritage or religion. He is also painted in the novel as grotesque, and arguably the most grotesque of any Jewish character in English literature. Fagin is represented in such a light that was cultivated by non-Jews as “inherently evil” during this time; they were commonly represented and associated with the Devil and beasts by those who are highly prejudiced against this heritage.

Due to the antisemitic nature of Dickens that he outwardly portrayed in his work, the on-stage and screen adaptations were no better than the text. The adaptation of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), by David Lean, played by Alec Guinness who was made up to look exactly like the book’s illustration. It is safe to say, it was a grotesque and abominable representation. The film’s release was delayed due to backlash in the U.S. This particular adaptation was also banned in Israel.

Even today, the role of Fagin in Oliver Twist is still challenging for actors; they struggle with questions as to how to sympathetically play this role in the post-Nazi era. It is amazing to visualize the repercussions of Dickens’ actions even after all of these years, and how they still affect society today. Overall, we give him a good 4 out of 5 on the POS Meter. 

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