Letters to the Beloved

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Jun 4-Jun 6

Clare Stearns, director of Letters to the Beloved, talks to Amanda Sheppard about Dickens, desolation, and dastardly husbands

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Something similar could have been penned by Dickens’ wife, Catherine. Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens is credited with some of the most famous tales of the 19th century. But while the Victorian author was one of the best writers of his era, he may well have been the worst of husbands. Less widely known than his fiction are the tempestuous words exchanged with his wife, Catherine. This is the story that Clare Stearns, founder of Perilous Mouths Theatre, seeks to tell in Letters to the Beloved, which opens June 4 at the Fringe Club.

The play marks the final production in a trilogy Stearns has written and produced, focusing on the wives of great writers (another focused on the lesser-known wife of Oscar Wilde, Constance). Stearns explains, “Women’s stories just aren’t told enough. And besides, these men undoubtedly would not have been who they were without the women in question.” On the decision to write the Dickens’ tale, Clare’s reasons were simple – “When did I become interested? It was possibly when I discovered what a complete bastard he was.”

Letters to the Beloved chronicles the Dickens’ 22-year marriage, which bore 10 children. While Dickens may be one of the world’s most celebrated authors, as a husband, he appears to have fallen short of the mark. “He was an, unfortunately, possibly typical, domineering Victorian man,” says Stearns. “He was quite happy when she was young and pretty, but he lost interest when she was old and fat. This is supposed to be one of the greatest writers and minds of [his] age, but he was really quite simple.”

One of their children was Katey Perugini – from whose perspective the play takes form. Katey pontificates with long-time (and real-life) friend, acclaimed author George Bernard Shaw, over the letters in question left to her by her mother, and whether or not they do in fact prove what Catherine believed – ‘that he loved me once’. In their discussion, we see events from the past taking place. “The two worlds never meet,” explains Stearns, “with the exception of Larry.” The character she is alluding to is the all seeing, all knowing, ‘somewhat omnipotent character’, who takes on several different roles in the play in order to provide the audience with social commentary, context and, at times, a dose of light-hearted humour.

Catherine (both in her youth and later life), Katey Perugini, and George Bernard Shaw take centre stage in this production. Noticeably absent, however, is Dickens himself. There are several other notable omissions from the tale – namely, Catherine’s sisters Georgina and Mary, both of whom developed close relationships with Charles.

Georgina Hogarth resided with the couple, and remained in the Dickens household following Catherine’s departure. “She is mentioned in the play, but is not a focus,” explains Stearns. She continues, “The rumour is that he’d left his wife for his sister-in-law, but I couldn’t find evidence to support the case.” Indeed, Dickens appears to have held her in the highest of regards, leaving her his entire estate. Of the younger sibling, Mary, who is thought to be the inspiration behind the character Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Stearns remarks, ‘the incident is mentioned, but not dwelt on’. She is referring to the peculiar decision taken by Dickens to don a ring worn by Mary following her death – one he would not take off for the remainder of
his days.

While it would certainly have been easy to villainise the celebrated author, Stearns remarks, ‘I just couldn’t justify doing that’. For her, historical relevance and integrity are of the utmost importance. Just how close did Stearns get to the truth? How accurate can any historical representation truly be? Stearns raises this question herself. “In a sense it is as accurate as history ever can be. It is based on the tellings of the people who lived it. The characters speak the words these people actually wrote.” The play references quotes from the letters in question (which are now public record at the British Museum). “The rest,” explains Stearns, “is my take on history. There is always a truth, but there is never the truth.” 

Letters to the Beloved 
Fringe Club, Jun 4-6. Tickets: $230; hkticketing.com.


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