But what about the elusive Mary Hogarth? Mary, the younger sister of Catherine, lived with the couple in their happier, early years, and died suddenly, inexplicably, at the age of 17. Dickens rushed to her side when she collapsed past 1 a.m. after returning from the theatre. A little over 12 hours later, he found himself holding her lifeless body. Mary Hogarth is the subject of significant critical debate, Douglas-Fairhurst notes. "There is no evidence that Mary was a serious rival to Catherine until she was dead," he declares. But "then she was in every sense untouchable." Tomalin makes very little mention of the serious questions raised by Dickens's response to Mary's death, leaving much to implication and noting that in the aftermath of the tragedy, Dickens's expressed wish to be buried with his sister-in-law wasn't considered all that odd. Reading Douglas-Fairhurst's account, though, one wonders how this treatment could possibly suffice.
It wasn't just that Dickens requested a lock of Mary's hair, wore for the rest of his life a ring taken from her lifeless hand, or long after her death was "inconsolable" upon realizing that not he, but Mary's grandmother and brother would be the ones to be buried with her. It wasn't just, as Tomalin notes but Douglas-Fairhurst omits, that Dickens thanks God that "she died in my arms, and the very last words she whispered were of me," or that Mary haunted his dreams for years. By digging through Dickens's writings, Douglas-Fairhurst manages to show us a Dickens completely consumed by regret. Dickens didn't just write Mary into Oliver Twist as the figure of Rose Maylie, Douglas-Fairhurst notes: he has Rose Maylie, the same age and similarly "struck down by a mysterious illness," live where Mary died. In other words, "Dickens was determined to give the story a different ending."
But then comes Douglas-Fairhurst's real coup. The manuscript of Oliver Twist, he writes, shows a paragraph "composed shortly after the first anniversary of Mary Hogarth's death" that Dickens crossed out before apparently changing his mind and reinserting it into the final version: "And now what a host of reflections crowded upon Oliver's mind and busied themselves at his heart. We need to be careful how we deal with those about us, for every death brings with it some small circle of survivors' bitter thoughts of so much omitted and so little done, so many things forgotten and so many more that might have been repaired." Though the scholar does not explicitly judge for the reader whether Mary was the true female companion that might have been, he says this much: "however much he moved around ... one thing remained constant: his sense that no experience would feel complete without Mary being there to share it. ... Even worse than the prospect of jeers was the certainty of silence at the heart of any future applause." And though Tomalin doesn't think Dickens really connects with women, Douglas-Fairhurst points to a jarring note starting Dickens's first diary, about a year after Mary's death:
... if she were with us now, the same winning, happy, amiable companion--sympathising with all my thoughts and feelings more than any one I knew ever did or ever will--I think I should have nothing to wish for, but a continuance of such happiness. But she is gone, and pray God I may one day through his mercy rejoin her.
By this account, how on earth could Mary Hogarth fail to be the turning point of any Dickens biography? Doesn't this sound like a vast opportunity missed, the sort that, even if only half present in his consciousness, might haunt a man, and keep him from engaging meaningfully with other women, for the rest of his life?