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Do these lockets reveal Charles Dickens' obsession with his much-younger sister in law?

A previously unseen pair of 'highly personal and private' lockets exchanged between Charles Dickens and his sister-in-law are set to go on display in London next month.

The author was 23 when he met his future wife Catherine Hogarth, then 19, in Fulham, west London in 1835.

At the same time, he was also introduced to her two sisters, Mary, who was 14, and Georgina, who was six. 

Some speculate Mary became the true love of his life and the inspiration behind some of his most famous characters, with Charles giving Mary a locket containing a stand of his own hair.

She tragically died just three years later, and Georgina gave Dickens a similar pendant with Mary's hair inside in 1837. Both are set to go on display at the Charles Dickens Museum next month. 

A pair of 'highly personal and private' lockets exchanged between Charles Dickens and his sister-in-law are set to go on display in London next month

Speaking to The Guardian, Louisa Price, curator of the exhibition, said: '[These lockets] tell a story that had a direct influence on at least one of his best known works – Oliver Twist – which he was writing when his sister-in-law, Mary, suddenly died.' 

The exhibition, More! Oliver Twist, Dickens and Stories of the City, covers the period from 1836 to 1837, when Dickens was writing Oliver Twist. 

Dickens and Mary got on extremely well during his courtship of Catherine, and she moved in with the newlyweds as soon as they returned from their honeymoon in 1836.

They lived in Dickens's small rooms at Furnival's Inn in Holborn and Dickens was delighted in Mary's presence. 

The previously unseen lockets were exchanged between Charles and Mary and were considered 'highly personal and private' (pictured) 

With Dickens success was growing, the family moved to a grander establishment in Doughty Street, off Gray's Inn Road.  

Just a month later, Dickens, Catherine and young Mary went to the theatre to see Dickens's farce Is She His Wife? 

When they got home, Dickens and Mary chatted until 1am. When she went to her bedroom,  she became gravely ill. Doctors were sent for. 

Dickens comforted her, waiting for the fever to break. And then, after many hours in his arms, she was dead. 

A letter from Dickens broke the news to his publisher, Edward Chapman, a few hours later: 'My dear sir, we are in deep and severe distress. Miss Hogarth after accompanying Mrs Dickens and myself to the theatre last night, was suddenly taken severely ill, and despite our best endeavours to save her, expired in my arms at two o'clock this afternoon.' 

The author met his wife Catherine Hogarth when she was just 19-years-old in Hogarth's house in Fulham and, at the same time, he was also introduced to her two sisters, Mary, who was 14, and Georgina, who was six (pictured, Catherine) 

A failure of Hogarth's heart was blamed, but it's likely the cause of death was an aneurism, or stroke.

Dickens was shattered, taking a ring from her finger to wear for the rest of his life.

He wrote to the sister's grandfather: 'You cannot conceive the misery in which this dreadful event has plunged us.

'Since our marriage she has been the peace and life of our home – the admired of all for her beauty and excellence – I could have better supplied a much nearer relation or an older friend, for she has been to us what we can never replace, and has left a blank which no one who ever knew her can have the faintest hope of seeing supplied.' 

After Mary's death, the author went on to write several characters inspired by her including Nell in The Old Curiousity Shop (pictured, as portrayed by Sophie Vavasseur in the 2007 ITV version of the drama) 

And writing to another friend, Thomas Beard, he said: 'Thank God she died in my arms and that the very last words she whispered were of me . . . I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed.'

Mary's death was a blow from which he never recovered and when he resumed work on Oliver Twist, he found that he was unable to kill off the character modelled on Mary.

Oliver's teenage aunt, Rose Maylie, was 'so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful' and becomes ill, but happily recovers.

He later drew inspiration from Mary again when writing David Copperfield, introducing the character Agnes, and in The Old Curiosity Shop with the sickly Little Nell. 

Mary's death was a blow from which he never recovered and when he resumed work on Oliver Twist, he found that he was unable to kill off the character modelled on Mary

Lucy said the impact of Mary's death could be seen as a 'haunting' over Dickens in his work, revealing: 'Dickens's grief became increasingly dramatic over the weeks, and even years, afterwards.'

A year after the book was published, Dickens was planning to go to America. He was delayed because of an agonising medical condition, but then came an event that caused him even worse pain. 

His wife Catherine's grandmother died and, on her deathbed had expressed a desire to be buried next to Mary, in Kensal Green Cemetery, North-West London.

Oliver's teenage aunt, Rose Maylie, was 'so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful' and becomes ill, but happily recovers (portrayed by Keira Knightly in a 1999 version of the drama)  

At the traumatic time of Mary's death, Dickens had consoled himself with the thought that one day he would be buried next to her.

He toyed with the idea of moving Mary's remains to the catacomb beneath the Anglican chapel at the cemetery, where, in the fullness of time, he could join her, but he knew this was madness.  

The American trip went ahead and was an astounding triumph: but in the midst of all the fanfares and the fireworks, his first thought, he confessed to his friend John Forster, was of Mary Hogarth. 

The previously unseen lockets: (right) the heart shaped locket was owned by Mary Hogarth, containing a lock of Dickens’s hair while the silver locket with moss agate stone containing a lock of Mary Hogarth's hair and engraved '1837 MSH'. The locket was given to Charles Dickens in 1837 (left) 

'What would I give if the dear girl whose ashes lie in Kensal Green had lived to come so far along with us. 

'But she has been here many times, I doubt not, since her sweet face faded from my earthly sight.'

In the last year of his life he wrote Mary 'is so much in my thoughts at all times, especially when I am successful, and have greatly prospered in anything, that the recollection of her is an essential part of my being, and is as inseparable from my existence as the beating of my heart is'.

More! will run from 30 June – 17 October 2021. 

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