LONDON — As a great novelist and a master journalist, Charles Dickens maintained tight control over what the public learned about his 1858 separation from his wife, perhaps the most scandalous story in his eventful life.
But letters revealed this past week cast the episode in a new and cruel light. Dickens, they suggest, not only sought to banish Catherine, his companion of two decades and the mother of his 10 children, while pursuing an affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan.
He also tried to have his wife imprisoned in an asylum.
“This is a stronger and more damning account of Dickens’s behavior than any other,” John Bowen, a professor of 19th-century English literature at the University of York in northern England, wrote in The Times Literary Supplement on Tuesday. The article accompanied the publication of an analysis of letters held at Harvard.
Dickens, a celebrity in his own time, was careful of his image and legacy. In the 1860s, he burned the letters and papers of 20 years on a bonfire in his back yard. Many of his contemporaries acted similarly. Still, scholars and biographers continue efforts to pierce the privacy of his life and his relationship with women.
The circumstances of the separation have inspired fiction, biography and a feature film, “The Invisible Woman,” starring Felicity Jones as Ms. Ternan, the lover kept in the shadows while Dickens maintained the image of a Victorian family man.
Mrs. Dickens herself rarely spoke of the separation. Nearly a decade after her husband’s death, she confided in Edward Dutton Cook, a theater critic and her neighbor in Camden, north London.
The letters Professor Bowen analyzed were based on those conversations and, according to the professor, are some of the first documents discovered that present her perspective.
Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Mr. Dutton Cook wrote in a letter. “She had borne 10 children and had lost many of her good looks, was growing old, in fact.”
“He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!” Mr. Dutton Cook continued. “But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.”
Dickens may well have been in a position to sideline his wife in this way. Many Victorian physicians, Professor Bowen wrote in The Times Literary Supplement, would have considered assertions about his wife’s “languor” and “excitability” sufficient basis to draw up a certificate of “moral insanity.”
According to other letters in the same collection, Dickens also had what might have seemed an ideal connection: a friendship with Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke, a psychiatrist who ran a private lunatic asylum near London.
But correspondence suggests that Dr. Tuke rebuffed Dickens. After 1864, the novelist was calling the doctor a “wretched Being” and a “Medical Donkey.”
The collection of 98 letters from Mr. Dutton Cook to a journalist friend, William Moy Thomas, was bought at auction in 2014 by the Houghton Library at Harvard. According to Professor Bowen, the collection provides a vivid picture of literary life of the late Victorian era.
“This is a great man who set out to do good in life and he did do great things,” Claire Tomalin, who has written biographies of both Dickens and Ms. Ternan, told The Times of London this past week. “But when he went off the rails, he started behaving very badly.”
“Reading the material was quite difficult to be honest,” Professor Bowen wrote in a statement from the University of York.
“Dickens is a literary great who I have studied and admired for many years but some of the letters made very uncomfortable reading.”