Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Although it is a great error to confuse a writer's work with his life, it is hard not to feel perplexed by Charles Dickens. There is Dickens the writer, who made hypocrisy and cruelty his targets and kindness his rule; and there is Dickens the man: prolific in public and private charity but one who made a public show of casting off his wife, the mother of his ten children, and openly deprecating those children for their lack of energy, purpose, and perspicacity. The seeming incongruity is so stunning that its exploration has spawned what could be considered an entire subcategory of Dickens studies. Robert Gottlieb's Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens contains nothing not already known about Dickens or his children, but its focused scrutiny and Gottlieb's humane reflection on these lives make it an illuminating addition.

The tidy little volume proceeds as a series of concise sketches of the ten children born to Dickens and his wife, first from their births until the death of their father and, then, for those who survived him, onward through their lives to their own deaths. Aside from showing the specific, generally unhappy, consequences of being born to this family, the little biographies furnish a  revealing picture of the lives of English people born in the middle third of the nineteenth century to well-off middle-class families. Represented here are early death (one child at eight months and two in their twenties); exile to schools and outposts of the Empire; the trammels of unhappy marriage; failure in business; penurious spinsterhood; religious enthusiasm; alcoholism, gambling, and debt. There are some successes, but all in all, the picture is one of precariousness and constriction.

Dickens rejoiced in his children when they were young and gave them a merry time, with the high point of every year being, as in his stories, Christmas. But soon enough the warping effect of his own disordered childhood showed itself, and he began to discern in his sons what he loathed and feared most: passivity, lack of direction, and fecklessness, the qualities that had put his parents in a debtors' prison and led them to deposit his young self in the infamous blacking factory. And while he believed that the germ of the financial irresponsibility that marked a number of his sons came from his side of the family, he was convinced  that the odious lethargy and purposeless drifting he also found in them was inherited from his wife, Catherine. Beginning with the eldest, Charley, in whom he saw Catherine's "indescribable lassitude of character," he really spared only Henry (a success from the start) in his laments over "deficiencies in energy and attitude," even going so far as to say he wished Sydney, his fifth son, were dead.   

In ejecting Catherine from the house, Dickens insisted that she be separated from her children, the youngest of whom was but six years old; only Charley stayed with his humiliated mother in her banishment. This public separation -- and the subsequent installment of Catherine's unmarried sister, Georgina, as the head of Dickens's household -- resulted in the social ostracism of his two daughters, Mamie and Katey. Mamie never married, whether from lack of opportunity attendant upon that ostracism or from choice, it cannot be said. In any event, she became peculiar, a spendthrift and a drinker, and eventually took up, possibly sexually, with a "shadowy couple," a clergyman and his wife  who seemed to have been after what money Mamie had. Dickens's other surviving daughter, Katey, married Wilkie Collins's brother, Charlie, unwisely and probably as an escape. Still, we can call her life happy, as she did bloom into a celebrated painter and, after the death of Charlie, married again far more successfully.
 
Dickens's seven sons, in particular, were caught in the force field of their father's powerful will and his controlling nature. He piled gigantic names upon their newborn heads: his eldest son, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, carried the freight of three of Dickens's own names. Among the others were Walter Savage Landor Dickens, Alfred d'Orsay Tennyson Dickens, and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens. Having so monumentalized them, Dickens made them his creatures in conferring upon them comic nicknames that might have come from his own works, among them "Young Skull," "The Ocean Spectre," and "Chickenstalker." The last, laid upon Francis Jeffrey Dickens, was, indeed, one of Dickens's actual characters, a jolly old lady, as it happens, an unfortunate moniker for a little boy who grew up to be an unfortunate man: a lifelong toper whose death (W. C. Fields could have warned him) was brought on by a drink of ice water.

Having created and named them one by one, Dickens decided upon their careers for the most part, shoving them at early ages into the world, where many of them suffered galling reverses and ran up debts. It was his sons' repeated calls for money (added to the pleas of his extended family and other petitioners) that brought to a boil a passionate desire in Dickens to disencumber himself from the paternal role -- or predicament. ("Why was I ever a father!") Still, among the book's virtues is its generous spirit. Purse our lips though we may at the great man's cruelty and high-handedness, to say nothing of his philoprogenitiveness, we are shown enough from all sides to sympathize with this father's frustration and pain and, more surprising perhaps, to see how deeply his daughters and sons loved him.

Looking at Dickens's children through the lens of their father's shaping influence has brought them into history's scope, for, except in the cases of Katey and Henry, it is the reason they have been noticed at all. But Gottlieb's range of view is wider than that, and therein lies the value of dividing the life stories into two parts: before and after the father's death. In this way we come to see both the effect of this demanding and critical man on his children and the daunting undertaking of going forth into the unforgiving world of nineteenth-century Britain and its imperial realm.

 

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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