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Great Expectations

The Sons And Daughters Of Charles Dickens

by Robert Gottlieb

Hardcover, 256 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, List Price: $25 |


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The Sons And Daughters Of Charles Dickens
Robert Gottlieb

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Book Summary

Opening a unique window to Victorian England, this thought-provoking study of the author as a father and as a man highlights the strange and surprising stories of each of Dickens' 10 children — from Kate, who became a successful artist, to Frank, who died after serving in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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Excerpt: Great Expectations


So wrote Charles Dickens to a friend in 1868, less than two years before his death. Yet in the beginning he was a rapturously happy one. Babies and toddlers always gave him joy. In the early years of his marriage, when the babies were coming thick and fast, he could hardly bear being separated from them. When he was away from home, he was forever demanding news of them. To Catherine, when Charley was not yet one: "A thousand loves and kisses to the darling boy whom I see in my mind's eye crawling about the floor of this Yorkshire inn ... Bless his heart, I would give two sovereigns for a kiss." He bombarded friends with news of their arrivals, their christenings, their charms, their accomplishments. In an 1845 letter to a friend: "You shall see Mamie [seven] and Charley [eight] dance the polka, when we return — which you will really consider a very brilliant performance. Master Frank is a prodigious blade, and more full of queer tricks than any of his predecessors have been.")

When in 1842 he and Catherine made their six-month American tour, he missed the children as much as she did, and yearned to be back in London with them, literally counting the days before they could sail. "God bless them," he wrote to John Forster. "You can't imagine ... how much I long to see them. It makes me quite sorrowful to think of them." (At least the Dickenses had some comfort from the portrait he had commissioned of the four little ones: It went with them everywhere.) And the children adored their parents as well. As the Dickens's carriage drew up to their house in London on their return from America, Charley, now five, fell into violent convulsions, explaining afterward to his mother that he was "too glad."

"Nothing could exceed Dickens's delight in his children or their delight in him," wrote Edgar Johnson in his magisterial biography of 1952. "When he felt like defying his after-breakfast schedule of work, they played long riotous games of trap-bat and ball in the garden. And before they went to bed Dickens would sit rocking in the American rocking chair singing comic songs to a giggling childish audience: 'The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman' and one about 'Guy Fawkes, that prince of sinisters, who once blew up the House of Lords, the King, and all his ministers,' followed by a chorus of 'Oh, ah, oh, ri fol de riddy oddy bow wow wow,' delivered with great expression as the singer rocked with one child on his knee and the others clustered round."

But these were early days, with Dickens himself flushed with youthful high spirits. The first four children had been born before he turned thirty, at a time when the explosive and unparalleled success of Pickwick, his early contentment in his marriage, and the new-found comforts and pleasures of his domestic life had made him as happy and satisfied a man as he was ever to be.

As birth followed birth, a somewhat sardonic tone begins to color his remarks to his correspondents about Catherine's fecundity:

"Eight children, at this present writing. It begins to look serious, I am afraid." "So you want a godchild. May I never have the opportunity of giving you one! But if I have — if my cup (I mean my quiver) be not yet full — then shall you hear again from the undersigned Camel that his back is broken by the addition of the last over-balancing straw." In 1860, reporting at length on the entire family to a friend, he concludes, "I have also considered whether there are any more children, and I don't think there are. If I should remember two or three others presently, I will mention them in a postscript." It's all in his most symptomatic humorous vein, but the humor is loaded.

Yes, ten children and at least two miscarriages within fifteen years might seem excessive to any father (and certainly to any mother — Catherine suffered severe physical and psychological damage from her constant pregnancies), but Charles managed to ignore his own involvement in these pregnancies: It's always she who's responsible — his sexual requirements seemed to have nothing to do with it; you would think he was a father only because she made him into one. Fred Kaplan, in his Dickens, remarks, "Competent in his business and social affairs, he was noticeably incompetent in managing his sexual life, perhaps because of some conflict, perhaps because of a failure of the imagination."

Catherine is also held responsible by him for what he perceived to be the chief failings of the children. Her weaknesses, as he perceived them — her lethargy, her indolence, her lack of purpose — explain the deficiencies he found in at least six of their seven sons. (He did, it has to be said, ascribe the boys' financial irresponsibility, their constantly falling into debt, to his own side of the family — the Micawber strain.) How could it not be her fault that his children lacked his overwhelming energy; how could they not be attacking life with his own implacable determination — how could they not be eager to "hew out their own paths through the world by sheer hard work"?

The fact that he had had to struggle so desperately to escape the poverty and humiliation of his distressing childhood, whereas his sons had been raised in comfort and ease, was irrelevant: They, too, must struggle to make their way — must go out, early, into the world and carve lives for themselves; must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even though their bootstraps were born up. Rigor, work, independence were the only acceptable routes to a responsible life.

As time passed, his dissatisfaction with his sons was frequently and forcefully expressed. "You don't know what it is to look round the table and see reflected from every seat at it (where they sit) some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything." He referred to himself as "having brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves." And, most conclusively, "I never sing their praises because they have so often disappointed me."

Unfortunately, the Dickens boys were on the whole ordinary — or perhaps merely normal. Charley, after a weak start, managed to construct a respectable and gratifying life for himself, but only the second-to-youngest of them, Henry, had any large success. The others were generally good-natured, affectionate, in some cases sensitive; they had plenty of energy for games, for pranks, even at times for work, and, loving and respecting their father, they always hoped to please him — to win the approval that was almost inevitably withheld. But they lacked not only his genius but his compulsion to work, no matter how hard he tried to implant it in them. And, given his highly public view of their capacities, they lacked self-confidence. When his friend the French actor Charles Fechter remarked to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that all of Dickens's success went for nothing because he was unhappy in his family, Annie Field — the wife of his American publisher, and herself close to Dickens — wondered "how much too much of this the children have had to hear." Their eternal "failures" were to a certain extent a series of self-fulfilling prophecies.

In today's world, a son of so established and affluent a man as Dickens would automatically go to college and so would have until his early twenties to begin to find his path. But mid-nineteenth-century England was not like that — university was the exception, far from the rule — and since the boys had no particular academic aptitudes, university was not an option for them except for the eighth-born Henry, and he had to plead to go to Cambridge to study law rather than be sent abroad like five of his brothers.

The possibilities for well-born young men were business, for which none of the Dickens sons proved to have exceptional talent; the church, in which they had no interest; the army or navy; and emigration — the route Dickens preferred. This, after all, was at the height of the Victorian/Imperial era, and the sons of gentlemen frequently found themselves going overseas in search of opportunity and fortune — or at least wholesomely productive lives — in India or Australia or Canada. This would be the destiny of five of the seven Dickens boys, dispatched young to the army, the navy, the colonies. (Sydney was in the Royal Navy and at sea by the time he was fourteen.) The more adventurous of them took readily to these arrangements, perhaps not realizing that decades could pass before they would see their families again — or that they might die abroad before they could return. The mails were agonizingly slow; there were, of course, no telephones or planes. Emigration was generally permanent.

No one seemed to find these arrangements strange except, perhaps, their mother, and she was not consulted: The law gave fathers complete legal control over their children. Dickens spent many years, and great pains, to prepare his sons for their future lives. There were endless exchanges with their teachers and tutors and headmasters and clergymen about their education and their abilities. And their own inclinations were consulted and even followed — Sydney, for instance, had wanted the navy since early childhood. The boys were sent to school abroad to improve their languages — French and German were considered essential for careers in business. Plorn (born Edward), the youngest, was sent to agricultural school to prepare him for farming in the Australian outback. Dickens used all his connections and powers of persuasion to further the careers of his sons. He just wouldn't allow them to be indecisive and without occupation, and he just couldn't allow them to stay home and be spendthrift.

In fact, Dickens made very clear, the wholesale dispersal of his sons was in part intended to relieve him of the financial drain involved in supporting the expensive habits of a bunch of young men with no real prospects before them. He's constantly complaining of all the monetary demands on him — not only from the children but from his parents, his brothers and sisters and their widows and children; from retainers, connections, friends down on their luck. And after he so brutally dispensed with Catherine in 1858, he was supporting her in a separate comfortable establishment, as well as providing for Ellen Ternan. His income was large, but his responsibilities were large, too. Besides, no one had ever helped him.

When we stand back and follow the trajectories of the Dickens children, it's impossible not to sympathize both with his disappointment in most of them and with their own apparently unrealized lives. But that may well be because we can't help seeing these lives through the lens of their father's great expectations for them. Yes, a number of them appear somewhat unfocused, even feckless: In his comprehensive biography, Peter Ackroyd speaks of something "that appeared to make them peculiarly unsuited to the world and to each other." Yet he goes on to suggest that perhaps "we exaggerate their characteristics, just as everything pertaining to Dickens becomes exaggerated; perhaps they were in a sense almost too 'normal,' too little like their father, and have as a result suffered at the hands of disappointed commentators." Certainly, their lives, however unfortunate, were far from disgraceful and would attract no opprobrium (and no attention) if they didn't have the Dickens name attached to them.

There were nine surviving children (Dora was eight months old when she died), and two of the boys died young, Walter in the army in India, Sydney at sea. Both of these young men shared the fatal family weakness of financial irresponsibility — they lived and died in debt — but they were doing well in their professions when they died, and were respected and liked by their colleagues. Charley eventually established himself as an admired editor and man of letters. Henry became a successful, even distinguished, jurist. Kate, the second daughter, had a life filled with conflict but eventually rich in achievement and emotional satisfaction. Her older sister, Mamie, was not a happy woman, and her life took an unhappy turn; no one really understood her. It was the four boys who emigrated whose lives seem to us to have petered out without fulfillment, yet those lives were no more disastrous than most.

It is easy to condemn Dickens as an over-demanding, even harsh, father, but he was also a loving, generous, and involved one. There were rules that had to be followed, mostly to do with neatness, order, punctuality, but he was always available to the children when they needed him: Helping this one overcome a lisp, that one when in need of advice, sitting with them for hours when they were unwell — he was the only one whom Katey, for instance, would allow to be with her when she was dangerously ill. They drew pictures for him; they wrote to him confidingly and he responded fully and sympathetically; they were included in all the fun and games, including the famous home theatricals. He romped with them, took them on long walks — sometimes exhausting them with his preternatural energy. Every Christmas he took them to the famous toy store in Holborn to shop for their presents. He had a special voice for each of them. How could they not adore him? He may have been strict, but they knew he loved them, although direct expressions of love were difficult for him once the children were no longer little. He acknowledged "a habit of suppression ... which makes me chary of showing my affections, even to my children, except when they are very young."

It cannot have been easy being a child of the man who was not only the world's most famous writer but the world's most beloved writer, and probably the best-known person in the nation apart from the Queen. And it certainly was not easy being caught in the viral family atmosphere after Dickens eliminated his wife from his life and to a considerable extent cut the children off from their mother, whom, despite his disclaimers, they also loved. They were without question damaged by the wreck of their parents' marriage, particularly since there were no softenings of the harsh reality. (After the separation Dickens communicated with his wife only three times in the final twelve years of his life.) The children lived with him and their Aunt Georgina, and although their mother could always see them in her own home, they knew that he disliked it when they visited her. They were forbidden to speak with the rest of her family, including their grandmother, whom Dickens felt had betrayed him. The older ones were torn; the younger ones, confused. None of them was told anything about why their parents had separated — it was never mentioned: One day they lived together as a family, the next day their mother was gone.

But there is something bewildering about them that is not so easy to explain — after all, being the children of a broken marriage is hardly unique. Is it, then, our own great expectations for the Dickens children which have been disappointed? His? Theirs? And what were the arcs and particularities of their lives? We can only hope that they didn't see their lives as disappointments; that they lived them the way we all live our lives — from day to day, doing the best we can. Perhaps in the long run it was easier for some of them to have played out their stories in Australia and Canada and India, where others could more easily forget who their father was and where expectations of them had to do only with how they conducted themselves. When he died, in 1870, they ranged in age from thirty-three to seventeen — Charley an established family man working for his father; Plorn a boy more or less on his own in the outback. Dickens's death freed them all from his immediate influence, but by dividing their individual biographies into two sections — pre- and post-1870 — I hope to emphasize that they never really transcended his decisive effect on them.

From Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb. Copyright 2012 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.