“IF YOU COULD make the public understand,” Charles Dickens’s daughter Katey wrote in a letter to Bernard Shaw, “that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.” Of course, that’s precisely the image Dickens still radiates, almost 150 years after his death. The holiday season, especially, highlights the saintliest traits of a man who captivated the world with his overtly moralistic storytelling and tales of Christmas redemption. But we often forget — or ignore — that Dickens also wrote about one of his own children, “I begin to wish that he were honestly dead.”
Dickens was, to put it mildly, a man of many contradictions and not a few character flaws. He was, at times, a temperamental and unsympathetic father, and a distant, even cruel, husband. But to this day, Dickens’s popular image does not even begin to reckon with just how difficult it might have been to share his bed or grow up under his watchful eye. He was, after all, the most famous man in all of England, the innovator of the modern British novel, the creator of fabled, beloved characters like Little Nell and Oliver Twist, Father Christmas incarnate. It can be difficult to set aside such accomplishments.
Which isn’t to say that biographers have not fairly brought forth Dickens’s uglier sides. Fred Kaplan, Peter Ackroyd, Edgar Johnson, Michael Slater, and Claire Tomalin — to name only a few — have carefully served up lives of the great author that pair a meaty main course of literary worship with necessary side dishes of personal disgust and dismay. Ackroyd especially makes clear just how exacting Dickens could be, demanding that every piece of furniture in his home be placed “in precisely the right position” before he could begin writing. And in her groundbreaking The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens Tomalin unabashedly lays bare the details of Dickens’s separation from Catherine, his wife of 22 years, and the utter callousness he displayed towards her for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to mistake greatness for goodness, especially in a man so revered. Critics who (justifiably) vaunt Dickens the author still sometimes struggle to judge Dickens the man, lest it cast a shadow on the work. But at this point they ought to know better.
Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens takes quick, bite-sized looks at the author’s 10 children, dividing each life into a “before” and “after” section, with their father’s death as the line of demarcation. Such a structure evinces the book’s prominent — if misguided — theme that Dickens was far more central to his children’s lives than they were to his. And despite the book’s title — and intentions — it too appears to be more concerned with Dickens than his brood.
And what a brood they were. In 15 years, Dickens and his wife Catherine produced 10 children: Charley, Mamie, Katey, Walter, Frank, Alfred, Sydney, Henry, Dora, and Plorn. The sheer number overwhelmed Dickens, who often blamed Catherine for their presence, as if his involvement had not been required for their creation. As Gottlieb notes, Dickens turned to sardonic humor to dispel his anxiety, writing, for instance...