Dickens’s Actual Children: On Robert Gottlieb's "Great Expectations"

December 23, 2012   •   By Hillary Kelly

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Robert Gottlieb

“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, in a lengthy family update, “I have 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.”

If the Dickens crew were as lifeless and uninteresting as Gottlieb makes them out to be, then Dickens’s forgetfulness is imaginable. A quick treatment is given to each child, in which Gottlieb describes the circumstances of his or her birth, explains the child’s family nickname, and offers a handful of anecdotes, mostly relating to the relationship between Dickens and child. Gottlieb vacillates between pinning each child as a “favorite” or “disappointment,” only occasionally complicating the picture. In fact, he glazes over each life so broadly and with such little regard for individuation that I had to continually remind myself of their outstanding actions and characteristics, lest they meld together. Firstborn Charley was his father’s right-hand man, Mamie was a spinster, Katey was a rebel, Walter died young in India, Frank became a Mountie, Alfred ranched in the Outback, Sydney died disgraced at sea, Henry was a successful lawyer, Dora died as an infant, and Plorn, once a favorite, was eventually exiled.

Though it’s obvious by their travels that the Dickens children did not lead entirely dull lives — five of them lived abroad or at sea, one became his father’s literary executor, and the others travelled in some of the most fascinating circles of Victorian London — Gottlieb continually casts them as “on the whole ordinary,” claims they led “failed lives,” and determines that only Henry “had any true success.” Of course, success as measured against Dickens Sr. would mean worldwide fame, piles of money, and universal acclaim, so it’s no surprise that none of the Dickens children lived up to that high standard. Gottlieb is aware of this fact, but commits the same crime as Dickens, defining the children in opposition to their father nonetheless. They lack, according to Gottlieb, Dickens’s “genius,” his “compulsion to work,” and any “self-confidence.” Dickens, he says, “is almost unnaturally excited and gratified when one of the children demonstrates ability or success — as if he is already armoring himself against their inevitable failures.”

The children’s fiscal irresponsibility in particular grates on Gottlieb. He calls out each of the sons, in turn, (just as Dickens himself did) for their inattention to personal finance and inability to pay debts fully and on time. Walter, Frank, Alfred, and Sydney are all variously described as careless with money and liable to end up in debt. Dickens claimed that this was a trait “inherited” from his paternal line (his father was famously imprisoned for debt during Dickens’s childhood) and although Gottlieb does not accept that assessment at face value, he never offers a compelling argument for why so many children from one family would end in devastating fiscal straits. Were the children perhaps spoiled by their father or their lifestyle? Gottlieb never asks.

The close attention to the children’s personal finances unearths a variety of stories, each painting a more unflattering image of Dickens as a father than the last; Gottlieb, however, offers only minor reproofs. Walter, for instance, wrote from India asking for a loan. Dickens denied him the funds, and Walter cut off communication with the family, only writing once more to his sister Mamie. A short time later, Walter grew desperately ill, and wrote to his sister that he was “so weak that he could hardly crawl.” His father apparently still did not send any funds. Walter died a few months later en route to England on sick leave. Gottlieb notes that Dickens did not bother to even “take any notice of the event” to his wife, from whom he was separated. His anger was stronger than his love.

Though at moments Gottlieb admits that Dickens mistreated his family — especially regarding the author’s separation from Catherine and affair with Nelly Ternan — his notice is often cursory and never informs the larger image of who exactly Dickens was at home. He offers several horribly damning examples of how Dickens nastily turned his pen on his own children (such as when he called his son Frank “a good steady fellow […] but not all brilliant” or when he writes to a friend that “doesn’t particularly want” the in utero baby Plorn), but fails to take Dickens to task or otherwise use them to deepen our understanding of the great man’s psyche. How could the man who rescued Oliver Twist also ban his children from speaking about their own mother? How could the creator of Tiny Tim and Little Nell also write to a friend, “Why was I ever a father! Why was my father ever a father!” Perhaps afraid to rifle roughly through Dickens’s psyche, Gottlieb never investigates these avenues. Since Gottlieb summarizes the children’s lives in isolation, there is never a clear picture of the entire family dynamic, and very little understanding of the relationships among the children. There is little to no mention of the father-mother-child triumvirate. And it is only in the four-page “Afterthoughts” section that he recognizes any broader implications for how contemporary readers should understand Dickens the man as separate from Dickens the writer.

The sections that deal with the children’s lives after Dickens’s death — after they were able to break away from his enormous influence — contain a good bit more substance. We learn about Mamie Dickens’s “irregular sexual activities” and Alfred’s bizarre life in the Outback. Even then, Gottlieb seems to see them through Dickens’s eyes, judging instead of illuminating their stories. Charley, for instance, Dickens’s eldest and the inheritor of All the Year Round, faced some serious financial difficulties (he was forced to sell his father’s writing chateau to raise money for the magazine) but also penned some highly successful travel books, settled happily into family life, and kept All the Year Round running for many years. Gottlieb deems Charley’s life merely “satisfying,” sadly noting that “he just wasn’t his father.” Mamie too receives a harsh analysis. Though Gottlieb admits there is “scant evidence,” he is unafraid to declare that she led “a rootless, purposeless life.”

Ultimately, corralling Dickens’s children under any one umbrella is a difficult — and dangerous — task. And assessing the author as a father is equally treacherous; there are simply far too many perspectives to pin Dickens down as anything more than a magpie. Gottlieb’s reliance on Dickens senior as the barometer for success — and his insistence on defining success so narrowly — means that the Dickens children rarely emerge as anything more than pale shadows of their booming, impressive father. This book ends up reinforcing its own claim that the 10 Dickens children “never really transcended [their father’s] overwhelming effect on them.”