Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens
Despite a world-renowned father and merry times at Christmas, the lives of the 10 children born to Charles Dickens were anything but easy.
Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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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.