The ‘failed’ expectations of Charles Dickens

Christmas and Charles Dickens have gone together at least since the wonderful Dingley Dell chapters of “The Pickwick Papers,” while a somewhat later book, the one with “Carol” in the title, is now as integral to the holiday as Handel’s “Messiah” and last-minute shopping. Biographers have recorded that in the Dickens household, the novelist — “the Inimitable,” as he was grandiosely called — regularly made a great production of the season between Christmas and Twelfth Night, packing the evenings with lavish dinners and private theatricals, the latter featuring the writer’s children.

The year now winding down marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth, with new books aplenty, including a fine one by Robert Garnett called “Charles Dickens in Love” (Pegasus, $29.95), which explores the various women in the novelist’s life, most notably the first person named in his will: the actress Ellen Ternan. Like many of us, Dickens espoused conventional values and yet would readily flout them when it suited his desires. After the middle-age novelist met “Nelly” Ternan and fell passionately in love, he brutally separated from his wife of many years, claiming that Catherine Dickens was an unfit mother. Charles Dickens — in person as in his fiction a force of nature, relentless in getting his way — then persuaded her unmarried sister Georgina to stay on and manage his house, Gad’s Hill Place. The connection with Ternan was kept secret for many years, and the rumor that she bore a child, who died shortly after his birth, remains unverified, although probably true.

(ASSOCIATED PRESS/ASSOCIATED PRESS) - Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Landport, Hampshire, S. England, and died in 1870.

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But what of Dickens’s legitimate children? What was it like to grow up bearing the name of the world’s most famous writer? How did his two daughters (a third died young) and seven sons turn out after their mother was suddenly, almost inexplicably torn away from them and they were discouraged from ever seeing her? This is the subject of Robert Gottlieb’s easygoing, elegant and surprisingly fascinating book, “Great Expectations.”

Gottlieb isn’t a Dickens scholar, except through avocation: He was for many years a distinguished book editor and is now the dance critic for the New York Observer. But he is, to use a fashionable term, an excellent aggregator, drawing on and graciously acknowledging the research of others. To read this book is to be reminded that families are seldom — pace Tolstoy — simply happy or unhappy. Every one of them is a messy, mixed-up business and, more often than not, utterly amazing to outsiders.

The common view, Gottlieb writes at the end of “Great Expectations,” is that Dickens’s children led “failed lives.” Certainly their father felt that his sons lacked fire, grit, a compulsive work ethic. “I never sing their praises because they have so often disappointed me,” he once said. They struck him as weak-willed, unambitious, sometimes sweet-natured but on the whole nothing like himself. You can almost hear Dickens grousing to them, Why, when I was your age, I was already putting in a full day at the blacking factory. He does write to one, “You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child. You know that you are one of the many heavy charges on me” etc., etc. Fathers never change.

Dickens does seem to have been truly fond of his children when they were small. But it’s hard not to feel sorry for the kids, living with a genius who was obsessed with order and neatness, who never spoke their mother’s name, who kept up a secret life with a woman young enough to be his daughter. The boys, moreover, were doubly burdened, being named after famous writers: Charley after his father, Walter after the poet Walter Savage Landor, Frank after Francis Jeffrey (editor of the Edinburgh Review), Alfred after Tennyson, Sydney after the legendary wit Sydney Smith, Henry after Henry Fielding and Edward, nicknamed “Plorn,” after Edward Bulwer-Lytton (author of the immortal line “It was a dark and stormy night”). Who could live up to such implied expectations?

Gottlieb, quite reasonably, finds Dickens’s judgment of his sons and daughters over-harsh. They were born into a privileged existence, with all its attendant advantages and disadvantages, but they also inherited poor health and a tendency to die young. (Dickens died at just 58, admittedly having worked himself into that early grave.) An almost innate penchant for drink and gambling, combined with a certain fecklessness, seem equally part of the Dickens heritage — just think of the writer’s own Mr. Micawber-like father.

Yet Kate became an admired painter of children and seems to have been a confidant to half the leading lights of Edwardian London. (Her best friend, from childhood on, was the gifted Anne Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of the other Great Victorian Novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, author of “Vanity Fair.”) Eldest son Charley made a life for himself as a literary editor and kept the magazine All the Year Round going after Dickens’s death. For a long while Alfred ran a sheep station in Australia, bounced back from bankruptcy and later became a successful lecturer (his topic being, of course, Life With Father, accompanied by readings from the novels). More impressive still, Henry, a distinguished jurist, ended his career as Sir Henry Dickens.

Even Frank, perhaps the most dubious of the boys, served honorably as a member of the North-West Mounted Police (and later inspired — though it’s not mentioned by Gottlieb — a clever Flashman-like historical novel by Eric Nicol, “Dickens of the Mounted”).

What’s particularly surprising, though, is the mystifying alternation of sentimentality and callousness in Dickens’s treatment of his sons. Only Henry ever went to a university, after considerable pleading. The others, while still young, were sent soldiering in India, to Australia to manage sheep stations or into the navy at the age of 14. The girls, of course, were kept at home to flutter adoringly around The Inimitable, Mamie never marrying. Surprisingly, all the children learned to bend docilely to the wishes of their domineering father, who subtly, perhaps unknowingly, warped their lives. Of course, all parents do that to some extent. Yet none of Dickens’s children rebelled against him; indeed, they all revered him and were proud to share his name.

Even if you haven’t read any Dickens since high school, when you waded through the sentences and beheadings of “A Tale of Two Cities,” Gottlieb’s book is one you might want to try. “Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens” makes clear that not even the most prodigious creator of fictional characters since Shakespeare could always be understanding or sympathetic to the people closest to him.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

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