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.