Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A much anticipate title! I've enjoyed Gottlieb's earlier books and reviews, specially his short biography of Sarah Bernhardt, so when I saw this title in the publisher's catalogue, I was made most happy. Dickens' family however, as a subject, is not necessarily a happy story. Recent researches have tended to focus on the spectacular failure of Dickens' marriage and on the girl who may or may not have been his mistress, Nelly Ternan. And then there's poor old Catherine. The great man, supreme celebrant of hearth and home, after producing a family of ten with her, sent his wife away and never spoke to her again and forbade his children from living with her. All this he did very brutally and publicly and in a most ungentlemanly fashion. He may or may not have had an eleventh child by his mistress. If so, the baby did not survive. That's the story anyway. (The great Dickens scholar and biographer, Michael Slater has a new book out now on just the scandal.)
The aspect of Dickens' domestic life taken up here, is considerably less exciting; seven boys, three girls -- one died in infancy -- and a mostly disappointing lot. Again, that's the story. Gottlieb tells this briskly and well, tracing the life of each in a separate set of matched chapters, divided between the years before and after Charles Dickens' death. It's a clever plan. All of Dickens' children would seem to have had in common, from the eldest to the last, was a happy childhood. Dickens adored babies and children, and dearly loved all his own. His death unknit what was already a stretched and strained family. Still, even before that tragic turn of events, there were few enough signs of resilience, let alone genius in the new generation. But if none of his children ever quite measured up to either their father's renown or his expectations, as Gottlieb rightly asks, how could they? And the novelist was disappointed, specially with the boys. Gottlieb emphasizes the impact of this paternal disappointment on what turned out for all but one or two of the children to be lives of less than spectacular financial or personal success, even when not quite the downright failure of more than one of the boys. Most of that, of course, Dickens, dead at 58, did not actually live to see.
Gottlieb is very good at telling each of these lives at the length it deserves and with great sympathy for all. He's very good, in a very small space, at capturing something of the personality and eccentricity of these rather unexceptional people, and is specially good about using original sources judiciously and well to do it. There's no fault to be found, at least by me, with either Gottlieb's research or style.
I do take issue with some of the rather pat, 20th Century psychologizing in which the author indulges when speculating as to affect of Dickens' supposedly crushing disappointment in his sons. So far as the reader might know from the sources quoted here, from their adolescence on, Charles Dickens did not think much -- and loudly -- of most of his boys. This Gottlieb ascribes as much to the father's own extraordinary dynamism and ambition, not to mention his genius, as to the obvious absence of any such in the next generation. Not wrong, I shouldn't think, on it's face, but this argument strikes me as a little too glib. Dickens characteristically Victorian energy and hectic pace came from something other than just the times or his ambition. Gottlieb, I think, pays too little attention to the family that made Dickens, in criticizing the family Dickens made. Beyond his own rather remote mother and famously spendthrift if charming father, by the time Dickens was married he was already supporting in various ways various family wastrels, drunks, invalids and cripples. The much that Gottlieb makes, for instance, of Dickens insisting on getting all his boys "settled" in a profession or job, even a sheep ranch in Australia, while they were as young as fourteen, was not just some inexplicable exercise in either penny-pinching-economy or patriarchal disregard, but something very like panic as the admittedly rich Mr. Dickens was busily working himself to death. He was not rich enough. He may have been the best paid writer and lecturer and editor to that time, but that did not offer lifetime security for what came to nine children, two wives, various sisters, relatives and dependents. However high his rise in the world, he was never so far from the mire that he couldn't see and smell it, and fear it. (His readings made more money than even his novels, and even acknowledging this, how many biographers have been tempted to see those last heroic tours as exercises in pure ego?) What else was he to do for what proved to be a whole brood of very dear, perfectly harmless, and largely feckless children if not try to secure them some safe position in the world before be bustled out of it? He knew what it was to have a lovable, but improvident parent. One can't eat charm.
There is also a willingness on Gottlieb's part to quote from the invariably devoted letters and memoirs of the Dickens children, and then question not their manifest sincerity, but suggest what wasn't said. Understandable, given the circumstances described, but not altogether cricket the third or forth of seventh time. Gottlieb may be right about what he thinks must have been if not between, then somewhere behind the lines in the Dickens family, but then maybe his premise of the Big Noisy Giant might not quite meet the facts.
I don't want to sound some Dickensian crank, insisting on the man's sainthood. I appreciate the contemporary scholarship being done, as well as Dickens humanity, and want to know the bad he did in the world as well as the good. (Very modern thing to want, I should think, certainly not Victorian. But then, wasn't that what Plutarch claimed for biography quite some time before Victoria, or Britain had been heard from?) Still, I will confess,Dickens for me, and for millions of other readers, is always something of a special case, and a friend, and one doesn't want him done any injustice, I suppose.
But whatever my disagreements with the book, it is a good one, and the better for being brief, and bright. There are biographies already of Kate, Aunt Georgina and Catherine now, as well as Nelly Ternan, and memoirs by at least three of the children that can be found online or reprinted as Google books. This however is the first book I've encountered to tell the stories of all the children of Charles Dickens and in a sure and simple span. The telling is warm, generous in spirit, concise and cleverly written. He gives them all their due. What's more, the author makes it clear that he would not have undertaken the task were it not for his respect and sincere admiration of The Inimitable.
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