November 19, 2012

When father is famous

By Robert Gottlieb
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Charles Dickens is inextricably tied to the children he “fathered” in his fiction—Oliver Twist, Pip, Little Nell. In real life, the beloved writer sired 10 offspring (possibly 11, if unconfirmed reports of a child with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, are true), nine of whom lived into adulthood. Those children are the focus of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, an engaging work of Dickensiana that arrives at the tail end of the year-long celebration of the author’s bicentennial.

The borrowed title is ironic, for what Gottlieb shows us in this family portrait is that while the elder Dickens may have professed to expect great things from his children, in most cases he jettisoned those hopes somewhat prematurely. It is never easy to be the child of an accomplished parent, and Dickens was one of the most famous men in the world. The impatience he displayed when judging his children’s accomplishments, his refusal to give them a chance to come into their own in their own good time, must have been frustrating, particularly for his sons (given the times, and the less conditional affection he seems to have shown his daughters, the two girls may have suffered less).

Only two of the Dickens children achieved a level of accomplishment that would have pleased their father. Henry, second youngest son, went to Cambridge, became a lawyer and judge, and was eventually knighted for his services to the Crown. Kate, younger of the two surviving girls, became a much admired painter. Yet, as Gottlieb shows us, success is relative. The writer’s eldest and namesake, Charley, would prove himself as a publisher after his father’s death, and Alfred had a measure of success in Australia. Walter and Sydney died in their early 20s, too young to judge where their lives might have led. Mamie, most adoring of their father, became something of a religious eccentric. The peripatetic Frank died in Illinois, of all places, while the youngest, Plorn, lived in relative obscurity Down Under.

It is true that a number of the children were undermined by drink and profligacy (traits perhaps inherited from Dickens’ father and siblings, if not from the abstentious and prudent writer himself). But Gottlieb raises an important question: How would the Dickens children, particularly the boys, have fared if their father had been more patient, helping them finding their places in the world, rather than shipping them off to unsuitable careers and inhospitable climes? The man who imagined great life-arcs for the characters in his fiction seems to have had little imagination when dealing with his own offspring’s lives.


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Great Expectations

Great Expectations

By Robert Gottlieb
ISBN 9780374298807

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