You would think, wouldn’t you, that the man who created such heartrendingly sympathetic children as Oliver Twist, Pip, Tiny Tim and poor Little Nell would be a stupendous father. Well, the Charles Dickens who emerges from Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations, a compulsively readable if occasionally repetitive account of what happened to the great writer’s brood of seven sons and three daughters, is not so wonderful.
Daddy Dearest welcomed each new addition to his family with bemused delight — if a tendency to blame the rapid proliferation on his wife Catherine. Dickens was an attentive father, strict but playful with his children when they were young — and much revered and loved by them. But soon after his boys were in long pants — around age 5 — he was busily mapping their careers, often overseas, with an eye to relieving himself of the burden of supporting them as soon as possible. Worse, he was already expressing disappointment, to both them and the world, that they “lacked not only his genius but his compulsion to work,” his self-confidence and his “rigor and discipline.”
Great Expectations joins an avalanche of publications marking the bicentennial of Dickens’ Feb. 7, 1812, birth, including Claire Tomalin’s absorbing investigative biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, and Christopher Hitchens’ final Vanity Fair essay, “Charles Dickens’s Inner Child.” What Gottlieb’s book adds to this profusion is an accessible, sharply focused and opinionated portrait of what the “magical” but dominating father wrought at home. As in his previous book, Lives and Letters, the former editor-in-chief of Knopf and The New Yorker brings an enticingly light touch to his scholarship, resulting in a book that reads like haute literary gossip.
Gottlieb wisely highlights two great dividing lines in the lives of Dickens’ offspring: their parents’ separation in 1858 and their father’s death in 1870. The first occurred when Dickens, with the ruthlessness of a king, banished his corpulent, exhausted and, he claimed, dull and lethargic wife of 22 years, “packing her off to her own establishment (with a generous settlement) and removing her children from her.” Gottlieb does not hide his outrage at Dickens’ “odious behavior,” which was spurred, he believes, by a sort of midlife crisis and infatuation with the young actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he possibly had an illegitimate 11th child who died in infancy. The repercussions of the Dickens’ nasty separation included social ostracism for their two surviving daughters and an added urgency to disperse all those distracting, needy sons, exiling five of them to the far ends of the Earth in search of opportunities.
How disappointing were the children? Gottlieb cherry-picks lively quotes from Dickens’ letters in which he complains of “having brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves.” Several of the sons who were sent as teens to join the Navy, the Indian Army, the Canadian Mounties or to manage sheep stations in Australia, lived and died in debt. Gambling, liquor and congenital heart ailments contributed to their early demise.
The two sons who were allowed to remain in England and were given a chance to discover their own vocations — literary editor and lawyer — led the happiest, most successful lives. Dickens’ favorite daughter, Kate, also achieved success, as a child portraitist. This leads Gottlieb to wonder how the others might have fared had they been kept at home and given “time to develop at their own speed” — which of course reflects contemporary American child-rearing philosophy. Gottlieb doesn’t fully acknowledge that Dickens’ decisions regarding his sons’ education (including boarding school at age 7) and career options were hardly uncommon in Victorian England.
As for Dickens’ greater sympathy for his fictional children than for his actual offspring, Gottlieb offers a plausible, if much simplified, explanation: “All his tragic child victims are stand-ins” for Dickens himself as a boy. In other words, Dickens’ “rage and self-pity over what he saw as his harrowing childhood” — and his pride at having overcome it without help from anyone — left him with little empathy for the travails of his own relatively fortunate children. Yet, as Gottlieb makes clear in this book that raises intriguing questions about parental pressures and expectations, Dickens’ progeny remained devoted to him and his legacy throughout their lives.