Charles Dickens' great disappointments

Robert Gottlieb discusses the author's 10 children and the great expectations of literary offspring

Published December 9, 2012 11:00PM (EST)

Robert Gottlieb and Charles DIckens  (Michael Lionstar/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Robert Gottlieb and Charles DIckens (Michael Lionstar/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

One day, Robert Gottlieb picked up a one-volume collection of letters by one of his favorite writers, Charles Dickens, in a used bookstore. Reading it, he was struck by just how much of Dickens' correspondence concerned his 10 children: Charley, Mamie, Katey, Walter, Frank, Alfred, Sydney, Henry, Dora (who died in infancy) and Plorn (Edward). The novelist spent so much time worrying about and trying to establish the futures of his sons and daughters that Gottlieb couldn't help wondering how they'd all turned out.

Gottlieb's storied career as editor in chief of Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, as well as a five-year stint as editor in chief of the New Yorker, has provided him with plenty of firsthand experience in the foibles of literary greats. (He discovered and edited Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and has edited the work of such authors as John Cheever, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Caro, Barbara Tuchman and Bill Clinton.) Late in life, he launched a second career as a writer, contributing long critical essays to the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, as well as penning biographies of Sarah Bernhardt and George Balanchine. Deciding that the lives of the Dickens children merited further investigation, he followed his usual method of absorbing all available writings on the topic. An irresistibly readable new book, "Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens," is the result.

"People, if they think of Dickens' children at all," said Gottlieb, "say 'Oh, they were failures.' But they weren't." Five of his sons were sent off to make their ways in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, and died outside of England. One of his daughters was a popular painter, and another son became a distinguished jurist. But Dickens often expressed frustration at the fecklessness and lack of focus of his sons in particular, a vexation that provoked him to write, "Why was I ever a father!" in a letter to a friend two years before his death in 1870. To find out what did finally happen to Dickens' children, and whether their stories are typical of the progeny of famous writers, I sat down with Gottlieb to talk about (his) "Great Expectations."

"Great Expectations" is, all too ironically, a perfect title for this book.

The story is of Dickens' great expectations of his children, and also of our great expectations. What's interesting is not just that he expected so much of them, but that we, because they are the children of Charles Dickens, expect so much from them.

The biggest event in their childhood was when Dickens ejected his wife and their mother, Catherine, from the family home after 18 years of marriage and publicly denounced her in the press. Simon Callow recently defended Dickens' treatment of his wife in a British newspaper by saying that it wasn't as bad as it has been made out to be -- that he didn't beat or starve her, and that he did not prevent the children from seeing her.

How gracious of him! He didn't like it if they saw her.

And he made that clear.

He made it very clear. We have to go back to the legal system. Under British law in the 19th century, mothers had no legal status at all. He could do anything he wanted with the children. Catherine wasn't even involved in naming her children.

That was a rather heartbreaking detail I learned in your book, that she never got to name her own children.

She had no legal standing, so to that extent Callow is right. Dickens could have done it worse. But that doesn't mean that what he did do was appropriate or decent.

Dickens was somebody who the older he got the less bearable it was to him to be disagreed with, to be contended with. His word was law, and anyone who disagreed with him not only got kicked in the ass but was eliminated from his life. So when he made up his mind to leave his wife, he also had to justify it to himself. To do that, he created a public picture of Catherine that was obviously overdone and inaccurate. And he was abetted in that by her sister, Georgina, who lived with them. She cut herself off from Catherine and her own mother. Remember that he forbade the children to see their grandmother or the rest of Catherine's family.

This was because he was in love with a young actress, but almost nobody knew that.

The fact that he had a mistress, Ellen Ternan, only came out in the 1920s. Nobody knew that he had essentially left Catherine for another woman. So his statements about her -- not only that she was impossible and lazy and didn't do anything right, but that she didn't really care for her children and they didn't love her -- people took all that at face value.

So people believed that? I got the impression that most of the people they knew never bought that view of Catherine.

The people who knew them didn't buy it. But he was Charles Dickens. Outside of his own circle, he created the public impression of his life. The first major modern biography by Edward Johnson, which is otherwise wonderful, completely subscribes to the line that Catherine was a stupid, fat, useless person who was not in any way up to Dickens' standards.

As time goes by and feminism comes into the Western world, that begins to change. The final rehabilitation came only a year ago, with the first full biography of Catherine, by Lillian Nayder. That book really goes into the evidence and shows us that she was a far more accomplished person, that she adored her children and the children adored her. Although, oddly enough, after 10 children, several miscarriages, terrible postpartum depressions and various illnesses, she was not the slender, lively young thing she had been when they got married.

He always discussed her pregnancies as something that she foisted on him.

She just decided to be pregnant!

To inconvenience him!

Very much so. It's very clear to me, after reading everything, that Dickens needed to justify his behavior. Once he'd decided that Catherine was kaput, he had to demonize her. He was a man of strong morals, and therefore he could not behave badly and if he did behave badly, he had to have cause. And the cause could only be that she was a useless wretch and that nobody liked her, beginning with her own children.

So after he's booted her out, he only communicates with her three times in the 12 years that follow, and doesn't bother to get in touch with her when their son Walter dies in India. He had it put on Walter's gravestone that he was the son of Charles Dickens -- just him. Apparently, Walter came of out Dickens' head, like Athena coming out of Zeus.

He closed the iron gate and that was it. And she went on adoring him. She never got over him. But I do love the fact that she got the last word in a way when he died. The letter of condolence from Queen Victoria went to her because she is still Mrs. Charles Dickens.

I find her sister Georgina to be the most baffling figure of all. She renounced her entire family to be his housekeeper.

But you see, it just happened. It's not that she made up her mind to do it. She was already living with them and running everything because Catherine was often out of commission having babies. Georgina was the housekeeper and the housewife, even though Catherine was Mrs. Charles Dickens. When Catherine was gone, someone had to look after those 10 kids and Georgina was already there. She's their auntie. It made sense.

But seen from the outside? It's completely bizarre! They're all bizarre. The whole 19th century is bizarre.

Everything is ambivalent with him because he is such a conflicted man, such a driven man, such an angry man, whose surface is so energized and comical. I feel -- and I didn't write this because I'm not equipped to do a psychoanalytic biography of Charles Dickens -- that he suffered from a lifelong depression, which he managed by this unbelievable expenditure of energy and comedy. Maybe the reason I feel that is that I think there's a little of that in me.

You suspect that's why he was so superhumanly active?

Yes. Whereas his children, they're not conflicted and miserable. They love their mother, their father is the greatest man in the world. He's fun, he's fabulous. He's tough on them, but in a good way. So they're not driven. But to him, for his children not to be driven? That's hell.

His expectation, not unlike that of many fathers in this world, is that his children -- his sons -- would be like him. They'd have that same drive. They're going to make it, to get there. They're going to prevail, to win. But they don't need to.

They were just normal people

They were normal people.

One of the things I find so fascinating about this book is that it tells a story not often told, which is what it's like to be an average person in the intimate orbit of an extraordinary person.

And not just an extraordinary person, but an overwhelmingly beloved person, around the world. And yet, they loved him, too.

But that in itself was confining in a way. If they could have hated him, that might have been liberating, or given them something to push against.

Absolutely. He didn't give them the chance to hate him.

In my lifespan, I compare this to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was the hero of my childhood. I automatically assumed that his children would be great people. Well, the Roosevelt children were various. Some of them did OK, some of them didn't do so OK. But they had lives we wouldn't be thinking about if they were not his children. I feel there was a weight on them, in the way that their contemporaries, including me, conceived of them. They had to be special. But they didn't have to be special!

I think of Kate Dickens as his most interesting child, and after a bumpy early adulthood with an invalid first husband, she had quite a fine life. She was a fairly successful artist, she had a good second marriage and many fascinating friends. She was admired by gentlemen even into her old age, and everyone loved her.

It was a good life after she got going, but she herself said that life at home with her father, after he left Catherine, was hell.

That's why she got married the first time.

She had to get out.

She was so torn, and he was insisting that she agree with his position on her mother.

She felt that she had to see her mother, but essentially she was the child who was closest to Dickens. They were very much alike, terrific and energized. And they adored each other. And yet, she knew her mother wasn't what she was being made out to be, and she felt an obligation to her. Whereas her sister Mamie just turned her back on Catherine and forgot her. She wanted to be Miss Dickens.

Mamie is one of the least appealing of the children

She's weird. She's strange.

And she became a sort of religious fanatic, living with some very dubious clergyman and his wife. Everyone knew there was something wrong there, but of course being Victorian they never quite say what it was.

There's something wrong there. Well, we have a sense of what was wrong with Mamie. When she wrote about her father, she said she could think of no name more glorious to carry than that of Miss Dickens. Being the daughter of Charles Dickens was more important to her than anything else could possibly be.

Katie was not neurotic in that way. She also knew that she had to have a life. And she had a talent, which Dickens encouraged. He sent her to the first art school in England that would take women. For four or five years she studied. He was proud of her work.

Dickens tried to do the best for his boys, but what was he going to do? Now this was what I hadn't realized, because during our lifetime and our parents' lifetime, if you're middle class or upper middle class and you have kids, you send them to college. So those terrible years from 17 to 21 or 22, they have somewhere to go, to spend their energy and grow up.

In England in the mid-19th century, there were three routes: the church (and this was not a churchy family), into the armed services or into merchanting -- as long as the merchandise was on an elevated level. You could be a wine merchant or a tea merchant, but you couldn't sell haberdashery.

Today, if you have an 18-year-old who's restless or footloose and doesn't want to go to college, they can go take a job in McDonald's or something. But that was not remotely possible then, nor could well-bred young women go onto the stage. It was not possible. So what do you do with a houseful of hungry boys, bopping around, buying expensive clothes?

Dickens' sons were financially improvident, but it's never really clear if they just run up a lot of bills or they're gambling.

It's never made clear, but it was probably both. And Dickens was honest enough for once to acknowledge that the strain of improvidence, if inherited, came from his side of the family. Remember: His father is Mr. Micawber.

Not only is there no automatic college -- only one of them managed it, Henry, the successful one, and he had to struggle to get to Cambridge -- but it's at the height of imperial Britain. It's natural and thrilling for ambitious, energized boys of the time to go to India.

To make their fortunes.

Right. You could go to Australia, or Canada. This was in line with the culture, the history and sociology of the time. Dickens sent his sons to those places, but this was not seen as exile, even if we view it that way. Walter was happy to go to India and Alfred was happy to go to Australia.

But not poor little Plorn. You use very strong language about his emigration.

I use the word "murder." Well, I felt that. Because of his history. Dickens was sensitive to his children's needs and personalities. And he was to Plorn, his youngest and favorite boy, who is shy and somewhat retreated, and probably not too brilliant. Plorn can't even hack it in the larger schools that the other boys did OK in.

So it's off to the outback!

He's 16 years old, and shipped off alone to Australia.

Do you think Dickens was simply over having his children living with him and eager to get Plorn launched? He was the 10th, after all.

"I gotta get him outta here," yes. He prepares him, sends him to agricultural college, gives him letters of introduction, but it's outski. Meanwhile, on the railroad platform, saying goodbye to Plorn, Dickens complete loses it and is sobbing and sobbing. It reminds me a little bit of the Walrus and the Carpenter in the Lewis Carroll poem, weeping over the fate of the oysters they're about to eat as they sort out the ones of the largest size. But Dickens is sincere, because he's always sincere.

Even this poor boy constructs something of a life out there, in politics and on the side of the angels. He just can't manage anything. These children, for the most part, lack grasp -- although Sidney was doing very well in the navy, going off on his first sea voyage at 14. He wanted it.

But he did have problems with money.

Yes, he had that problem. He ran up bills. But when you have a father who you know feels very pressured about money and who grew up in a horrible situation of losing everything, how do you get at him, if unconsciously? You run up bills. And the more angry he gets, the more abject you become -- but on a whole other level, if you believe in the subconscious, how gratifying: I really got to him.

Now people, if they think of Dickens' children at all, say, "Oh, they were failures." But they weren't. Many of them died young. Sidney was doing well when he died [of fever]. Walter was only 22 -- no one's a failure at 22. Frank is bizarre. He goes off to India, comes back after seven years, dissipates his inheritance. He vanishes, and no one knows where he is. Then Mamie and Georgina, using their connections, manage to find him a job with the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. It was a not very distinguished career, and he was a mess.

My first knowledge of Frank came from one of my closest friends, Diane Johnson. She grew up in Moline, Ill. I was talking about Dickens, and she said, "You know, one of his sons died in Moline, Ill." I said, "Are you out of your mind?" She said, "No, we used to play in the graveyard and there was the tombstone." And sure enough, he died in Moline, Ill. You see, again, the empire at work. They're scattered, except for the four who remained in England.

There's Charley, the eldest, who Dickens misunderstood, although finally in the end he realized his talents were literary and left him the magazine in his will. Charley did a very solid job and was extremely capable and responsible.

Charley also had a great marriage. Both he and Henry, who became a judge, did. In that respect, you could say they were more successful than their father.

That's right. They were certainly sounder.

One problem that Dickens' children didn't have is the first one that everybody thinks of when you talk about the downside of being related to a famous writer: They don't turn up as characters in his books.

It's ironic because Dickens, of all the writers in the world, is the most connected to childhood. Many, if not most, of his most famous books are about childhood and children, from "Oliver Twist "and "The Old Curiosity Shop" with the famous death of Little Nell to "Dombey and Son" and the schools in "Nicholas Nickleby." But that was all before the children were old enough to be written about. By the time Charley, the oldest, is old enough to write about Dickens is at mid-career, because he started so young.

Those children, the tragic fictional children, are projections of Dickens' own childhood. They have nothing to do with his own children, who it's not clear he entirely understood. Charley once said, "I sometimes thought that the children he created were more real to him than we were."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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