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Great Expectations
The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 246 pp.

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal
Michael Slater

Yale University Press, $30, 215 pp.


Today’s celebrities may think they have it bad, what with hacks and photographers lying in wait, hoping to funnel gossip into People magazine. But will scholars still be stalking Justin Bieber and Katie Holmes a century and a half from now?

They’re still stalking Charles Dickens, who died back in 1870. True, scuttlebutt about the author of David Copperfield and Bleak House is more likely to come from archives than from a reporter with a telephoto lens. Still, two new nonfiction books about the nineteenth-century writer—whose professional success couldn’t eclipse his failings as a family man—seem almost as hungry for intimate revelation as any informant selling tips to TMZ.

Admittedly, it’s a very dignified and judicious hunger in the case of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens. Absorbing, elegant, and succinct (readers who haven’t read a full Dickens biography should do that first), Robert Gottlieb’s book offers brief biographies of the novelist’s ten children, plus a chapter speculating about a rumored illegitimate offspring. Well stocked with historical, literary, and psychological insights, not to mention a handsome collection of illustrations, Great Expectations is an intriguing look at how the Victorians measured personal and professional success and failure. But chiefly it’s a poignant portrait of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the legacy of a famous, intimidatingly accomplished parent.

Dickens’s stratospheric celebrity was not the only shadow looming over his progeny. There was also the very public scandal surrounding his decision to separate from his wife Catherine in 1858, after she had borne him seven sons and three daughters over more than two decades of marriage. By this point, Dickens had already met Ellen Ternan, the young actress who would become his protégé and probably his lover.

With such emotional baggage as their birthright, one can hardly wonder that the novelist’s children were largely underachievers. The survivor himself of a hardscrabble youth—including a famous stint as a child laborer in a blacking factory—Dickens strove to launch his sons in various lines of work, only to see several of them flounder. A number of the boys were financially reckless. Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens, the fifth son, racked up so much debt during his years as a sailor that Dickens ultimately banished him from the house. “I begin to wish that he were honestly dead,” the disappointed father wrote of Sydney in a letter.

The relatively more successful and prosperous children capitalized on their father’s reputation after his death, acknowledging that their own lives were ancillary to his. After muddling along as a sheep-farmer-turned-wool-merchant-turned-station-agent in Australia, Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens found a more lucrative niche giving public lectures about his father. Even Henry Fielding Dickens, who became a very successful lawyer, gave readings from his dad’s work for charity. Mary Angela Dickens, known as Mamie, penned rhapsodic memoirs about her father. She never married, writing to a friend, “It is a glorious inheritance to have such blood flowing in one’s veins. I am so glad I never changed my name.” After chronicling her outsized grief over the death of her pet Pomeranian, Gottlieb gently remarks that Mamie’s devotion to her father “turned out not to be a successful recipe for a healthy and satisfying life as an adult.”

Gottlieb sensibly ends by comparing Dickens’s real children to the fictional youngsters who flock through the novels: figures like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, the abused Smike from Nicholas Nickleby, and Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop. Though some writers have spotted resemblances between certain characters and members of the Dickens brood, Gottlieb sees “almost no overlap.” Instead, he deduces that “the Olivers and the Nells and the Smikes are projections of Dickens’s own unassuageable need to see himself as a fatally wounded child.”

And what projections they are: vivid, idiosyncratic, and strangely solid. After finishing Gottlieb’s Great Expectations, you can’t help reflecting that, set beside such lively whippersnappers, Mamie and her siblings seem pale and insubstantial—not because Gottlieb has done a bad job (limited data survive about certain aspects of his subjects’ lives), but because the novelist endowed his characters with such timeless definition and presence.

Even more elusive is Ellen Ternan, who’s a name but hardly a personality in The Great Charles Dickens Scandal. Dickens specialist Michael Slater’s dense book summarizes, often in mind-numbing detail, the meager evidence about Dickens’s extramarital liaison that has turned up over the years. The volume does offer some mildly diverting tales of scholarly sleuthing: Felix Aylmer (1898–1979) made a key contribution to Ternan-love-nest lore by examining nineteenth-century British railroad routes and public financial records for the town of Slough, for instance. (Dickens seems to have used a pseudonym to pay expenses for a house in Slough that may have been Ternan’s residence.)

But the paper trail is tantalizingly inconclusive. Assessing the evidence as to whether the two had a platonic relationship, or whether, as has been rumored, they had an infant who died, Slater throws up his hands and titles an epilogue “Will We Ever Know?”

Despite the occasional sketchiness of the stories and personalities in Slater’s and Gottlieb’s books, these new volumes do supply some insight into the Dickens phenomenon. In particular, they suggest that the novelist’s domestic and personal foibles were the flip side of his artistic prowess. The author sometimes known as Boz was impressively prolific; and he busied himself with other professional activities too, serving as editor for sundry periodicals and giving high-profile public readings, for instance. Given that level of energy and discipline, who can wonder that his private existence was sometimes self-indulgent, ineffective, and fuzzily prioritized?

And perhaps our fascination with Dickens’s dirty laundry is a good thing. As Slater points out, anecdotes about Dickens’s marital lapses convey a special frisson because the writer was a famous “celebrant of hearth, home, and family love.” That “radiant domesticity,” to use Slater’s term, is hardly a draw these days, even if tolerance is extended on a seasonal basis to the feel-good Cratchit-clan scenes in A Christmas Carol. People today sometimes associate Dickens primarily with primness and cloying sentimentality, or with the social-reform perspective that can give a somber cast to his descriptions of prisons and other Victorian institutions. Maybe a little more scandal would banish this aura of preachiness and bathos and allow more readers to see the humor, manic energy, and weirdness in Dickens’s work.

Related: The Greatest, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
A Mutual Friend, by Anthony Domestico

Published in the 2013-03-22 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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