Thursday, 12 September 2013

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, by Robert Gottlieb

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: New York Review of Books

Brow: Tawdry tell-alls about the rich and powerful screwing up their kids, even written by distinguished former editors who publish in the New York Review of Books feels lower-middle brow at best.

Summary: Charles Dickens was prolific in more ways than his writing. All told, he and his wife Catherine produced ten babies from at least 12 pregnancies. Nine of them, two daughters and seven sons, survived into a adulthood, which was long enough for most of them, particularly the boys, to disappoint their father. The book is divided into two halves: their lives before Dickens' death in 1870, and what happened to them afterwards.

What I liked about it: I like a good take-down piece just as much as anyone else, and Dickens had much to be taken down. His main disappointment with his sons appears to be the thing that caused his own father's downfall and his resultant work in a boot-blacking factory: poor money management. Once sent away, they and their creditors wrote him constantly, asking for more money to pay gambling debts, or for the 25 pairs of kid-leather gloves they desperately needed. One is sent off to India with the military, returns to England after seven years, squanders his inheritance, and dies ignobly in Canada after a failed career in the Northwest Mounted Police. The youngest and perhaps most fragile son, Plorn, is sent off to Australia at just 16 and refuses to help pay to re-purchase the garden house his father wrote most of his works in after another son has to auction it off when he can't pay for the upkeep. One of the daughters can't get past being Miss Dickens and ends up living with a minister and his wife and possibly dies an alcoholic. Several others die young of one of the many diseases that took people in the days before food and water were safe and antibiotics had been discovered. Only three children can be said to be real successes: Katie, who was a moderately successful painter with a wide social network, Charley, who was eventually allowed to take over his father's literary magazine, and Henry, who was sent to Cambridge and became a judge.

What I didn't like about it: I can't really fault the author for this, as he certainly seems to have done his research, but there are very few details, especially about the less successful kids. For example, it's never clear if the constant begging letters are a result of gambling or of extravagant purchases. Nor is it clear what the situation was with the wayward daughter. But that is mostly a result of Victorian morals: nobody wanted to say it out loud.

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