In his compassionate new book, Robert Gottlieb makes great use of century-old correspondence exchanged by Charles Dickens' many children. The letters he cites are often very sad, and at least one, written by Kate Dickens Perugini to playwright George Bernard Shaw, paints a particularly somber portrait of the legendary writer's offspring.
"Out of our large family of nine children," she wrote in 1898, 28 years after her father's death, "there was only one who seemed to me to be really quite sane."
In fact, things weren't so bad, Gottlieb explains in "Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens." Henry Dickens, Charles' sixth son, became a respected judge around the turn of the century. Namesake Charley was an able editor, helming one of his father's magazines for almost two decades. And Kate herself found a measure of acclaim as a painter.
But her point is taken. Despite the spoils afforded by their surname, Kate and her siblings weren't a carefree bunch. Nine Dickens children reached adulthood, and they often struggled to find their way in the world.
Frank, the third son born to Charles and Catherine Dickens, would become a police officer in India and Canada, but he drank too much and had money troubles. His "entire life suggests complicated, unhappy -- and unresolved -- problems," Gottlieb writes.
Mamie, the Dickens' eldest daughter, was also a drinker, and was in her 30s when her father died, Gottlieb reports, "with no likelihood of marriage, no profession to pursue, no consuming interest."
Walter, the second of the seven boys, was in India, a 22-year-old military serviceman, when he died, according to one of his father's letters, from an "extensive and perfectly incurable aneurysm of the Aorta."
"The saddest story is that of Plorn, a sensitive and nervous boy who couldn't even handle a normal school situation and was then sent off alone, at sixteen, to the raw world of the Australian outback," Gottlieb writes of the youngest child. "What was Dickens thinking?"
It's a question that many of his peers were asking at this point. In 1858, Dickens "ruthlessly expelled" Catherine after falling for the much younger Ellen Ternan, writes Gottlieb, and he tried to strong-arm his children into shunning their mother. "Dickens' grotesque behavior" harmed many, Gottlieb writes, none more than his daughters and sons.
But elsewhere, Gottlieb presents Dickens as an affectionate father who instilled in his children a love of information (there was a Dickens family newspaper), the arts (in-home theatrical productions were common) and wordplay (each child was issued a colorful nickname -- Henry was "The Comic Countryman," Sydney "The Ocean Spectre."
Gottlieb is never maudlin, but a sense of sorrow hangs over his book, the central fact of which is that Dickens' children "never really transcended his overwhelming effect on them."
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.