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Tales of Charles Dickens as father, philanderer

Robert Gottlieb, former editor of The New Yorker, could write a history of bananas and I’d read it. In his new book about the sons and daughters of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Gottlieb is informative, understanding and humane as he looks at the progeny of the Great One and what happened to them.

Dickens fathered 10 children, and perhaps 11, according to Gottlieb. When Dickens and Catherine Hogarth married in 1836, Dickens was 24 and she was turning 21. Catherine came from a prominent Edinburgh family; her father, a journalist, was a friend of Walter Scott.

Dickens, on the other hand, endured a hard-knock life as a child. His father went to debtors’ prison; as a boy, Dickens had to work in a shoe-blacking factory. Yet Dickens was brilliant in overcoming bad luck. He stretched his capacities of sheer genius and energy with a will to succeed.

In a spectacular series of job-jumps, Dickens went from law clerk to parliamentary shorthand reporter to writer of comic sketches – out of which came the wonderful “Sketches by Boz,” all by age 30. What a guy! Well, perhaps too much of a guy.

So how did these great expectations bring us round to Gottlieb’s story of the writer’s children? It’s a sad piece of business to report.

Catherine had two miscarriages in addition to birthing 10 children. Gottlieb tells us that Dickens’ “sexual needs were urgent.” This hardly seems news. Dickens complained to friends about having to wait weeks after each birth before reclaiming his marital “rights.”

More than that, Dickens used prostitutes, whom he called “willing and consenting parties,” justifying himself by saying, “Good God, if such sins were to be visited upon all of us and to hunt us down through life, what man would escape!” Not unsurprisingly, we are told that Dickens was treated for venereal disease later in life.

By 1858, in a spirit of unfounded vindictiveness, Dickens expelled Catherine from his life, “removing her children from her – except for Charley, now 21 and his own man.” She had grown stout and exhausted by at least a dozen or so pregnancies in 15 years, along with post-partum depressions that Dickens felt made her mind duller, according to Gottlieb.

Our author relates that “Charles would later maintain that it was never really a love match, but it was certainly a close and affectionate one, as is demonstrated in Dickens’s devoted early letters to her. And a highly sexual one.”

Dickens’ other amours, attempted to be hidden at the time, are now known, as Michael Slater points out in “The Great Charles Dickens Scandal.”

So to the children: Gottlieb writes, “There were nine surviving children (Dora was eight months old when she died), and two of the boys died young, Walter in the army in India, Sydney at sea … Henry became a successful, even distinguished jurist. Kate, the second daughter, had a life filled with conflict but eventually rich in achievement and emotional satisfaction. (She became a portraitist.) Her older sister, Mamie, was not a happy woman … no one really understood her. It was the four boys who emigrated whose lives seem to us to have petered out without fulfillment, yet those lives were no more disastrous than most.”

Dickens was especially unhappy with at least six of his seven sons. He blamed their lethargy on Catherine. “How could it not be her fault that his children lacked his overwhelming energy …?” Gottlieb asks. “I never sing their praises,” Dickens wrote, “because they have so often disappointed me.”

A bit more detail: Charley, the oldest, took his mother’s part when she was separated from the rest of the family. He lived with her and was helped out by a scholarship from Angela Burdette-Coutts, the wealthiest woman in England, to attend Eton. Dickens was a good father in some respects. He wanted his sons to do well and actively sought others’ help with finding them jobs.

Mamie was the “… hardest to grasp, the most contradictory, and possibly the least happy,” says Gottlieb. She acquired the Victorian woman’s tasks: piano playing, flower arrangement and developing a flair for acting. She seemed uninterested in suitors.

A biographer of her sister, Katie, refers to Katie describing Mamie as “taking her happiness where she can,” perhaps a reference to lesbianism.

Katie was perhaps her father’s favorite, because she was most like him. “She was bright, quick, impetuous, prone to illness, and emotionally up and down – you could almost say manic and depressive.” Dickens adored her.

If you have an ounce of interest, there’s a ton of impressive detail in Gottlieb’s wonderful book about the rest of the Dickens children. Gottlieb is right that it cannot have been easy to be a child of the man who was not only the world’s most famous writer but universally beloved.


“Dickens’ Romps With Naughty Nelly” was the English newspaper Sunday Sport’s headline that greeted Claire Tomalin’s book about Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens in 1990.

Michael Slater, emeritus professor of Victorian literature at Birbeck College, University of London, reprises for us “The Great Charles Dickens Scandal” in his new book by that title. But do we really want to know more about the “Mr. Hyde-side” of Charles Dickens than we already know?

Slater wrote perhaps the best biography of Charles Dickens in 2009. When it was published, I noted that: “This Dickens’ biography is a stellar achievement, although I wonder about its value to the casual reader not steeped in ‘Dickensian’ lore. Slater has fused a dizzyingly detailed story of Dickens’ life to his published work.” ”

Why now Slater bothers – with the same enthusiasm – to work up a slather over a 150-year-old-scandal about Dickens’ 1858 marriage breakdown with his wife, Catherine, for a romance with Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, isn’t much of a mystery.

The reason is that readers still obsess over Dickens, that “great proponent of hearth and home in Victorian Britain,” as his bicentenary year comes to an end. As John Sutherland put it in the Financial Times of March 2009: “He is a figure deeply embedded in our national psyche.”

So Slater investigates the old intrigue with practiced eyes, telling us about how different writers (including Thackeray, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson) tried to make news – “outlandish yet plausible theories” abounding – of Dickens’ old “canoodling” business. The lesson is clear: If you’re a great anybody in this life and you fool around, you’ll never hear the end of it, even after you’re dead – especially after you’re dead.

It took Dickens and his surviving relatives quite a bit of trouble to hide the Ternan affair, but alas, whatever is done becomes undone, as Slater postulates. Kate Dickens revealed, according to her biographer, Lucinda Hawksley, that there was an 11th child, “… a boy but it died …,” evidence that is conclusive for some, yet circumstantial.

Also postulating is Professor Robert Garnett of Gettysburg College, with “Charles Dickens in Love,” published Saturday. He gives the reader 448 pages of lowdown, spilling the beans on the great Boz’s “making whoopee” again. It’s not only about Ternan but also about other loves, such as Maria Beadnell and his sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, who died young. Dickens wrote about Mary, “I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed,” and was wearing her ring 30 years later when he expired.

These matters are ingredients of a stew of consternation still coming to a boil for Dickens. As Slater concludes, “Any association of him and his work with the even remotely salacious is therefore bound to have for us an interest that seems destined never to lose its piquant savour.”

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

By Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

229 pages, $25

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal

By Michael Slater

Yale University Press

224 pages, $30

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of books of Dickens scholarship.