How does he come to be mine?

Tim Parks

  • Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb
    Farrar, Straus, 239 pp, £16.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 374 29880 7

In 1850 Dickens invented a little game for his seventh child, three-year-old Sydney, the tiniest boy in a family of short people. Initially, in fun, Dickens had asked Sydney to go to the railway station to meet a friend; innocent and enterprising, to everyone’s amusement the boy set off through the garden gate into the street; then someone had to rush out and bring him back. The joke was repeated, and the five-year-old Alfred was sent with him; but when the boys had got used to being rescued, Dickens changed the rules, closed the gate after them, and hid in the garden with some of the older children. In Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, Robert Gottlieb quotes the letter in which Dickens explains to his wife what happened: ‘Presently, we heard them come back and say to each other with some alarm: “Why, the gate’s shut, and they are all gone!” Ally began in a dismayed way to cry out, but the Phenomenon [Sydney], shouting “Open the gate!” sent an enormous stone flying into the garden (among our heads) by way of alarming the establishment.’ ‘This,’ Gottlieb remarks of the anecdote with a warmth he sustains throughout his book, ‘was a boy after his father’s heart.’

Gottlieb’s Great Expectations brings together, in almost schematic fashion, the lives of Dickens’s ten children. There is a short introduction to remind us of the main events of Dickens’s life, followed by accounts of his dealings with each child before his death and then of how each fared afterwards. The strange thing is that despite its unambitious, unassuming approach – often it seems that this short book was written simply for the pleasure of contemplating a man whom Gottlieb admires to the point of worship – Great Expectations is more intriguing than many weightier accounts, perhaps because it allows us to observe, as we might not in a long and dense biography, certain patterns of behaviour, certain obsessions, that we soon realise are absolutely central not only to the plots of Dickens’s novels, but to his whole approach to writing and being read. Dickens spoke of his readers as his extended family; to understand our response to him, it isn’t a bad idea to see how he dealt with his children.

A photogravure from 1865 in the garden at Gad’s Hill: Katey stands and Mamie sits.
A photogravure from 1865 in the garden at Gad’s Hill: Katey stands and Mamie sits.

The game with Sydney, for example, where the child’s enthusiasm is first encouraged then thwarted, the boy spurred on to believe he is performing a useful task only to find himself frighteningly excluded, father and siblings gone, the gate shut, can all too easily be connected to the two crucial events in Dickens’s life that inevitably frame any discussion of his representation of family, poverty and Victorian endeavour. The first we all learned about at school, since it constitutes the Dickens legend: his having been sent out as a child to work in a factory. Gottlieb gives the story on page one:

Charles had endured a difficult childhood: when he was 11, his father, a well-meaning but improvident clerk in the navy pay office, was sent to debtors’ prison, with young Charles put to menial work in a blacking factory – a social disgrace that demoralised him and from which he never fully recovered, keeping it a secret from the world (even from his children) until his death.

The desire to have this experience authenticate Dickens’s adult concern for the urban poor and explain his later depiction of any number of child waifs (one critic counted 318 orphans in Dickens’s fiction) tends to obscure the real nature of the young Dickens’s suffering as he later and very emotionally recalled it for his friend and biographer, John Forster. He was not beaten, starved or ill-treated in any way. The factory was run by an acquired cousin, the son of a widower who had married Dickens’s aunt. He worked there for a year or less before returning to school and normal middle-class life. What upset the boy was that he was the only member of the family to be sent off to earn his keep in demeaning circumstances. His elder sister Fanny continued to study at the Royal Academy of Music where the fees were 38 guineas a year (he was earning six shillings a week at the factory). Apparently she had a bright future and he did not. His younger siblings lived with their mother and father in the Marshalsea prison. For Dickens, alone in cheap lodgings, ‘utterly neglected’, the experience was one of unnecessary, even vindictive exclusion from the family circle– the gate inexplicably shut, the father hiding – and what he begged for initially was not to be spared the factory, but to be lodged nearer the prison so he could have meals with his parents. There was also the shame, as this ambitious middle-class child saw it, of being obliged to consort with ‘common men and boys’ and worst of all of being seen among them by friends of the family who came to the factory shop. Dickens was meant for better things and better company.

All the same, if one is singled out for exclusion, it isn’t unreasonable to fear that there might be grounds for it, that one might indeed be unworthy in some way, or again that simply by being excluded one might become unworthy, at least in the eyes of one’s peers. Dickens later referred to himself at this time as ‘a small Cain’, though he had ‘never done harm to anyone’. It’s not hard to imagine that a response to this experience might be a determination to demonstrate one’s worthiness at all costs in order to regain a secure position inside the domestic circle and the community at large. What Dickens so admired in little Sydney’s reaction to exclusion was his ferocious determination to get back to the garden where he belonged, with the help of a big stone. The moral of the story is that Sydney, not crybaby Alfred, is the worthy son of a combative father.

The second unhappy event is directly related to the first, though this is rarely pointed out. Those who write enthusiastically about Dickens never seem to regret that he had to work in a factory as a boy, since there is a consensus that without this experience he might not have become the novelist we admire; but they do very much regret that 34 years later he excluded his wife (the mother of his ten children) from the family, not only separating from her, but keeping the family home and custody of the children for himself (the youngest was six at the time) and frowning on every contact between them and her. In Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin remarks, ‘The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying,’ to the point, she adds, that ‘you want to avert your eyes.’ Gottlieb is just as uneasy about ‘the callous way he treated her’, making it clear over and over again that however much he loves Dickens he has to distance himself from this.

So again, together with an act of exclusion (one member of the family cast into darkness), the question of blame and worthiness arises. In letters to his friend Forster, Dickens admitted he was not without blame for the deterioration of his marriage, but when he came to force the separation he put all the blame on his wife, accusing Catherine in private and public of not being fit for her role, of laziness and lassitude, ‘weakness and jealousy’, of not caring for the children, whom she ‘was glad to be rid of’. She was not worthy of him or them. She doesn’t even have the nous to heave a big stone and fight for her place. Her defeatist acceptance of banishment is part of her crime.

The uneasiness of his biographers suggests how contagious is Dickens’s constant and very emotional taking sides over matters of worthiness, inclusion and exclusion. Tomalin and Gottlieb feel obliged to let us know that in this case they stand, dismayed, on the side of the wronged wife. Thus the whole fraught question of belonging and not belonging, of being deserving or undeserving, inside a respectable group around the merry fire or outside in the damp dark, a question that recurs obsessively through Dickens’s novels, also colours the reader’s response to him. We feel we have been invited into a happy family, only to be disappointed with the man who wrote it into being. Conversely, disappointment, as Gottlieb repeatedly tells us, was Dickens’s defining and constant experience with his children; great expectations coming to nothing. ‘I never sing their praises,’ he remarked, ‘because they have so often disappointed me.’

Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 when he was 24 and she 20. He had only recently got over his love for a well-to-do girl whose family rejected him because he was young and without prospects – another exclusion. The eldest of nine children, Catherine was better placed socially than Dickens; her father was an editor on a newspaper Dickens wrote for. Marrying her, he was gaining entry to more respectable society. The move was not entirely distinguishable from his urgent project of becoming part of the literary world and being loved and accepted by readers. Serialisation of The Pickwick Papers was underway, inviting everyone to become involved in the droll Pickwick Club. In 1837 the book’s success won Dickens election to the rather more real Garrick.

The marriage took place on 2 April 1836 and the first child was born on 6 January the following year. Nine months almost to the day. From then on Twelfth Night would always be an occasion for rumbustious family celebrations and elaborate theatricals of which Dickens was both creator and main performer. Over the next 15 years nine other children would follow, plus several miscarriages. So although Dickens would show more and more unease about how many children he had, at one point claiming he’d only wanted three and even regretting he’d ever had any at all, there was a wilfulness in this rhythm of production, again not entirely distinct from the enormous effort of will that must have been involved in simultaneously writing The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, then beginning Nicholas Nickleby nine months before Oliver Twist was finished as relentless monthly serialisation schedules obliged him to meet deadline after deadline. By the time the tenth and last child was born, he was publishing his ninth novel.

He was also editing Household Words, had briefly edited a newspaper, published extremely popular stories every Christmas season as well as scores of essays and articles throughout the year, and ran a home to rehabilitate fallen women: all activities that put him at the centre of other people’s attention and (great) expectations. His children vied constantly for his affection; his readers eagerly awaited their monthly fix; other writers sought to be published in his magazine (his name appeared in the header on every page); destitute women presented themselves for admission to the home, where they were interviewed by Dickens personally, who decided whether to grant them entry or not. He was involved in society in every possible way, by far the most popular author in the country. He belonged. No one could exclude him, though there was always the possibility that he might isolate himself, as someone now too worthy and remarkable to demean himself with the group, or immerse himself in it for too long, setting out on long walks and trips alone, as his alter ego David Copperfield does in moments of depression when society seems to offer only disappointment. A year after his admission to the Garrick, Dickens resigned from it. In each of the following three decades he would rejoin the Garrick and resign again in protest over this or that issue, moving dramatically in and out of the community it offered.

The sense of ambitious expectation is evident in the names of the Dickens children. Charles alone chose them, Gottlieb writes. Catherine was given no say in the matter. The first was Charles Culliford Boz Dickens. Charles after himself, of course, and Boz too, since that was the pen-name he had used for his early work. Culliford was the second name of Charles’s maternal uncle, Thomas Barrow, a cultured man who had forbidden Dickens’s father ever again to enter his house after the latter’s failure to honour a debt led to his paying £200 as a guarantor. Dickens identified with this more respectable side of the family and often visited the house from which his dishonourable father was permanently excluded.

The second child, a girl born in 1838, was named not after Catherine, but after her younger sister Mary, who had died some months before. The child’s second name, Angela, reflected the fact that Dickens had always and rather extravagantly considered Mary ‘an angel’. Here one has to pause to mention that Dickens never lived alone – and only rarely spent time alone with his wife. When they married he had invited the 17-year-old Mary to live with them and after she died another younger sister, Georgina, was brought in to take her place, becoming so attached to Dickens that she would stay with him years later when Catherine was banished. But even at moments when one might have expected exclusiveness and intimacy – wedding anniversaries, for example – Dickens generally invited a third to the party, most often Forster. It was conviviality rather than intimacy that interested him, a conviviality in which, flamboyantly dressed in coloured silks and velvets, he played the role of animator and entertainer. It’s curious how many of his famous characters are actually double acts. In David Copperfield there are the Murdstones, brother and sister; Steerforth and his mother; the Micawbers, man and wife; Uriah Heep and his mother; Aunt Trotwood and Mr Dick; Dora and her friend Julia; Agnes and her father; but David himself, like other alter egos, is never quite locked into any relationship. It is as if the most natural meeting Dickens can imagine is himself alone in the presence of at least two others, who draw him in, or repel him. When David does marry we are at once aware that it’s a terrible mistake and that Dora isn’t worthy of him. He was better off alone. She can’t keep house, she has no intellectual conversation. Only at the end of the novel does David surrender his solitariness to become one with his soulmate Agnes, but at that point Dickens can no longer continue the story, as if the fusion of his own destiny with someone else’s were unimaginable, a kind of death.

After Charles Culliford Boz Dickens and Mary Angela Dickens, the next child, Catherine Macready Dickens, took her mother’s name followed by that of a leading male actor, William Macready, a close friend of Dickens’s. From this point on the names grow ever grander: Walter Savage Landor Dickens (after the poet, a friend), Francis Jeffrey Dickens (after the founder of the Edinburgh Review, another friend), Alfred d’Orsay Tennyson Dickens (after both the French artist and dandy and the English poet, both friends), Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (after the famous wit and the philanthropist, both friends), Henry Fielding Dickens (‘in a kind of homage’, Forster was told, ‘to the style of the novel he was about to write’). An exception is the ninth child, Dora Annie Dickens, named after the brainless girl David Copperfield loves and whom Dickens, at the moment of the child’s birth, was about to ‘kill off’ in print, thus giving his hero an easy way out of his inappropriate marriage. Annie came from Annie Thackeray, the novelist’s daughter and a friend of the newborn’s older sisters. In the event, baby Dora died only months after her fictional namesake. The last boy was Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, named after the aristocrat and hugely popular novelist, who, needless to say, was a friend of Dickens and published in Household Words.

With the one exception of Dora, then (a tribute to his own genius perhaps, since he felt that Dora was one of his best characters), Dickens was creating a thick web of worthy belonging for his family, placing them at the heart of contemporary cultural life, and making them constantly aware of the ideal of artistic achievement. Along with the official names, however, Dickens also gave his children nicknames, often more than one, usually in cartoon contrast to the grandeur of the baptismal name. So Charles, who soon became Charley, to distinguish him, but also diminish him, was also Flaster Floby, or the Snodgering Blee. Mary was Mamie or Mild Glo’ster. Catherine was Katey, but also the Lucifer Box. Walter was Young Skull. Francis was Frank, but also Chickenstalker (after a comic character in Dickens’s short novel The Chimes). Alfred was Skittles. Sydney was Ocean Spectre, or just Spectre. Henry was the Jolly Postboy and the Comic Countryman. Edward, having been extravagantly announced in the Twelfth Night home theatricals, aged three, as Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter, became Plornish and then simply and for the rest of his life Plorn – he was hardly referred to by his baptismal name at all.

In Dickens’s fiction, giving nicknames is an indication of one character’s power over others, for good or ill. In David Copperfield David’s peremptory Aunt Betsey insists on calling him Trotwood (her surname), then just Trot, as a condition of his being accepted into her household; Dora she calls Little Blossom. David allows the sinister Steerforth to call him Daisy, a name that immediately asserts the inequality and ambiguity of their relationship. But for Dickens’s grandly named children, we can imagine that their inane nicknames created a sense of extremes, of moving between the sublime and the ridiculous: invited to aim high, among poets and artists, they were actually accepted into their father’s effusive affections mainly as figures of fun.

No sooner was Charley born than Dickens was sending lavish descriptions of the boy to his friends, a practice that would be repeated with each successive birth. Dickens had learned in adolescence that exaggerated imitation was always popular; it was the way he won the admiration of his fellow clerks when he worked in law firms in his teens (and the way David Copperfield establishes a place for himself among his companions at school). Dickens was a talented mimic and saw how excited people always were to recognise other people’s foibles. He had developed this talent in Sketches by Boz and again in The Pickwick Papers, where a happy complicity between reader and writer is fostered through caricatures from a world both share. Now, as Gottlieb points out, the author’s children too were rapidly transformed into comic sketches to amuse his friends and impress on them the Dickens family’s domestic happiness. Tales were told of the children’s prodigious abilities and infant achievements; Dickens is present throughout as boisterous master of ceremonies. The thrust of his writing was always to compel the admiration of the reader and create a sense of shared, celebratory belonging.

Biographers too take pleasure recounting this festive and much documented aspect of Dickens’s fatherhood, as if they had a personal investment in his exuberance: ‘He was a magical father,’ Gottlieb writes, ‘loving, generous and involved. He romped with them, took them on long walks – sometimes exhausting them with his preternatural energy. Every Christmas he took them to the famous toy store in Holborn to shop for their presents. He had a special voice for each of them. How could they not adore him?’

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Inevitably, Charley was the first to appreciate that this jolly relationship might be difficult to grow out of. As a child, you could prove yourself a worthy member of the Dickens household simply by satisfying your father’s rigid rules regarding tidiness and punctuality (Dickens inspected his children’s bedrooms every morning, exacting punishment if anything was out of place); but as the children got older it all became rather confusing. Charley was sent to Eton at the age of 12. He did well there, but Dickens withdrew him three years later. He didn’t want a son with a sense of entitlement, but a worker and fighter like himself; Charley must be ‘pampered in nothing’. Dickens had begun to notice that his children were not as determined and hardworking as he was. Charley had ‘less fixed purpose and energy than I could have supposed possible in my son’. Indeed, ‘he inherits from his mother … an indescribable lassitude of character.’ It never seems to have occurred to Dickens that a certain passivity on the part of his wife and children might be a natural response to his own energetic monopoly of the domestic stage – he even ordered the family groceries himself and insisted on the exact arrangement of the furniture. ‘For twenty years,’ Gottlieb writes, without quite seeing the sad comedy of the situation, Dickens ‘exhausted himself trying to strengthen’ his children’s ‘willpower and forward their careers’.

How much like himself did Dickens really want his children to be? Great mimic as he was, he frequently referred to himself as ‘the Inimitable’. Charley composed a play at eight and showed some talent for translating and writing, but Dickens decided that his future was in business and sent him off to Germany to learn German, which he supposed was the business language of the future. After some modest success as a bank employee, and a far from shameful failure in business deals with China, Charley would eventually be allowed to become Dickens’s assistant on All the Year Round, the magazine that replaced Household Words. Later it would be the second son, Walter Landor, who enjoyed writing but was discouraged from continuing. With the indulgence Dickens inspires, Gottlieb quotes Lucinda Hawksley, a Dickens biographer and descendant, explaining that the author was probably aware that Walter ‘did not have the aptitude or ambition to work at’ writing ‘as hard as he would need to do in order to succeed financially’. It must be confusing to be named after a poet yet encouraged, at a very early age, not to write. But then Walter’s older sister Katey, who took her second name from a great actor, would be forbidden by her father to take up a career on the stage. These activities risked imitation of the Inimitable.

In his essay on Dickens, remarkable for its combination of admiration and perplexity, Orwell points out that for all Dickens’s generous involvement in social issues and endless speeches at charity dinners, there’s little representation or understanding of the world of work in his novels, or of the working class; the characters are intensely and immediately striking, but the melodramas they are involved in muddled and forgettable; ‘crossword puzzles of coincidences, intrigues, murders, disguises, buried wills, long lost brothers’, allowing for no real mental life or character development. In particular, Orwell complains, ‘there is no objective except to marry the heroine, settle down, live solvently and be kind,’ after which

everything is safe, soft, peaceful and above all, domestic … the children prattle round your feet … there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans … but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear.

Dickens was indeed able to make it look like that, but in describing this weakness of the novels, Orwell also touched on a genuine problem in Dickens’s life. The happy family was the be-all and end-all, but Dickens didn’t reckon on the children growing up, the childbirths coming to an end, and his depressive, often sick wife proving less than a cheerful and admiring companion. He was disappointed, and his assessments of his family began to oscillate rapidly as he switched between exuberantly performing father, delighted with his adoring offspring, and depressive long-range walker disgusted with a tribe of hangers-on. ‘You don’t know what it is,’ he wrote of his sons to one friend, ‘to look round the table and see reflected from every seat at it … some horribly well-remembered expression of inadaptability to anything.’ Of Walter, he remarked: ‘I don’t at all know this day how he comes to be mine, or I his.’

Daughters were less of a problem; they merely had to be appropriately accomplished and prepare themselves for marriage, though it was never clear who could possibly replace their father in their lives. Mamie, the eldest girl, was his favourite, supporting her father and remaining with him when he left her mother. Years later, after a spinster’s life, she said it was ‘a glorious inheritance’ to have Dickens’s ‘blood flowing in one’s veins. I am so glad I never changed my name.’ To gain some attention, the younger Katey, when ill, would insist that her father look after her, something that pleased Dickens immensely. There is no record of any of the children competing for their mother’s affections.

With the boys Dickens was increasingly at a loss, and when at a loss his solution was to send people as far away as possible. He had tried this with his embarrassing parents, renting them a house in Devon, a form of exclusion without infamy (in David Copperfield the impossible Micawbers, modelled on his parents, are dispatched to Australia). Walter, who enjoyed writing, was prepared for an army life in India, leaving for the Subcontinent, never to return, aged 16; all the younger boys except Plorn were sent to a cheap, gloomy boarding school in Boulogne, and came home (to be entertained by their father) only once or twice a year. Frank departed for India aged 19; Alfred for Australia aged 20; Sydney joined the navy and sailed on his first three-year mission aged 14; Plorn, the saddest and shyest of the troupe, sailed for Australia never to see his parents again aged 16. Only the eighth child, Henry, managed to persuade his father he was worthy of bearing the Dickens name in London: he got himself sent to Cambridge and trained in the law at great expense.

Expense was now a crucial issue, since the children who had left England, or whom Dickens had sent away, all suffered from what Gottlieb calls ‘the fatal family weakness of financial irresponsibility’, accepting Dickens’s notion that once again there was a hereditary trait, this time on his side of the family, for falling into debt. Walter borrowed heavily in India, writing home frequently to ask for money; Alfred liked the same kind of fancy clothes as his father and ran up debts accordingly; in the navy Sydney spent heavily in every port, giving his father’s famous name as security. At this point, Dickens had no real financial problems but complained bitterly and eventually cut both Walter and Sydney off, forbidding the erstwhile Phenomenon to return home and remarking of him, in a letter to his brother Alfred: ‘I begin to wish that he were honestly dead.’ Ashamed, Walter said he wouldn’t write home again until he was out of debt. He died of an aneurysm in Calcutta in 1863, aged 22. On his tombstone, ordered and paid for by Dickens, he appears as the son of Charles Dickens; his mother’s name is excluded.

The boys at home, Charley and Henry, didn’t run up debts, though Henry at Cambridge was freely given far more than the boys in exile ever spent. It didn’t occur to Dickens that using one’s wealthy father’s name to run into debt was a way of insisting on kinship from a distance, as if to say: you can’t get rid of us so easily. Arriving on Dickens’s desk from Bermuda or Vancouver, Sydney’s bills were another manifestation of the spirit that had thrown the stone into the garden when the gate was shut. After Dickens’s death, the faraway boys continued to borrow from the boys at home without paying anything back; Plorn refused to return £800 to Henry. He may have reasoned that the money was a fraction of what had been spent on Henry’s education, in which case he had probably got his sums right.

If we summarise the central plot of the avowedly autobiographical David Copperfield with attention to the patterns of exclusion in the author’s life, we have: young David grows up with his kind, weak mother, deprived of his father who lies, excluded by death, in the graveyard close to their house. His mother’s maid, Peggotty, gives David the chance to observe a happy working-class family among whom he will frequently take refuge, but which he never actually joins, having higher aspirations. Remarrying, his mother introduces the home-wreckers, Murdstone and his sister, into the family. The Murdstones pronounce David unworthy and send him to the brutal Mr Creakle’s school, where David fears exclusion by his fellow pupils but manages to win the affection of the supremely worthy (he believes) Steerforth. After his mother’s death, David is more radically excluded from his family and sent to work in a factory, where the others, however friendly, are below him. He escapes and tracks down his father’s sister Aunt Trotwood (the search for family members is a constant Dickens trope), who includes him in her household and pays for his education at Doctor Strong’s school, allowing him to lodge with the Wickfield family, honourable people who share his class and aspirations, but whose weaknesses make them vulnerable to another home-wrecker and social climber, Uriah Heep. Thanks to hard work and talent, David shines first at the law courts, then as a writer, taking his rightful place in society and justifying all those who believed in him, but makes the mistake of marrying Dora who, despite her higher social class, is not intellectually or spiritually worthy of him. David falls into a conflicted state; he has invested everything in the idea of domestic bliss but is increasingly frustrated that Dora is holding him back. Sadly, but fortunately, Dora dies and though David isolates himself for a year or two in proud depression, travelling all over Europe, he eventually sees that the person he should have married was Agnes Wickfield, because she is beautiful, loyal and above all worthy of him. There’s no mention of sexual attraction.

Like all Dickens’s fiction, the novel is admirably open to a wide range of classes, accents and linguistic habits, as if drawing readers into one vital and bustling society, but it also makes clear which villainous members (Heep, Steerforth, Murdstone) should be excluded from that society, killed off or imprisoned if possible. Another search for a family member has Mr Peggotty travelling as far as Italy to look for his niece Little Em’ly who, having fallen into disgrace through her relationship with Steerforth, isolates herself from the family, not realising that her uncle is more than ready to take her back. When Em’ly is found, the two are allowed to emigrate to Australia where her disgrace will not be known.

Orwell and many other critics are no doubt right to point to an absence of character development, or the kind of inner life we find in George Eliot, but the plot, like other Dickens plots, is far from being a melodramatic mess. What we have is every permutation of exclusion and inclusion, with many characters alternating between being in and out, worthy and unworthy, rich and poor, though without actually developing and without much explanation, as if both sides of the coin were constantly possible. One example: the ageing, academic, absent-minded Doctor Strong asks for the poor but beautiful young Annie’s hand in marriage. Although she already has a sweetheart, Jack, she allows herself to be persuaded by her social-climbing mother to marry. To preserve propriety, Doctor Strong’s friend, Wickfield, has Jack removed to army service in India. Annie wilts: she’s sacrificed her natural sexuality to her mother’s social aspirations. But many hundreds of pages later, when Jack has returned from India and is again frequenting the Strong household, Uriah Heep tells the good doctor what every reader is thinking: that his wife is unfaithful. Both the doctor and Annie become depressed. Feeling sorry for them, the affably unhinged Mr Dick persuades Doctor Strong to write a will leaving everything he owns to Annie. This supreme gesture of trust and inclusion (in other books Dickens uses the will as an instrument of exclusion) prompts Annie to fall to her knees and offer, not a confession, but an explanation of her behaviour that shows her to have been pure throughout. Aware that others thought her involved with the despicable Jack, she felt too disgraced to speak of the matter to her husband, whom she honoured to the point of feeling that he could have made a ‘worthier home’ with another woman. The speech is unrealistic and wildly sentimental. In particular it denies the possibility that the young woman’s character might have developed over the years, slowly changing her position with regard to her husband and Jack. On the other hand, the improbable turnaround (made easier by serialisation, in the sense that many months would pass before anyone would read the later scenes) exposes and intensifies the polarised values that obsess Dickens and electrify the novel’s domestic atmosphere. In that sense the scene is true to what Raymond Williams called the unified ‘structure of feeling’ in Dickens’s work.

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Having expelled his wife from his worthy home, Dickens didn’t go to his son Charley’s wedding because he was marrying the daughter of an ex-publisher who had been critical of Dickens’s treatment of Catherine. Charley was also the only child to defy his father and choose to live with his mother. Soon afterwards, Dickens voted against the young man’s admission to the Garrick Club. He also frowned on Katey’s wedding to Wilkie Collins’s brother Charlie because, as Gottlieb puts it, ‘no one was worthy enough for his beloved daughter.’ The marriage was childless, and it seems sexless; there were suggestions that Charlie Collins was homosexual.

With the extravagant performance of the happy family now over, Dickens’s life split into two parts. Theatricals with his children were replaced by dramatic readings to a much larger family of public audiences all over Britain and the US. Here was a new, exciting and extremely profitable form of belonging, and Dickens went for it with all his usual wilfulness, travelling interminably, reading energetically and exhaustingly for hours, celebrating with pints of champagne and sherry. But the adoring public who substituted for his children, and who brought money in rather than sucking it out, could not be allowed to know that he now had a very young mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan; were they to find out, the risk of disgrace and ostracism would have been far greater than had he merely been known to have worked in a blacking factory.

Supporting Ellen’s mother and two sisters financially, while denying loans to his sons in the far-flung empire (Mrs Ternan and her girls were very worthy), Dickens hurried back and forth between readings, to his official home with his wife’s sister, Georgina, and his daughter Mamie at Gad’s Hill and to the various places – Paris, London, Slough – where at different times he hid Ellen. He had forbidden her to go on acting; this made her entirely and expensively dependent on him. His restless travelling over the next decade, as documented in Tomalin’s biography, shows a man whose life has no centre, obsessively driven and deeply divided, with no plan for achieving any kind of stability in the future, as though the only life he had really believed in was already over. That he wrote two more wonderful novels in these circumstances, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, the latter a kaleidoscope of exclusions and inclusions, is a tribute to his genius and energy. But his eventual collapse and death in 1870, aged just 58, was something many had foreseen. Mamie wrote up a version of it that excluded the presence of her brothers and awarded herself the role of closest child. Katey was furious.

Gottlieb includes a brief chapter, ‘The Eleventh Child’, drawing on declarations left by Henry and Katey, combined with much research by Tomalin, suggesting that Dickens had a son by Ellen, born in France in 1863 but dying some months later. ‘We can only speculate,’ Gottlieb writes, ‘how Dickens, that master tactician, would have handled either keeping him or hiding him.’ It’s odd that biographers don’t wonder if story of the death mightn’t have been fabricated, to win sympathy and avoid investigation, and the child put up for adoption. Such behaviour would be perfectly in line with Dickens’s habit of excluding from his immediate life anyone who weighed on him, or might cause a loss of honour and prestige. He never had a plan that involved setting up a family with Ellen. That he had no children (or further children) with her suggests how willed the family with Catherine had been.

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‘We can be gratified,’ Gottlieb writes, ever concerned to guide our emotional response to his story, ‘that Dickens died knowing that at least this one of his worrisome children,’ Henry, ‘was worthy of his father’s approbation.’ It’s fascinating how the emotional atmosphere that drove the author’s life and writing continues with his children after his death and still continues today among his admirers. Not long after the funeral Charley astonished and infuriated the other family members, Georgina in particular, by turning up to the auction of the Dickens home and buying it himself at a price others were too respectful to bid against. Having established his role as chief child, but wildly overspent, he then sold the small prefabricated conservatory where Dickens did his writing. Aghast, Georgina and the girls sought to buy it back, Georgina cutting Frank and Sydney out of her will because they refused to make a contribution. ‘So many unworthy sons of their great father,’ she lamented. Biographers tend to share her opinion.

In the following years all the children at some point wrote about their father or did public readings from his works. Some isolated themselves in distant parts; the others went looking for them, or rejected them. Henry, all of whose seven children’s names, boys and girls, included a Charles immediately before the Dickens, became involved in setting up the Boz Club and the Dickens Fellowship, whose purpose was ‘to knit together in a common bond of friendship lovers of the great master of humour and pathos’. The Inimitable had become a focus of community and belonging. Mamie wrote a memoir and edited her father’s letters (another book from ‘the dear dead hand’). Alfred, who spent much of his life rearing sheep in the Australian outback, eventually gave a series of successful lectures and readings in England and the US. ‘I never forget my father for a moment,’ he said. Henry omits to mention these readings in his family memoirs. Mamie said she held her father ‘in my heart of hearts as a man apart from all other men, as one apart from all other beings’. Charley’s elder son disgraced himself by marrying a barmaid and was disowned and excluded by the entire family.

‘I’m glad my father never wrote anything that was harmful for young or old to read,’ Frank Dickens said shortly before he died. Frank had been one of the more melancholy children, abandoning his army career in India and squandering the money he inherited from his father. Rescued after a long search by Georgina, he allowed himself to be banished abroad again, this time to serve with the Mounties in the Canadian wilds. It was a curious thing to say of his celebrated father. Did it mean that he thought Dickens had done harm in life, but not in his writing? Or that writers can do harm and he was glad his father hadn’t? Shortly before Dickens died, he worked up the scene from Oliver Twist where Sikes kills Nancy; he wanted to terrify his audiences, he said. First he read the part where Nancy meets the benefactor Brownlow on a remote foggy river bridge and tells him she will never denounce Fagin, however evil, because their lives are bound together. In the version edited for the readings she says the same of her lover Sikes. She is ‘chained’ to her past, bound to her community. Brownlow tells her that ‘you put yourself beyond its pale,’ suggesting that society is still ready to welcome her as it has welcomed Oliver if only she would stop isolating herself. Later, Sikes is not impressed when she protests that she has been loyal to him and clubs her to death. Having killed his woman, he wanders alone out of London, but is oppressed by solitariness. At least if he returns there will be ‘somebody to speak to’. Trapped in an accomplice’s house surrounded by his pursuers, he dies trying to escape.

Dickens read the piece with frightening energy. He expressed the pathos of isolation, he made the gestures of the murderer. His heartbeat (which he counted afterwards) raced. There was collective hysteria in the air. Perhaps reading Dickens’s novels quietly alone doesn’t have this immediate effect, but great writing initiates a real relationship that urges us to think and feel as the author does. It is in this sense that it can indeed do harm.

Reading Gottlieb’s book, I began to wonder whether, as with all his relationships, there doesn’t come a moment when Dickens suddenly begins to worry that his readers too aren’t entirely worthy of him. Most critics have noted how, at a certain point in his novels, the story, instead of developing, becomes stymied in a back and forth of positive and negative revelations, unlikely reversals and coincidences. In some books – Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend – the energy and creativity of the opening chapters falls off so drastically it seems the Dickens we know has disappeared from the text to be replaced by a journeyman under instructions to finish the job. ‘Everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong,’ Orwell says of the end of David Copperfield. No one could read ‘the latter half of Dombey,’ Wilkie Collins said, ‘without astonishment at the badness of it.’ Perhaps, having already secured our respect and awe in the earlier part of the book, he was already withdrawing, moving on to his next, more important project, and we are left wondering, as Dickens’s children so often must have, why this ‘magical father’ has lost interest in entertaining us.