Monday, 18 March 2013

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

Charles Dickens, famous for the indelible child characters he created—from Little Nell to Oliver Twist and David Copperfield—was also the father of ten children (and a possible eleventh). What happened to those children is the fascinating subject of Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations. With sympathy and understanding he narrates the highly various and surprising stories of each of Dickens’s sons and daughters, from Kate, who became a successful artist, to Frank, who died in Moline, Illinois, after serving a grim stretch in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Each of these lives is fascinating on its own. Together they comprise a unique window on Victorian England as well as a moving and disturbing study of Dickens as a father and as a man.

I honestly could not put this book down. This family is just fascinating. I had known the history with Dickens and some of the dick moves he pulled as he got older (kicking your wife out of the house and forbidding the children to see her? Dick move) but I had never really thought of all the children he had and when I saw this book on the shelf, all I could think was, 'What would you do if you were the child of Dickens?'

It turns out that it's quite hard to succeed when your father is ridiculously famous and very strict. A lot of the children didn't amount to much or at least, weren't perfect enough in the eyes of their father. He was sincerely disappointed in a lot of them (even ones that weren't doing that badly) and it seems that many of the children were just working hard for their father's approval.

The other issue was, though, that although Dickens was seen as a bit nasty due to the way he treated his wife and many people would think this would color the children's view on their father, they all hero worshipped him. I have never read of people that loved their father more than these children did. 

Reading about the different lives of the various children, the ones that went abroad and the ones that never left home, is a fascinating study and Gottlieb has a great narrative voice that at once provides facts but never makes for a dry reading. I was chuckling all the way along. There is also a generous dose of photographs which I think biographies and histories should really make more use of. 

If you have any interest in Dickens or Victorian life, this is the book for you. Fun, funny and interesting, these are some lives you definitely want to check out.

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