This sketchy group biography could not have a better title, but Gottlieb takes an oddly equivocal position toward his material. On the one hand, the famously unhappy union between Dickens and Catherine Hogarth – who was cast off bitterly by her husband after she bore 10 children and experienced several miscarriages, all in a period of 15 years – makes him think of his own parents' marriage. On the other, he is a father who identifies with Dickens and can "sympathise to a certain extent with his frustrations."
Gottlieb makes a point of saying that his own children are perfect. Dickens, likewise, sometimes saw perfection in the little Dickenses, especially when they were newborns, or when he chose to embellish entertainingly about them. But as Great Expectations repeatedly illustrates, his exultation faded fast. He claimed to have raised "the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves." He sat at the family dinner table and saw in every seat "some horribly well remembered expression of inadaptability to anything."
Gottlieb's book follows this trajectory of disappointment, time and again. He devotes two separate sections to each child. One chapter describes that child's life with father, even if very little is known about the youngest ones' early years. Another chapter is about what became of the child after Dickens' death.
Stories of failure, dissipation and ill health abound. The tales of Dickens children who lived to ripe old ages and lived happy, productive lives are rare. How much of this unhappiness was a consequence of the parents' disastrous marriage? How burdensome are the expectations placed on children of a great man? (Dickens barely acknowledged the existence of his offspring's mother after he became involved with the actress Ellen Ternan. Taking his lead from Claire Tomalin's 2011 full Dickens biography, Gottlieb believes that Dickens and Ternan may also have had a child.)
Dickens' children were frequently compared invidiously with their father. One of them, Henry, who grew up to be a witty jurist, remembered being told, "I am sorry to see a son of Charles Dickens with such a small head." But most of the offspring, "however unfortunate, were far from disgraceful," Gottlieb writes, "and would attract no opprobrium (and no attention) if they didn't have the Dickens name attached to them." Nor would they warrant the scrutiny of Great Expectations, which hazily detects "something bewildering about them that is not easy to explain."
Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, the oldest, born in 1837, was relatively lucky. Charley's famous father attracted the help of a wealthy patron, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who helped finance the boy's education.
"His natural talent is quite remarkable," Dickens wrote when Charley was eight. Only months later, the father observed of Charley that "when he is in full school employment, a strange kind of fading comes over him sometimes." Later he would say more harshly that Charley had inherited from his mother "an indescribable lassitude of character" and that "I think he has less fixed purpose and energy than I could have supposed possible in my son."
Charley was sent to Germany – Dickens' sons were routinely packed off to faraway places, including India and Australia – and seemed earmarked for a mercantile career despite a burgeoning talent for journalism. (How could Dickens fail to notice writing talent, Gottlieb wonders?) And after his father's death, Charley became embroiled in financial feuding with other family members.
But he would flourish later, write Dickens' Dictionary of London (a "completely appealing" work, in Gottlieb's expert opinion), become an editor and go on tour to deliver readings of Personal Reminiscences From My Father. He had a happy marriage and viable career.
"He just wasn't his father," Gottlieb writes, getting as close as he can to the heart of the matter. "But then no one else was either."
The oldest daughter, Mary Angela Dickens – Mamie – was a more typical exemplar of the family troubles. Mamie was "the hardest to grasp, the most contradictory and possibly the least happy." Her book Charles Dickens: By His Eldest Daughter infuriated her spirited younger sister Kate (who became a painter) and is deemed "odd" by Gottlieb for good reason. "It was still the most beautiful and lovable of all faces in the world," she wrote of her father in his final years.
"This is not an objective biographer at work," Gottlieb says, "but a woman in love."
Great Expectations shows how few of the children had such opportunity to revere their father, or even know him well. He could best profess paternal affection from afar and preferred distance to close range. He sent away his young sons with the clear knowledge that he might never see them again.
"They may have been angered by his cavalier disposal of them and resentful of his easy domination over them," Gottlieb writes tepidly at his book's conclusion, "but not only were they fiercely proud of his accomplishments, they loved him." Gottlieb also finds nothing but "slim pickings" when he tries to link the indelible children in Dickens' novels to the more forgotten figures who really bore the Dickens name.
Charley Dickens said it better. "The children of his brain," Charley said of Pip, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and the rest, "were much more real to him at times than we were."