The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. -- Adam Gopnik



December 17, 2012

Great Expectations


 
When we stand back and follow the trajectories of the Dickens children, it's impossible not to sympathize both with his disappointment in most of them and with their own apparently unrealized lives. But that may well be because we can't help seeing these lives through the lens of their father's great expectations for them. Yes, a number of them appear somewhat unfocused, even feckless:  In his comprehensive biography, Peter Ackroyd speaks of something 'that appeared to make them peculiarly  unsuited to the world and to each other.' Yet he goes on to suggest that perhaps 'we exaggerate their characteristics, just as everything pertaining to Dickens becomes exaggerated; perhaps they were in a sense almost too 'normal,' too little like their father, and have as a result suffered at the hands of disappointed commentators.' Certainly, their lives, however unfortunate, were far from disgraceful and would attract no opprobrium (and no attention) if they didn't have the Dickens name attached to them.
For me, reading for the first time about Charles Dickens {first, last summer, in Jenny Uglow's wonderful biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, and then in Claire Tomalin's new biography of Dickens and her earlier book about Ellen Ternan}left me impressed with some aspects of his life and his character -- and there's no arguing that it's not a fascinating story -- but, in the end, finding him hard to admire. After waiting for a few months, I let another {highly recommended} book about  his relationships with women go back to the library unread, but when I saw this new book about his sons and daughters, it seemed like a good way to bring my reading about him to a close.  I think Robert Gottlieb concludes that Dickens found his children -- or especially his sons -- to be a burden, and worse, a disappointment, but that he was, in some ways, a wonderful {playful, imaginative, involved, focusing, caring, invested} father.  It is still hard for me to like Dickens very much, but that raises him up a notch.

Charles and Catherine Dickens had ten children -- a daughter, Dora, who died in infancy, two sons who died as young men, and seven children who outlived him.  In keeping with its premise -- that the children's lives were inevitably, hopelessly colored by everything they inherited from their father -- the book is divided into two parts. There's a chapter about each child's birth and early life, and a chapter for each on what happened to them after Dickens' death.  {There's also a chapter on 'the eleventh child' -- the son, also dying in infancy, that Tomalin and other biographers believe was born to Ellen Ternan.)  The book isn't too long, and is very readable, and there's something interesting, difficult, tragic, or compelling about each of them.  {And even though I said this book would bring my Dickens-reading to a close, I couldn't help noting down the titles of three biographies -- of Catherine Dickens, her sister Georgiana Hogarth, and her daughter Katey -- listed in the bibliography.}

1 comment:

Lilac In May said...

I read Great Expectations this year, my first Dickens and loved it. I listened to a book of the week on R4 (Tomalins?) in the summer and decided that he was somebody I would rather not know too much about. Like knowing too much about my favourite movie directors, it destroys the illusion.

Although knowing about their character flaws and deficits of humanity does make us lesser mortals feel better.