Charles Dickens as a Dad

As you may or may not know, Charles Dickens and I have had our ups and downs. We finally came to an understanding when I read (and loved) A Tale of Two Cities but before that, aside from the delight that is A Christmas Carol, I wasn’t sure that we would ever get along. I mean seriously, Hard Times?

Dickens' kids

According to Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, his children had a similar relationship with him.

To be fair, he did have nine children (he blamed his wife for the number of children they had, like he had nothing to do with it) that survived to adulthood. Maybe he was just overwhelmed with numbers.

So he had nine children, two daughters (Mamie and Katey) and seven sons (Charley, Walter, Alfred, Francis, Sydney, Henry, Plorn). Seven sons! What Henry VIII wouldn’t have given for seven sons. He was pretty decent towards his daughters, they really had no major complaints. But those sons of his – he was a hardass dad.

I don’t know much about Charles Dickens’ childhood but I know that he basically grew up in a workhouse and through sheer determination (and a whole lot of talent) he became the most famous novelist, possibly ever. His children, growing up wealthy with little to worry them, lacked that same gumption and it really bothered Daddy Dickens. So he shipped his sons all over the world and withheld his approval.

He also separated from his wife to set up a home with his mistress, and took the children away from her. If the children went to visit their mother, he barely spoke with them. Kind of manipulative really.

Considering this book covers nine people’s lives, it’s really short. Just 239 pages. It’s well written and actually a fairly straightforward read (I read it in a day, really helped pad my reading stats) but I couldn’t help feeling like it only scratched the surface. One of his daughters (Katey) ended up becoming a rather famous artist, while one of his sons (Henry) was a well respected judge (the only one of his children he ever felt amounted to anything) but their lives are still condensed into a few pages. Two of his sons died in the navy, two made a go of things in Australia and one of them was even a Canadian Mountie!

I’d say the best thing about the Dickens’ offspring is their names. Their first names are ordinary enough but their middle names! Tennyson, D’Orsay, Fielding, Haldimand, Bulwer, Lytton, Landor and…Jeffrey. I should point out that the youngest son, Plorn, was actually called Edward but Dickens’ nickname for him stuck so he was forever after known as Plorn.

Honestly I was surprised that Charles Dickens was such a tough and critical father but I guess he was a Victorian so maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s definitely made me want to read more about him – Claire Tomalin’s biography of him has been on my list for ages so maybe it’s time to look for that one a little more actively.

Did you ever read about someone famous and come away surprised by the reality?

11 thoughts on “Charles Dickens as a Dad

  1. Yes! F. Scott Fitzgerald always seemed like such a dream to me and I felt bad he had that crazy wife. Then I started reading books, nonfiction and fiction based on their lives, and that dream blew up in my face. He was a complete jerk (you wouldn’t want the real word I’m thinking of written here). His wife was crazy and suppressed because of him. I just ordered a book written about them and their daughter…written by their granddaughter! It’s out of print, but I found it on Amazon. (Oh, and in the process of losing the Fitzgerald dream, Hemingway gets tossed out too because he truly was a (fill in the blank), whereas Fitzgerald seems more haunted my his own insecurities and demons.

      • I wonder how they’d have felt about being referred to as frenemies. But I am with you on both counts! Hemingway was a selfish ass and his poor first wife just wanted to make a nice life together. Zelda Fitzgerald was totally crazy though – no one won in that relationship. I can’t read any Hemingway though because I feel like he’s such a jerk. Fitzgerald I’m not as bothered with. We will have to see how I feel about Dickens moving forward.

  2. I watched a programme about Dickens’ wife… as you say he was just *awful* to her. Truly horrible. He took away her whole life. Sometimes being a great artist means you are driven by your own selfishness – you have to be to succeed, and in Dickens’ case, against all the odds.

    i’m glad his daughter grew up to become an artist. Unusual for women in those days.

    • He really did take away her whole life. In the end she did get a note from the Queen after he died that kind of solidified her status as his wife but come ON.

      As you say, maybe that’s the price of genius.

      I would have liked to know more about his artist daughter – Kate Perugini I think her named ended up being. I’ll keep an eye out!

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