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Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

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Dickens rejoiced in his children when they were young and gave them a merry time, with the high point of every year being, as in his stories, Christmas. But soon enough the warping effect of his own disordered childhood showed itself, and he began to discern in his sons what he loathed and feared most: passivity, lack of direction, and fecklessness, the qualities that had put his parents in a debtors' prison and led them to deposit his young self in the infamous blacking factory. And while he believed that the germ of the financial irresponsibility that marked a number of his sons came from his side of the family, he was convinced  that the odious lethargy and purposeless drifting he also found in them was inherited from his wife, Catherine. Beginning with the eldest, Charley, in whom he saw Catherine's "indescribable lassitude of character," he really spared only Henry (a success from the start) in his laments over "deficiencies in energy and attitude," even going so far as to say he wished Sydney, his fifth son, were dead.   

In ejecting Catherine from the house, Dickens insisted that she be separated from her children, the youngest of whom was but six years old; only Charley stayed with his humiliated mother in her banishment. This public separation -- and the subsequent installment of Catherine's unmarried sister, Georgina, as the head of Dickens's household -- resulted in the social ostracism of his two daughters, Mamie and Katey. Mamie never married, whether from lack of opportunity attendant upon that ostracism or from choice, it cannot be said. In any event, she became peculiar, a spendthrift and a drinker, and eventually took up, possibly sexually, with a "shadowy couple," a clergyman and his wife  who seemed to have been after what money Mamie had. Dickens's other surviving daughter, Katey, married Wilkie Collins's brother, Charlie, unwisely and probably as an escape. Still, we can call her life happy, as she did bloom into a celebrated painter and, after the death of Charlie, married again far more successfully.
Dickens's seven sons, in particular, were caught in the force field of their father's powerful will and his controlling nature. He piled gigantic names upon their newborn heads: his eldest son, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, carried the freight of three of Dickens's own names. Among the others were Walter Savage Landor Dickens, Alfred d'Orsay Tennyson Dickens, and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens. Having so monumentalized them, Dickens made them his creatures in conferring upon them comic nicknames that might have come from his own works, among them "Young Skull," "The Ocean Spectre," and "Chickenstalker." The last, laid upon Francis Jeffrey Dickens, was, indeed, one of Dickens's actual characters, a jolly old lady, as it happens, an unfortunate moniker for a little boy who grew up to be an unfortunate man: a lifelong toper whose death (W. C. Fields could have warned him) was brought on by a drink of ice water.

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