Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Most of us have busy lives. Then again, most of us aren't writing brilliant, hefty novels about Victorian England while trying to raise 10 kids. Considering the social mores of his time, Charles Dickens didn't even have to be an involved father—and yet he was, staging theatricals in the family living room and bestowing literary nicknames (some of the choicest: Flaster Floby, Chickenstalker and Mr. Plornishmaroontigoonter). In this engrossing, delightfully written biography, Robert Gottlieb has created intimate individual sketches of Dickens' entire brood, from Henry, the lawyer, to Kitty, the portraitist, to Alfred, who voyaged across the Australian outback. All were lavishly educated and sent off to careers all over the world. And yet, with the exception of Henry, they failed to thrive the way their father so desperately desired them to. The reasons are complex—and many of them quite unflattering to Dickens. But Gottlieb presents such a nuanced, compelling portrait of the man that you can't help but feel for him even as he judges and exiles his own sons and daughters. Dickens, after all, did spend a good chunk of his own childhood working in a blacking factory. His fears that his own children would end up in similar circumstances led to his becoming an overbearing parent, and for a reader living in the age of helicopter parenting and Mandarin classes for toddlers, his choices may just be a lesson in the value of good—not great—expectations.
— Leigh Newman