Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

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Overview

The strange and varied lives of the ten children of the world’s most beloved novelist

Charles Dickens, famous for the indelible child characters he created—from Little Nell to Oliver Twist and David Copperfield—was also the father of ten children (and a possible eleventh). What happened to those children is the fascinating subject of Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations. With sympathy and understanding he narrates the highly various and surprising stories of each of Dickens’s ...

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Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

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Overview

The strange and varied lives of the ten children of the world’s most beloved novelist

Charles Dickens, famous for the indelible child characters he created—from Little Nell to Oliver Twist and David Copperfield—was also the father of ten children (and a possible eleventh). What happened to those children is the fascinating subject of Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations. With sympathy and understanding he narrates the highly various and surprising stories of each of Dickens’s sons and daughters, from Kate, who became a successful artist, to Frank, who died in Moline, Illinois, after serving a grim stretch in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Each of these lives is fascinating on its own. Together they comprise a unique window on Victorian England as well as a moving and disturbing study of Dickens as a father and as a man.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
…easygoing, elegant and surprisingly fascinating…Gottlieb isn't a Dickens scholar…But he is, to use a fashionable term, an excellent aggregator, drawing on and graciously acknowledging the research of others. To read this book is to be reminded that families are seldom—pace Tolstoy—simply happy or unhappy. Every one of them is a messy, mixed-up business and, more often than not, utterly amazing to outsiders…Even if you haven't read any Dickens since high school…Gottlieb's book is one you might want to try.
—Michael Dirda
Publishers Weekly
Just in time for fireside reading season, Gottlieb (Lives and Letters; Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhard) offers this intimate look into the family life of Charles Dickens, the World’s Best Worst Father. Gottlieb profiles each of the 10 Dickens children—seven sons and three daughters, one who died in infancy—and includes a chapter on the scandalous possible existence of an 11th child, a son born to Ellen Ternan, Dickens’s probable mistress. The book is divided into two separate, chronological sections delineated by Dickens’s death in 1870, a structural choice that re-enacts the way in which Dickens held ultimate control over the life narratives of his children, and demonstrates just how large his shadow loomed as both an excellence-demanding father and a disappointment-doling ghost. Life was often bleak for the siblings, who were subject to Dickens’s often brutal scrutiny and the life-altering decisions that followed. Gottlieb studs these portraits with artifacts ripe for happy discovery, including excerpts from personal letters and rare photographs. The results are fascinating but often tragic, with each Dickens baby born with more perceived brilliance than the last, only to grow up and reveal a fatal ordinariness to their father. This smart and accessible biography is written in a clever, conversational tone that radiates coziness during even the coldest moments, keeping the pages swiftly turning. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
A look into the lives of Charles Dickens' family, particularly the children, from former New Yorker and Knopf editor Gottlieb (Lives and Letters, 2012, etc.). Structured in a straightforward manner, this examination of Dickens' children is a collection of 11 narratives split into two parts. In the first part, the author examines life in and around the Dickens household through Dickens' death. Gottlieb describes Dickens' marriage to Catherine Hogarth, the inclusion of two of her sisters in their home, the end of the marriage and the children's stories. Each of the 10 children receives his or her own chapter, in which the author explores their lives from birth through school. In the second part, Gottlieb picks up after Dickens' death and follows each of the children, again in their own sections, through their often-tumultuous adult lives. Ellen Ternan plays a necessary role, prompting the removal of the children from their mother, but Gottlieb gracefully avoids making Ternan or the controversy a central focus. The author consistently betrays a desire to impress upon readers how unfairly many of his subjects were treated by their father and by history, and he makes a clear effort to showcase successes and minimize failures. However, his argument is so well put together that it's easy to agree with him about the tremendous pressure on Dickens' family members and how they might have fared without a famous father. Each section fits into the larger story of the Dickens family, and Gottlieb's writing is warm and engaging throughout. A great choice for anyone who has ever wondered what life is like for the families who surround, support and are overshadowed by great historical figures.
From the Publisher

“[An] easygoing, elegant, and surprisingly fascinating book.”—The Washington Post

“Ingenious...It throws light not only on the novelist himself, but also on the range of influence parents and home life can have on offspring.”—Colm Tóibín, The New York Review of Book

“An irresistibly readable new book.”—Salon

“An accessible, sharply focused, and opinionated portrait of what the ‘magical’ but dominating father wrought at home...[Gottlieb] brings an enticingly light touch to his scholarship, resulting in a book that reads like haute literary gossip.”—NPR

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374298807
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 543,476
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Gottlieb has been the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. He is the author of Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhard, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, and Lives and Letters (FSG, 2011), and is the dance critic for The New York Observer.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 23, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The Dickens not like the Dickens I thought I knew!

    I'm not sure I'm glad I read this book or not... it destroyed so many sweet illusions I had of THE Charles Dickens who wrote so many beloved famous books that have remained in my heart long after I set them on my bookshelf. However, I very much like the way the biographer gives separate chapters to Dickens, his wife and each of his children, rather than muddling them all together leaving the reader to sort who was who and did what, when and where! If one doesn't mind reading some harsh human truths about the great Dickens, (and his family) then this is the biography I would definitely recommend over others. It certainly will open your eyes and heart in many respects.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 14, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Great expectations is a good novel. I have enjoyed reading it. I

    Great expectations is a good novel. I have enjoyed reading it. It certainly is a good page turner. Charles Dickerson has a great mind and is a great novelist. I would recommend this book for people who want a good challenge.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted January 11, 2013

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    Posted August 26, 2013

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    Posted January 30, 2013

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