Granger Collection

Charles Dickens, about to begin a public reading, 1858

Between 2005 and 2010 the National Archives in Dublin put the returns from the 1901 and 1911 Irish census online, with a search engine allowing those interested to key in any name, place, or occupation and then search further for an ancestor, a neighbor’s ancestor, or for anyone else. One can, for example, search for the total number of female servants in County Cork in 1901, and then trace them again in 1911 to see what happened to them, or look for Tony Blair’s grandmother Sarah Lipsett of Ballyshannon, County Donegal. The website, because it is free of charge, has become as popular with the curious browser as much as the serious researcher. Slowly, however, those of us who have searched the site looking for information about our families have become warier and wiser.

In 1990 I published a novel, The South, which dealt, among other things, with the tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the Slaney valley near Enniscorthy in Ireland where I was born. As comic relief, I had an elderly Protestant woman, who had once held land in the valley, on hearing in 1971 the name of a Catholic man, remark that a man of the same name “was the only man in Enniscorthy at the turn of the century who could sign his name.” She then added: “The rest of them just wrote X my dear, imagine that.”

This was a joke and a way of establishing the distance between the Anglo-Irish and the locals. Most people in the town were, I knew, literate at the end of the nineteenth century. I was particularly thinking about my grandfather’s family on my father’s side who, although they had no money, owned many books.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was called Thomas O’Rourke. I could not find him in either the 1901 or the 1911 census. And then one day I remembered that older people in the town often referred to my mother’s family as “Rourke” rather than “O’Rourke,” “O’Rourke” being somewhat grander and more formal.

I knew that my grandfather died in 1936 in his late forties. I found him as Thomas Rourke in the 1901 census aged fourteen, living in the Ross Road in Enniscorthy with his father, John Rourke, his mother, two sisters, and two brothers. Ten years later, he was still there, his mother having died—his father was described as a widower—and one brother having died or left home. His age was given this time as twenty-two. His father’s age was given as sixty.

With each census return you can move from the information to a scan of the actual form itself with the handwriting of the householder. At first, when I looked at the Rourke return for 1901 I was impressed by the quality of my great-grandfather’s penmanship and was having thoughts about the education of laborers—he gave his profession as “Labourer”—under the British system until my eyes strayed to his reply to the question about whether he could read and write. “Neither” was written in that column; “Read” (but not “Write”) appeared in the column after his wife’s name. And then I looked down to the bottom of the right-hand side of the page and saw the stark letter, “X,” with his name written by someone else and the words “his mark.”

Ten years later, in the 1911 census, the form says that he could both read and write and that he also signed his name, but there is something oddly suspicious about this: the handwriting is too good, and it is possible that he no longer wished to be known as illiterate and asked one of his children to fill in the form and sign it. These forms may tell us as much about aspirations toward upward mobility as they do about real literacy, but it is hard to be sure.

In any case, my great-grandfather was illiterate in 1901. There are, as far as I know, no photographs in the family of him and his wife. Their two daughters lived in the town all their lives; I remember one of them, an old woman in a hat, giving me a six-penny piece once, and leaving us a radio when she died. I am supposing the eldest son died young; he appeared in 1901 aged nineteen, but I cannot find him ten years later. The youngest son was my grandfather, but I have no idea what happened to his other brother, aged sixteen in 1901, his profession listed as a postman, as it was ten years later, when his age was given as twenty-five. For a novelist, or any imaginative writer, idling through these census forms, a whole world begins.

Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens is an ingenious way of using the available information on Dickens’s nine children who grew into adulthood. It throws light not only on the novelist himself, but also on the range of influence parents and home life can have on offspring. It is also a fascinating and haunting portrait of attitudes toward children and career possibilities in England in the mid-nineteenth century. Looking at the Dickens children is like examining the list of names on one of those Irish census forms, sensing that behind each name is enough raw material for a novel, or, in the case of a few of the Dickens children, merely for a sad side-character.


Anyone examining the British census returns for 1861 could be forgiven for glossing over the absence of Charles Dickens’s wife from his household on the night the census was taken and the presence instead of her sister Georgina, who was described as “servant housekeeper.” Or for glossing over the absence of Dickens’s eldest son Charley, who was born in 1837. The absent ones might easily have been visiting friends. These absences, however, would haunt the lives of all of Charles Dickens’s children and would, indeed, offer a challenge to any biographer of Dickens who sought to do justice to his complex personality.

What happened was that three years before that census was taken, after twenty-two years of marriage, having fallen in love with the young actress Ellen Ternan, Charles Dickens decided to banish his wife Catherine, to put her out of his life and out of his mind. Their youngest child Plorn was six at the time. His wife’s sister Georgina, who became his devoted housekeeper, agreed to have nothing more to do with her sister either. Dickens demanded that his children follow her example and ostracize their mother. “Nothing on earth…can move me from the resolution I have taken,” he wrote to a close friend. He packed his wife off with a generous settlement, justifying his action by stating that she was an unloving mother and that her children did not love her. That this was untrue did not bother him. “Anyone who tried to reason with him,” Gottlieb writes, “or to defend Catherine, was expelled into utter darkness, never to be forgiven.”

This novelist, so loved by his public, would embark on his famous series of public readings, and write A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and the unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, between then and his death twelve years later. Only his eldest child Charley, who was twenty-one at the time, stood up for his mother. He wrote to his father:

Don’t suppose that in making my choice, I was actuated by any feeling of preference for my mother to you. God knows I love you dearly, and it will be a hard day for me when I have to part with you and the girls. But in doing as I have done, I hope I am doing my duty, and you will understand it so.

Dickens was, as time went on, disappointed with most of his sons. Only one of them seemed to possess his own ambition and determination. It would have been easy for Gottlieb to trace the personal weaknesses and the strange fate of most of the Dickens brood to the separation of their parents and the banishment of their mother, but it is to his credit that he reads each case more subtly and without a scheme and allows each of the children a sort of autonomy, giving them a life not merely determined by a single traumatic event in their youth or childhood.

Nonetheless, it is clear that each of their lives was deeply affected by their father’s charm, his fame, and his raw and unsettling mixture of paternal bullying and love. Part of the problem was that Charles Dickens adored babies and young children and gave them full and energetic approval up to a certain age. He could not have enough of them when they were very young. Dealing with them fairly and kindly as adults, however, was difficult. He himself was busy, focused, and interested always in his next project. Each of his children, as they moved into adulthood, seemed to belong to the last project, or to cause their father too much worry or irritation. Also, as someone who was always concerned about money, he did not want his children to be a financial burden on him, or to depend on him in any way.

Thus it was a rich associate who paid the fees for Charley, the eldest son, to go to Eton. Since Dickens was a man with almost too much character of his own, he constantly expressed a note of caution about the character of his sons. He noted about Charley, for example: “When he is in full school employment, there is a strange kind of fading comes over him sometimes; the like of which, I don’t think I ever saw.” Later he wrote: “All he wants, is a habit of perseverance.”


Dickens wished Charley to become involved in the world of business, even though it was clear that Charley had no talent for commerce and little interest in it. Charlie did not help by marrying the daughter of a friend of his father who had become an enemy after taking Catherine’s side in the split. “I have a strong belief,” Dickens wrote, “founded on careful observation of him, that he cares nothing for the girl.” Since he would not attend the wedding, it meant that his wife could. (She was not allowed to attend the wedding of her daughter Kate in 1860.)

Charley’s marriage was a success, despite his father’s “careful observation.” He seemed to be easygoing, loyal, and amiable, like one of those characters in a novel—Fred Vincy, for example, in Middlemarch—placed there to make the dark and complex aspects of other characters seem more apparent. Like Fred, he was not good at handling money, a trait that many of his siblings would share. Despite siding with his mother, he managed to restore good relations with his father, and began to work successfully for his father’s literary monthly All the Year Round, which he inherited on his father’s death. He wrote Dickens’s Dictionary of London and guides to Paris, Cambridge, and Oxford.

The next two siblings, Mamie and Kate, who were twenty and nineteen at the time of the split, were both socially damaged by the separation of their parents. Because their mother had been sent away, many people did not want to see them. A friend of the family’s wrote to the publisher John Blackwood about Mamie and Kate:

His daughters—now under the benign wing of their aunt, Miss Hogarth—are not received into society. You would be excessively amused if you heard all the gigantic efforts of the family to keep their foot in the world—how they call upon people they never called on before & that they have treated with the most dire contempt.

Ellen Ternan

Dickens’s two daughters, like many of his sons, lived all their lives in his shadow. Mamie wrote a book, My Father as I Recall Him, which was published after her death, and a biography of him for younger readers. Once her father died, she lived with her aunt. Together they worked on a three-volume edition of Charles Dickens’s letters. While Mamie saw her mother—who outlived her father by nine years—relations were merely polite and formal, not as close indeed as her relations with Ellen Ternan, whom she continued to see after her father’s death. Mamie revered her father’s memory. “My love for my father,” she wrote, “has never been touched or approached by any other love. I hold him in my heart of hearts as a man apart from all other men, as one apart from all other beings.”

Her sister Kate, who was her father’s favorite daughter, married twice and became an artist specializing in portraits of children. She was a friend of George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, and Henry James. Since she was in possession of her mother’s letters to her father (which her mother wanted preserved so the world would know that Dickens had once loved her), she read James’s The Aspern Papers with considerable interest. She, too, was involved in furthering her father’s fame and taking care of his memory. In the early years of the twentieth century—she died in 1929 at the age of ninety—“she became involved,” as Gottlieb writes, “with the doings of the Dickens Fellowship, attending (and dominating) its meetings as long as she was able to go out.” She wrote to George Bernard Shaw about her father’s reputation: “If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocund gentleman walking around the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.”

Dickens decided that Walter, his second son, was not clever enough for Eton and instead would be destined for a life in the East India Company, for which he began to prepare him at the age of ten. Walter sailed for India at the age of sixteen. While the lives of his two sisters could have been charted with ease and wry familiarity by Henry James, and the life of his older brother could have been dramatized by Trollope or George Eliot, the life of Walter belongs more in a novel by J.G. Farrell. On arrival in India, he was involved in the relief of the siege of Lucknow. He suffered “sun-stroke, a passing-attack of small pox, and smart Fever,” according to a letter his father wrote. He also got in debt. His father, having bailed him out once, made clear that he would not do so again.

Walter, in the meantime, had become increasingly ill. He wrote to his sister that he was “so weak that he could hardly crawl”; he was planning to come home on sick leave when he died suddenly in Calcutta at the age of twenty-two. As news came of his death, so too there was evidence of the way in which associates of his parents viewed their separation. Sir William Hardman, for example, editor of the Morning Post, wrote in a letter:

Poor Mrs. Charles Dickens is in great grief at the loss of the second son…. Her grief is much enhanced by the fact that her husband has not taken any notice of the event to her, either by letter or otherwise. If anything were wanting to sink Charles Dickens to the lowest depths of my esteem, this fills up the measure of his iniquity. As a writer, I admire him; as a man, I despise him.

The next son was Frank. He was sent to join the Bengal Mounted Police not long after Walter had died in India but before the news reached England. He was, his father wrote, “a good steady fellow, but not at all brilliant.” Like Walter and indeed Charley, he was not skilled at handling money and was always in debt. He went eventually to Canada where he was a member of North West Mounted Police. He was involved in 1885 in the forced retreat, under the most harrowing circumstances, of the Mounties from Fort Pitt, where they were under siege by the natives. Soon afterward, he had the idea of giving public lectures about his life as a Mountie and giving readings from his father’s work. He died suddenly at the age of forty-two.

Three more sons—Alfred, Sydney, and Plorn—were also sent away young, two to Australia. Dickens as an editor and novelist was interested in Australia. Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby was transported there. Dickens had the Micawbers emigrate there at the end of David Copperfield. Magwitch, who was transported to New South Wales in Great Expectations, was allowed make his fortune there. So, too, Alfred and Plorn Dickens were sent by their father to seek their fortunes in Australia. Alfred worked in sheep-farming, and after some prosperous years, as the economy began to collapse, he realized that he could make more money talking about his father. He was drinking, and like many of his siblings was useless with money.

He began giving public lectures on Dickens, punctuated with readings. At the age of sixty-five, after an absence of forty-five years, he came back to England where he followed his father’s footsteps in tireless public performances. He soon went to America for more of the same. His performances were immensely popular in America. When he was asked if it did not make him sad standing in the same places as his father had stood, he replied: “Why should it?… I never forget my father for a moment. I feel he is always with me, you know.” Alfred died suddenly in New York in 1912.

His brother Plorn seems to have been their father’s favorite son. Dickens wrote a friend that “there cannot possibly be another baby anywhere, to come into competition with him. I happen to know this, and would like it to be generally understood.” Mamie remembered her father and his youngest child as constant companions, but by the time Plorn was fifteen, the watchfulness and deep suspicion that Dickens displayed in relation to his other sons emerged, and he noted Plorn’s “want of application,” which he traced to his mother, whom Dickens, as Gottlieb writes, “criticized privately and publicly for her lethargy and indolence.”

Dickens began to believe that a life overseas would be best for Plorn. Gottlieb mentions an “ambiguous letter” from Catherine to her sister protesting this decision and adds, “but of course she had no legal right to interfere with it.”

It was decided to send him to Australia to join his brother. He was sixteen. One of his other siblings reported on the parting between father and son: “I never saw a man so completely overcome, giving way, as [my father] did, to extreme sorrow, quite unconscious of his surroundings on the platform.” In a letter Dickens wrote to Plorn to take with him he reminded him of his own hard childhood and his own determination to succeed: “I was not so old as you are now, when I first had to win my food, and to do it out of this determination and I have never slackened in it since.” He concluded: “I hope you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father.”

While Dickens’s treatment of his wife could only be rendered by Thomas Hardy at his most extreme, or one of the Brontës, or a Gothic novelist, it is too easy to make judgments about Dickens’s treatment of his sons. It has to be remembered that the sending of children to the colonies, or to the army or into the navy, at a very young age was part of the norm in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two of Jane Austen’s brothers, for example, joined the navy at twelve, without losing a central place in the affections of the family. Austen would dramatize in Mansfield Park the close connection between Fanny Price and her brother William, who joined the navy at twelve.

Dickens’s son Sydney joined the navy at fourteen. He too became a reckless spender. To a friend, Dickens wrote complaining of his sons’ spendthrift habits: “I can’t get my hat on; in consequence of the extent to which my hair stands on end at the costs and charges of these boys. Why was I ever a father! Why was my father ever a father!” Two years after Dickens’s death, Sydney died at sea at the age of twenty-five. He left what money he had to his mother in his will. Writing to her sister Helen in 1858, the year of her banishment, Catherine noted that Sydney, aged eleven, “was full of solicitude and anxiety about me, always asking what I should do when they were gone, and if I would not be very dull and lonely without them.”

Plorn’s fortunes rose and fell in Australia. As with all his siblings, he benefited from his father’s will, but he was not a good businessman. He borrowed money from other members of the family as he became interested in politics. He was elected to the lower assembly of the New South Wales parliament in Sydney. After one term, however, he lost his seat, and while he found work, he also devoted himself to drinking and gambling. He died in 1902 at the age of forty-nine.

It would be easy then, arising from Gottlieb’s work at filling in the details of each one of these Dickens children, to make generalizations about the offspring of famous men, or to ponder on the lure of the colonies for young Englishmen of a certain class and of uncertain abilities. The fate of the Dickens children as outlined here allows us to imagine with greater richness the lives of so many others whose names merely survive on gravestones, or census forms, or on lists of members of the army and navy. They also help us to read the novels of the period, as indeed the Australian adventures of Alfred and Plorn help us to appreciate the novels of writers such as Peter Carey and David Malouf.

Henry Dickens

The career of Sir Henry Dickens, sixth son of the novelist, however, charted with care by Gottlieb, makes any efforts to generalize impossible. He had some of his father’s ambition and charm and none of his male siblings’ fecklessness. Like his sister Mamie, Henry wrote a book of fond recollections of his father.

Having convinced Dickens to send him to Cambridge, Henry became a lawyer and had a successful career. Of his father he later wrote: “If I was asked, when all is said and done, what is my most abiding memory of him, I should say, beyond all question, it was of his lovable and great-hearted nature.” In later years as a judge, when he was sentencing “a very old hand,” he was interrupted by the accused who said, as must have been said to all of these children of Charles Dickens throughout their lives, “You ain’t a patch on your father.” Henry responded with good humor: “I quite agree with you,” and then, having found out that the man had read his father’s work during a previous sojourn behind bars, sentenced the man to eighteen months in prison where the prisoner, he said, could resume his studies of the works of Charles Dickens.

Henry was, of all of them, the most determined and the most successful. He is the one who stops us finding an easy pattern in this story of these men and women who did not match up to their father’s genius and were generally mauled by it. Henry died in 1933 at the age of eighty-four. In 1898 his sister Kate wrote to Bernard Shaw: “Out of our large family of nine children, there was only one who seemed to me to be really quite sane. That was Henry, my lawyer brother, and I have wondered for years whether his sanity is to last through his life!” As Robert Gottlieb concludes, “she needn’t have worried.”