Reviews for Great Expectations : The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Book News Reviews
Robert Gottlieb had a long and distinguished career as editor and presiding genus of several venerable literary concerns: the New Yorker, Simon and Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf. As a writer, he has been both critic and biographer. Here, he takes on a project purely for pleasure, an account of the lives of the children of Charles Dickens. If this is a vanity project, there are few writers better equipped to carry one off, and few with more excuse to rest on their laurels. Gottlieb writes in a skillful, informal style well designed to engage general readers. But between undistinguished lives and patchy records, there is not much to say about any of Dickens' children. Luckily, there were a lot of them. Where information is lacking, the author supplies speculation, but lightly, without insisting on it. He divides the book in half: a short before-and-after chapter for each offspring, with a midpoint at Dickens' death. Dickens tended to ship off his sons to distant continents as early as he could get rid of them, so his death is a bit of an arbitrary point in their lives. It works, however, in large part because his children seem not to have inherited his talent, but rather his tendency to die young from circulatory disease. One son became a successful lawyer in the Victorian mode (not much appreciated today), and one daughter became a successful painter in the Victorian mode (not much appreciated today). Gottlieb tends to take boys a little more seriously than girls, and is generous but not too generous to Dickens, whose idea of parenting seems to have been a holiday show for an audience he was annoyed to discover still hanging around afterward. If the book has a larger theme, it is that the lives of his children may have been sad to average, but far from being the tragedies painted by some Dickens scholars, they were merely ordinary. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Booklist Reviews 2012 December #2
Master portraitist Gottlieb (Lives and Letters, 2011) zeros in on cherished writer Charles Dickens' greatest failings in this unique, fascinating, and disconcerting family history. Marrying Catherine Hogarth elevated Dickens' social standing, and theirs was a "highly sexual" marriage. But as Catherine endured a dozen pregnancies and suffered miscarriages, the death of a child, and postpartum depression, her famous husband withdrew his affection. In love with the actress Ellen Ternan, he "ruthlessly expelled" Catherine from her home and, even worse, kept their children, recruiting Catherine's sister, Georgina, as a surrogate mother. The repercussions of this betrayal certainly undermined the well-being of the nine Dickens offspring, but Dickens was also venomously critical of his seven sons, sending most of them to India, Australia, or the military, where they floundered and fell into debt, and several died young. Among the sons, only Henry, an attorney, truly thrived. As did Katey, an accomplished painter, while Mamie lived a strange half life. Gottlieb's meticulously researched and vivid group portrait of the Dickens clan ascendant and accursed reveals a complex amalgam of ambition and inheritance, celebrity and despair, pride and stoicism. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 October #2
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. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 October #1

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.)

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