The iconic Victorian writer and social critic, seen through the eyes of his great-great-great granddaughter
When I was a little girl, Charles Dickens featured in my life as a member of my family whom I had never met, but had heard many stories about. My engagement with my legacy as his great-great-great granddaughter began much later, however, when a publisher of mine wanted to put my name down as Lucinda Dickens Hawksley. Until that point, as far as writing about a member of my family went, I had only written a biography of Kate Perugini, my great-great aunt and Dickens’ daughter.
Even in terms of reading, I hadn’t studied too much Dickens at school – we had read Great Expectations and I had liked it somewhat. I think children can sometimes develop an aversion to writers they think are “difficult”. And Dickens can seem “difficult” to many a young mind. Perhaps the same occurred with me. This meant that when I came to university, I was absolutely the right age to discover him as the iconic Victorian writer and social critic, and really begin to understand his writing. Ironically enough, when Dickens was writing, his contemporaries complained that he was too populist and that his writing was too simple! The English language has undergone so much transformation since then that now his writing is sometimes considered archaic, which is such a pity!
I often tell people to complete the first chapter of any Dickens novel before deciding if it’s too archaic for them, because once they’ve gotten past the assumption that he’s a “difficult” writer, they’ll find that his language has them
When I first started writing the biography of Kate Perugini, I began looking at Dickens in a way that I had never looked at him before – as a father. I had never read about him as a father either, since no one had written about him that way or ever thought of writing a biography of Kate. I found it so fascinating to read that he was the most affectionate and indulgent father I could have imagined!
His children were never beaten – which was quite extraordinary in the 19th century – because he didn’t believe in any physical violence and was a very loving father. He had seven sons and two surviving daughters, and was often quite fed up of his sons as they grew older, while he absolutely adored his daughters. Kate was believed by her siblings to be his favourite child – but it just meant that if the others wanted something, she’d ask Dickens and he’d always say yes. His friends actually thought his children were spoilt, because he let them reason with him – something considered outrageous at the time.
Dickens went a step further, and educated his daughters to the same level as his sons, albeit at home and not at boarding school like the boys. When Kate was 12, Charles and Catherine realised that her artistic skills weren’t ordinary, like those of any other Victorian girl expected to be adept at drawing. She was good enough for them to be convinced that she had a credible chance at being a professional.
They sent her to Bedford College, a short walk from her home – the first college in the UK to educate women to university level. You still couldn’t get a degree since you were a woman, but you could take exams and have the same education that men did at the time. It was set up, in fact, by a woman who was a great friend of Dickens’, Elizabeth Jessa Reed. Charles and Catherine were, therefore, very progressive parents. Having written two books on Dickens now – Charles Dickens and Charles Dickens and his Circle – I have often had to reassess a lot of what I had believed about him, based on what I had earlier read or heard. I have also realised with time that when you write the biography of a person, you have to take them off the pedestal you place them on when you begin. You have to learn to see them and love them as you do your friends, with their perfections and imperfections alike.
Furthermore, writing about him and even Kate was different from writing about Princess Louise or Lizzie Siddal in that if someone said anything unpleasant about them, I felt it very deeply. They were family. There are things for which even I can’t exonerate Dickens – my heart aches for Catherine on account of the way he separated from her. But there’s another perspective to his reality. I love how the movie, The Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes playing Dickens, portrays beautifully that he was lonely in the marriage. It was refreshing since Dickens is either seen as a demon or a demigod – he’s never allowed to be a man with flaws. There are always more ways of looking at one reality.
My most recent book on Dickens, Charles Dickens and His Circle, was a wonderful experience to write since it wasn’t just about Dickens but about all the people surrounding him. I visited the National Portrait Gallery and went through their archives in order to find the people he knew who had a portrait in there. That turned out to be a journey of discovering Dickens through the medium of his friendship with them.
There were so many people important enough in the 19th century to have their portrait made for the National Portrait Gallery – a prestigious affair – and yet so many of them, if you mention them outside of the 19th century academic world, are barely recognised. They were such intriguing figures, and so it was wonderful to bring back some of those politicians, firebrand social campaigners, philanthropists and singers who were so famous in their lifetimes but have been forgotten since.