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review: biography

Charles Dickens in an undated photograph.AP

REVIEWED HERE: The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, by Michael Slater (Yale University Press, 215 pages, $29.95); Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, by Robert Gottlieb (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 244 pages, $29)

Last year's celebrations of the bicentennial of Charles Dickens's birth began with platitudes about his standing as a British national treasure, comparable in literary achievement only to Shakespeare. By the time the party was winding down, we were reading about the selfsame treasure's personal failings. There's scarcely a trace of achievement in Michael Slater's The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, referring to Dickens's 12-year affair with actress Ellen Ternan, or Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, a family portrait by Robert Gottlieb. Instead, we have Dickens the cruel husband, domineering father and womanizer.

Slater, a renowned Dickens scholar whose 2009 biography gave readers everything they wanted to know about Dickens the writer, chronicles the outrage over Dickens's behaviour that began in 1858, when he banished Catherine, his wife of 22 years and mother of his 10 children, from the family hearth: During the remaining 12 years of his life, he communicated with her – in writing – three times.

Against all advice, he published a melodramatic self-defence in his magazine Household Words, and gave his readings manager a letter to show around as he saw fit, accusing Catherine of "a mental disorder" and reviling "two wicked persons" for dragging the name of an "innocent and pure" young woman through the mud. This letter quickly found its way into New York newspapers, by which time tongues were in full wag.

With occasional pauses, they have been wagging ever since – in books of "reminiscences," anecdotes, diaries, letters, gossip columns, letters to the editor, reports of conversations and fireside chats, biographies, autobiographies, a biography in the form of a sensationalized novel, psychoanalytic speculations and book reviews, all duly noted and condensed by Slater, who from a host of snoops singles out the most crucial. One is Gladys Storey, who in her 1939 biography of Dickens's daughter Kate Perugini, revealed that Dickens and Ternan had a son who died in infancy, thereby introducing "a thrilling new twist into the tale." Finding positive proof of that birth, Slater writes, has become "the Golden Fleece for Dickens biographers."

So far, no birth certificate. No surviving correspondence between Dickens and Ternan that could put the quest to bed. Slater thinks it's highly unlikely any such documents will ever turn up. Dickens thought so too, having incinerated great heaps of letters and instructed friends to do likewise. But the originator of Inspector Bucket, the first portrayal of a detective in fiction, might not have been terribly surprised that a scholar would one day come across a letter from him in a California library, employ infrared photography to decipher a heavily inked out paragraph, and conclude he was bankrolling his mistress.

Other investigators have combed through his bank records, searched property rate books for evidence of a love nest, and figured out he had less money on his person the day he died than the day before: Did he collapse or even expire at the home of Ternan, who then picked his pocket and had him driven home? That's what Claire Tomalin, author of biographies of both Ternan and Dickens, thinks – and where Slater's book wraps up.

Since he's writing about Dickens's children, Robert Gottlieb, a distinguished editor and biographer of Sarah Bernhardt, ventures his opinion, based on Tomalin's detective work, that Dickens and Ternan did have a child. But his main matter is the brood Catherine Dickens bore – seven sons and three daughters, including Dora, who died at the age of six months, making for a very short chapter.

Gottlieb is an elegant writer and his book is admirably illustrated with at least one likeness of each unsmiling child. But as he allows that the Dickens boys, who bore the brunt of their father's great expectations, were "on the whole ordinary – or perhaps merely normal," of interest only because they are Dickens's children, it's unclear why he has gone to the trouble of writing it.

The format is also perplexing. Part one contains an account of each child's life, in chronological order, before 1870, when Dickens died; part two covers their lives after 1870. The idea was to show the persistence of Dickens's long paternal shadow. The result is unnecessary mental labour for the reader.

Most of the story has already been told. Dickens was the best and worst of fathers – best when his children were little ones. He gave them sentimental names and silly nicknames. Catherine (Kate) Macready Dickens was Lucifer Box; Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens was Plorn, shortened from Mr. Plornishmaroontigoonter. He romped with them, delighted in their antics, missed them when he was away. But no sooner were the boys into long pants than he started scrutinizing them for reflections of his own energy, discipline and genius, only to be disappointed by their "deficiencies."

Still, he pulled strings to arrange his sons' careers. Walter fought in India. Frank, a.k.a Chickenstalker, "not at all brilliant" in his father's estimation, ended up with the North West Mounted Police and "chased whisky smugglers, Indians, outlaws and fugitive across the Canadian prairies," by one account. Sydney, dubbed Ocean Spectre, joined the navy. Alfred and Plorn were shipped off to the Australian Outback to seek their fortunes.

The two sons who stayed in England had a better time of it. Charley, the eldest, inherited his father's weekly and became a contented literary man; Henry read law at Cambridge, earned a knighthood, enjoyed the English pastimes of cricket and boating, and became keeper of the Dickens flame. Unlike their siblings in the colonies, neither gambled, took to drink or ran up bills laid at Dickens's door. Sydney was the worst offender. "I begin to wish he were honestly dead," Dickens wrote to Alfred.

The girls were a handful, too. Mamie refused all suitors – "My love for my father has never been touched or approached by any other love," she was to write – and was rumoured to have "lesbian tendencies." Kate, spirited, artistic and long-lived, married the sickly painter Charles Collins, brother of novelist Wilkie, expressly to escape the unbearable fallout of her parents' separation: "My father was like a madman when my mother left home," she recalled. After Collins died, she married artist Carlo Perugini and fashioned a career doing portraits of children.

Gottlieb's sympathies lie especially with the sensitive Plorn – "born without a groove," as Dickens deemed him – who had no business being exiled to the Australian bush. What Plorn felt about it is unknown. Nor did Sydney or Chickenstalker ever divulge, at least in writing, what life with father was like. As with the Dickens-Ternan affair, we have facts without texture.

Adele Freedman is a writer and critic living in Toronto and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.