Charles Dickens was at the height of his fame in 1858. The 46-year-old author presided over a large brood — nine children, borne by his wife Catherine; a 10th, a girl, died in infancy — and had set up in a delightful country home. By his pen, Dickens rocketed from the poorhouse to riches.His ferocious literary energy extended everywhere, to his public readings, his journalism, the several magazines he edited, plays he produced, and, of course, his magnificent novels.
Dickens’s first-born son, Charley, once said that “[t]he children of his brain . . . were much more real to him at times than we were.” We cherish the children that sprang forth from that brain — Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nell, Pip, and all the rest; but it is much harder now to sentimentalize Dickens the man. This is in part because there is little in his life that has escaped the notice of scholars and biographers. This year marks the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth, and if we celebrate the novelist, we must not naively turn away from less pleasant aspects of the life.