A Christmas Carol is the universal story of Christmas: a tale of the triumph of compassion over mean-spiritedness, humanity over injustice and poverty. Charles Dickens could write it because he had been there. His father was a chronic debtor, and Dickens himself experienced extreme poverty as a child. Today's world of global inequality and conflict would be all too familiar to him.
His great-great-grandson, Mark Charles Dickens, is the paterfamilias of the clan of direct Dickens descendants and a leading supporter of the Charles Dickens Museum in London. As we celebrate Christmas, National Geographic talks to him about why he had to take a DNA test, the novelist's secret love affair with an 18-year-old actress, what Dickens loved about Christmas, and why the great British author still matters today.
Mark, you're the head of the Dickens clan, and its genealogist. How many direct descendants of the great man are there?
Being head of the Dickens family is a bit of an anachronism, because it goes down the male line. There are a lot of us in the family, probably over 300. Charles Dickens himself had ten children, so we're spread far and wide around the world. We do have a few authors. Monica Dickens, the novelist, my father's first cousin, lived in Cape Cod [Massachusetts] and sadly died a few years ago now. Lucinda Hawksley, a cousin, is quite a successful writer.
We also have quite a lot of actors. Not many people know that Charles Dickens actually wanted to be an actor. When he was young, he went for an audition at Drury Lane. He loved acting, did a lot of acting, and there are quite a lot of acting geniuses in the family. My nephew, Harry Lloyd, has got quite a respectable theatrical career already. He was in Game of Thrones and Robin Hood.
Charles Dickens loved doing elaborate home theatricals. In one, The Frozen Deep, he met the actress Ellen Ternan, who became his mistress when he was 45 and she was 18. How does the family feel about that?
He did a lot of amateur dramatics. He put on real shows and did absolutely everything. He was not only the principal actor, he [also] was the stage manager, the director, the producer—down to the most amazing detail. He was the sort of guy who had phenomenal energy and spent 24 hours a day working. Whatever he was doing, he did it to total detail. He had a small theater in his home at Tavistock Square and did shows there. But he also did some in the West End. He even performed for Queen Victoria.
The relationship with Ellen Ternan was a secret he jealously guarded. Dickens was such a family man, and his relationship with his public was vitally important. If he was seen to be just as bad as everybody else, and had mistresses, it would have had a major effect on his life. He did leave his wife very tragically, and badly, and he came out of that not at all well. But very few people knew about his young mistress, and he wanted to keep it that way.
He had a major bonfire of all the documents that associated him with Nelly. His children, including his son, Henry, my great-grandfather, pooh-poohed it. And it wasn't until the 1930s that a few clues started to come out. Of course, no genius is perfect. They all have their flaws. And in a way it makes him more human. We, as a family, are fascinated. We're not hiding anything. We'd like to know more.
There are quite strong rumors that he and Nelly had a baby who died in infancy. Whether that's true or not, who knows? Some Dickensian scholars and purists still splutter over their coffee and think the whole thing is rubbish. But I think there's enough evidence now to show that this was a major event in his life and definitely consummated. She was also very important to him toward the end of his life. Don't forget, it was very traumatic in those days for a single girl to be kept as a mistress. So it was very difficult for Nelly.
His wife, Catherine Dickens, your great-great grandmother, has not received the kindest press. She's often depicted as remote and prudish. Is this how she was seen and is seen in the family?
I've got a very soft spot for Catherine. I think it must be impossible to be married to someone like Dickens. Here's a genius who works twenty-three-and-a-half hours a day, with amazing energy and ability. You can't keep up with him! Catherine was also not academic. She was rather overawed by him. At dinner parties she was very much the hostess who sat quietly in the corner. He had ten children with her. She was effectively pregnant for about 19 years, with a few miscarriages. So it was very much a warm marital bed, but they were never equals.
She also had terrible postnatal depression, which was not really understood in those days, and he couldn't cope with that. Eventually, she was unceremoniously dumped. Today Hollywood superstars change marriages quite regularly. But in those days you couldn't do that.
You recently had a DNA test. Why?
I was called up out of the blue by a journalist, who was talking about quite a famous descendant, Hector Charles Dickens. There was a long story about how he was an illegitimate child of Charles Dickens. He had managed to get hold of one of Charles Dickens's rings through an auction, so people thought there must be some truth to this story. This journalist asked me what I thought, and the only way we could really get to the bottom of this rumor was to have a DNA test.
So I took one, and so did the descendant of Hector Dickens, which I'm delighted to say did not match! Just to prove my lineage, I had a distant cousin of mine also take the test, which proved that we did indeed match. I'm delighted that my mother and grandmother behaved themselves in the family line. [Laughs] This sort of thing happens from time to time. I get people ringing me up and asking how they're related because of some family story. But I have yet to find one that is true.
So there are Dickens imposters?
There are indeed. I had one guy who was a pastor in California, a very devout man and a very nice, honorable chap, who wanted to trace his story and his grandmother, and I had to let him down. He was mortified because he was a man of the cloth.
Of course, what occurred in those days is that ancestors who emigrated to America invented a relationship with the great man to give them kudos in setting up a new life. Their story grows and grows and becomes family folklore, so the children and grandchildren believe it. It happens quite frequently.
As it's Christmas Day, tell us about the Dickens family gatherings.
We're quite fortunate in having such a famous ancestor. Not many families know their third and fourth cousins, but we do. And when there's an opportunity to get together, we make the most of it. In 2012, the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, we all went to the famous service in Westminster Abbey, which Prince Charles attended. I was privileged to read a letter. Afterwards, we had a big family luncheon. I think there were over 200 people there, all related to Dickens or married into the family. It was the largest gathering of the clan we've ever had.
Every year, the male descendants of Dickens also get together in a wonderful old Dickensian pub in London, the one he wrote about in Pickwick Papers, called the George and Vulture. We have a lunch there, which tends to go on a long time, and be very liquid. [Laughs] It's great for us to get to know each other and each other's children. The ladies have a gathering as well, in another great Dickensian pub, called the Bleeding Heart Tavern. So we stick together, and we have a good reason to do so. It's fun.
How did Dickens celebrate Christmas?
He was a great party man. He definitely celebrated Christmas in total style, just like the ones you see in A Christmas Carol. He was the center of life and the center of parties and the center of games. He had to organize everything and take charge of everything, and certainly his wine cellar was extremely well stocked. Lots of singing, lots of games. Party games went on for days. There were cricket matches with the local village. You name it, he did it! I was brought up in a similar way. Christmases have changed a lot, of course. But we still really like to gather the family around and have a wonderful traditional Christmas.
A Christmas Carol is a seasonal classic. But Dickens wrote it because he was almost bankrupt at the time, didn't he?
I think that's a slight exaggeration. He came from nowhere. His father was in debtor's prison. And as soon as Dickens started to make money as a writer, his family, all the distant cousins and brothers and fathers, called upon him to help them. So the more money he made, the more he needed to support his ever growing family and the problems they were having.
His brother Augustus was married to this lovely girl who went blind. He dumped her and ran off to Chicago. In fact, the descendants of Augustus in Chicago are alive and well today, and we're just making contact with them now. But Dickens was left looking after his sister-in-law. One of his spinster sisters was also a financial drain, and his sons were all always causing him problems. His father was exactly like Mr. Micawber, in David Copperfield. He was always asking for money. He would tell people, "I'm the father of Charles Dickens, so give me a line of credit." Just like Micawber did. So of course Dickens had to bail him out.
So though he wasn't bankrupt, he found he never had enough money to live comfortably, which is why he started writing Christmas books. He wrote A Christmas Carol in a remarkably short time, a few weeks, and brought it out just in time for Christmas in 1843. It sold very well. But he didn't make that much money on the first edition. Of course, it was reprinted again and again, and became the famous story that we all know and love today.
Charles Dickens was the first author as superstar, wasn't he?
I think he was the world's first superstar. His books were written as weekly or monthly serials. He invented the soap opera. They were read out aloud in the cities or halls. The illiterate would come around to hear them; vicars would read them at the village hall. Everyone hung on the words, and each chapter had an ending that made you want to know what was going to happen next. He generated enormous enthusiasm for his books, and because they were published in weekly or monthly titles, they were affordable for the very first time. Books were very expensive in those days, but he had a mass readership.
The story goes that when Little Nell was on her deathbed in The Olde Curiosity Shoppe, the ship was sailing to New York with the new copies of the book onboard, and the port was swamped by thousands of people desperately trying to get their hands on the book to find out if Little Nell died or not.
When Dickens himself eventually landed in America the first time, it was like the Beatles in 1964. Total mania. He was the very first person outside the royal family to have this effect. Amazing.
Dickens's first home is now a museum. Why was 48 Doughty Street so important to him?
Doughty Street was the first house he rented when he started to move up in the world. A lot of London was destroyed in the war, so Tavistock House doesn't exist anymore. But Doughty Street does. He wrote Oliver Twist and Great Expectations there, and his youngest children were born there. It was a wonderful stepping-stone in his life. It's just been renovated, and it now looks exactly like it would have done in his day. It is also the only museum in London open on Christmas Day!
Each generation rediscovers Dickens for itself. What do you think is the source of his enduring popularity?
A very good question. If you look at the ten most famous Britons of all time, Dickens always comes up. It's quite amazing. I think one of the reasons for that is that television and film adore period stories. His novels are not only amazingly good stories, they're [also] full of intrigue and twists and turns and incredible characters. You can't do anything but follow the story. You can modernize Shakespeare and put Shakespeare into modern dress. But you can't do that with Dickens. It has to be the era that it was written. And that's why he comes across so well in television series and films. The stories are universal. Christmas Carol is the universal book of Christmas.
There's a touching story in your family about your great-great aunt, Dickens's sister-in-law, the 17-year-old Mary Hogarth. Tell us the story.
Catherine's sister, Mary Hogarth, came to Doughty Street to live and help Catherine with the babies. She was perfect—this idyllic, charming girl, who suddenly and tragically died. Bang! They had all been out to the theater, and when they came back, she felt a bit odd. Dickens held her, and she died in his arms. She was wearing a ring on her finger when she died. Dickens took that ring off her finger, put it on his own finger, and he wore it for the rest of his life.
I own that ring now. It's beautiful.
What do you admire most about your great-great grandfather?
He was a great champion for the poor. He'd been there. He'd seen it. And he actually changed laws. He was asked to stand for Parliament many times but refused. He said, I can do far more good with my writing than standing in Parliament. And he did. MPs would write to him with their stories, and he would put them in his books, and the laws would change.
He did a lot of good, and an enormous amount of charitable work. He supported systems to modernize and change the world for the better, and I think those are the things that make him a great man. People think about him primarily as an author, but he was a lot more than that.