Being descended from Charles Dickens can mean more hard times than great expectations.
A family gathering is usually a recipe for misadventure. Think of all those drink-fuelled arguments on Christmas Day, and that’s just when half a dozen turn up. But 350 of them? That’s how many of Charles Dickens’s descendants will be, er, descending on Poet’s Corner on Tuesday for a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
I’m sure being descendants of Dickens they will all be very civilised. But you never know. How will they work out the seating? The more direct your line of descent, the closer you are to the tomb? Will distant cousins be in “restricted view” seats? When Ralph Fiennes stands up to do his reading will there be elbowing at the back? It would make for an appropriately Dickensian social comedy, if so.
As it happens, one of Dickens’s direct descendants, his great great grandson, is a friend of mine. His name is Adam Charles Dickens, and he tells me that some family members make more of the connection than others, with one man even taking his wife’s surname so that he could call himself Dickens.
Adam is going to the service but one of his four sisters is giving it a wide berth. His late father, The Rev Harry Dickens, was one of those who played it all down, which was why Adam grew up never giving his illustrious forebear much thought. The Rev Harry Dickens conceived an early resentment for his great-grandfather. “I had him rammed down my throat,” he later recalled, “so that I wasn’t me; I was the great-grandson of Charles Dickens. I didn’t get over it for some years.” He later came to terms with his prejudice and gave a reading of A Christmas Carol at Wrecclesham church in 1985.
I can see that being descended from Dickens might be a mixed blessing. There is, after all, a lot to live up to. There aren’t many writers who have a whole era named after them – you have Dickensian England and Shakespearean England, and that’s about it. But he was around a long time ago. Imagine how much worse it must be for someone like Julian Lennon. I’m sure he is a talented singer-songwriter, but what a burden to have to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Adam hardly ever gets asked if he is any relation to Charles Dickens, and then only in America where they are a bit obsessed with our greatest novelist. And no one has ever expected Adam to write well or wittily – although, curiously, his prose style does favour long and convoluted sentences, so there might be something in his DNA. Certainly Adam never felt under any pressure to be a writer, opting instead for a life in banking. Dickens may have been obsessed with money – his father having been in a debtors’ prison – but it would be stretching things to see a genetic link to Adam’s choice of career. His main legacy from his great great grandfather, apart from some of his shorthand notes, is his fondness for drink.
Emma Soames, the editor-at-large of Saga magazine, is another who copes well with Famous Forebear Syndrome. She has always lived her life on her own terms and is relaxed when people ask about her grandfather, who happens to be Winston Churchill, the greatest Englishman who ever lived.
Perhaps it is different if you have an ancestor about whom you don’t feel especially proud. I know a Mosley, for example; and my wife is a descendant of Guy Fawkes – which explains a lot, now I come to think about it. (see original)