The Successful Slacker
Charles Dickens had ten children and famously complained that he had “brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves.” This comment is perhaps the chief reason for the image of Dickens’s offspring in the common consciousness as a brood of non-achievers and ne’er-do-wells. Only his sixth son, Henry Fielding Dickens, is exempted from this general condemnation. Although Dickens didn’t know it when he died, his son, Henry, would become an eminent lawyer, Common Serjeant of London and a baronet, as well as grandfather to writer Monica Dickens and great-great grandfather to actor Harry Lloyd (among the many other luminaries in his eminent family).And then there is Kate Dickens.
Often overlooked – excluded from being lumped in with the rest of the young Dickens slackers because, as a female, her destiny was without expectations – Kate (or Katey) was in fact the other successful child of the family. Dickens doted on Kate and her siblings knew her to be their father’s favourite. She was the most similar to him in character and they had a close but sometimes difficult relationship. He gave her the nickname of ‘Lucifer Box’ because of her sparky temper. She grew up as the privileged daughter of the most popular writer of the age, travelling in Europe and studying art at Bedford College, the first higher education college for women in Britain.
When her parents separated, Kate found the awful atmosphere at home more than she could bear and married Pre-Raphaelite artist Charles Collins to escape. Her husband was the younger brother of the novelist, Wilkie Collins, who was a friend and associate of her father’s. At first Dickens was reluctant to agree to the marriage but eventually relented. Charles Collins was twelve years Kate’s senior, kind but sickly. Dickens blamed himself for her decision to marry.Charles and Kate Collins were good friends but their marriage was probably never consummated. Collins died from cancer in 1873, three years after Kate’s father. During her marriage she is believed to have had a passionate affair with another Pre-Raphaelite, Valentine Prinsep, and, after being widowed in her thirties, she very quickly married the artist, Carlo Perugini. (It is doubtless only coincidence, but interesting nonetheless, that both her husbands shared her father’s first name.)
Kate’s second marriage proved to be happy and successful, and she and Carlo lived a contented, busy and sociable life with many friends, who included some of the greatest literary and artistic names of the time, including J.M. Barrie and George Bernard Shaw. They had one child, who died in infancy. During this period her artistic talents flourished. She became a celebrated portrait painter, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Society of Watercolour Painters and the Society of Lady Artists, and counted John Everett Millais among her many admirers. She modelled for two notable works by Millais, The Black Brunswicker and Portrait of Mrs Perugini, as well as for many portraits by her husband. Although now largely unknown to the general public, Kate’s reputation in artistic circles has not diminished since her death in 1929, and she is regarded as an important figure in her own right.
Carlo, Kate and their son are buried together in St Nicholas churchyard in Sevenoaks, Kent. Next to their grave is that of Kate’s sister, Mary, whose life was sadly not as notable or as fulfilling as her sister’s. They had been born in the same London house in the 1830s (now the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street) and were the only daughters of Dickens to live to adulthood. There is a nice symmetry in their lying beside each other in death.