There is a price to pay for being the daughter of a national celebrity, and Katey Dickens had to pay more than most for being the daughter of Charles Dickens. Born in 1838, his favourite out of the ten children, Katey, a spirited little girl whose nickname was ‘the Lucifer Box’, enjoyed a privileged, fairytale childhood. Dickens was enjoying the fruits of his phenomenal success, family life had not yet gone sour or fame become a problem. There were holidays at Broadstairs, Boulogne and Genoa. Admittedly, these interludes were fraught with terrible incidents: Katey and her siblings watched aghast as their Uncle Fred narrowly missed drowning; on another occasion their landlord and his daughter went raving mad and had to be taken away in straitjackets; their mother, Catherine, was nearly killed when the carriage horse bolted; the Punch cartoonist John Leech hit his head on a rock and was only saved by the application of twenty leeches to his forehead while Dickens mesmerised him back to life. In Genoa, Katey fell ill and insisted on being nursed by her father, who sat ‘beside her bed, holding her feverish little hand in his’. Nevertheless, the Italian holiday was a success and when Katey recovered, she and her sister Mamie were taught to dance; Lucinda Hawksley can imagine how ‘the palazzo lit up with torches and lanterns as the residents danced and drank and laughed together, with all the children running around the darkened gardens, playing hide-and-seek among moonlit fountains’. Back in England, the Dickens girls' best friends were Thackeray's daughters, Anny and Minny. There were unforgettable Christmas parties, charades and theatricals. Katey showed some talent for drawing and was sent, aged thirteen, to art classes at Bedford College.
This happy state of affairs was not to last, as the Dickenses’ marriage notoriously fell apart and Katey and the other children were unhappy witnesses to their father deriding their mother ‘for her size and slowness of intellect ... almost becoming apoplectic on the occasion her bangles fell