Katey, by Lucinda Hawksley

Daughter of the dazzler
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Famous fathers cast long shadows. Of Charles Dickens's 10 children, only eighth-born Henry escaped this blight. Something similar afflicts Lucinda Hawksley's determined effort at the life-story of her great-great-great aunt Katey, Henry's elder sister. At every turn, the celebrity novelist upstages the rest of the cast, in life and after death.

Perhaps now best-known as the model for the adoring sweetheart in Millais's painting of the Black Brunswicker, Katey was her father's favourite, a pretty and spirited girl who ought to have shone in society. But, before she was 20, Charles Dickens - having fallen for young Ellen Ternan - repudiated his blameless wife, and demanded his children follow suit. Katey acquiesced, retaining her father's affection and income. But the distress must have been heavy, and the shame damaged her prospects. In 1860 she married Charlie Collins, Wilkie's artist brother, whom she liked but did not love.

Impotent, often invalid and wholly ineffectual, Collins inherited what Kate's father called "that worst of cushions, a small independence". Kate is said to have turned her own pictorial talent to account, though no works are known. She is also said to have been "intensely eager to find other lovers", among them the painter Val Prinsep, but the decade was mainly marked by the deaths of her father and, later, her husband.

In 1874 Kate married Carlo Perugini, Leighton's sculpture assistant and another gentle nonentity. Her true feelings and motives remain obscure, though there are clues. Describing herself as untrained in thinking, she trusted to an impulsive "throb or jump" to understand puzzling or painful events. In manner she approached her father's ideal of "simple and kind, never clever" girlishness, with a flirtatious mode deployed in such friendships as those with Bernard Shaw and JM Barrie.

As Kate Perugini, she enjoyed a modestly successful career with saleable watercolours of children, exhibiting at the Royal Academy. She died in a changed world in 1929, still dogged by the paternal cloud, notably the still-unsolved mystery of Ternan's baby. As a biography, Katey is a significant advance on Hawksley's previous book on Elizabeth Siddal. Surprisingly, she does not spot that verses she attributes to Kate, "The Passing of Love", were written by Siddal and published in 1906.

Jan Marsh's life of DG Rossetti is published by Phoenix