In 1850 Dickens invented a little game for his seventh child, three-year-old Sydney, the tiniest boy in a family of short people. Initially, in fun, Dickens had asked Sydney to go to the railway station to meet a friend; innocent and enterprising, to everyone’s amusement the boy set off through the garden gate into the street; then someone had to rush out and bring him back. The joke was repeated, and the five-year-old Alfred was sent with him; but when the boys had got used to being rescued, Dickens changed the rules, closed the gate after them, and hid in the garden with some of the older children. In Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, Robert Gottlieb quotes the letter in which Dickens explains to his wife what happened: ‘Presently, we heard them come back and say to each other with some alarm: “Why, the gate’s shut, and they are all gone!” Ally began in a dismayed way to cry out, but the Phenomenon [Sydney], shouting “Open the gate!” sent an enormous stone flying into the garden (among our heads) by way of alarming the establishment.’ ‘This,’ Gottlieb remarks of the anecdote with a warmth he sustains throughout his book, ‘was a boy after his father’s heart.’
more from Tim Parks at the LRB here.