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Girl in a Blue Dress [Hardcover]

Gaynor Arnold

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Book Description

July 14 2009 0771007868 978-0771007866
The celebrated debut novel inspired by the life and marriage of Charles Dickens

Alfred Gibson’s funeral is taking place at Westminster Abbey, and his wife of twenty years, Dorothea, has not been invited. The Great Man’s will favours his children and a clandestine mistress over the woman he sent away when their youngest child was still an infant.

Dorothea hasn’t left her small apartment for years, and accepts her exclusion — until an invitation to a private audience with Queen Victoria arrives. The exhilaration of finding that she has much in common with the most powerful woman in England spurs Dorothea to examine her own life more closely. Her recollections uncover deviousness and the frighteningly hypnotic power of the genius she married, but also raise questions about her own complicity in her unhappiness. Questions that finally compel her to face her grown-up children and the two women she has long felt stole her husband: her own younger sister, Sissy, and the charming actress, Miss Ricketts.

This remarkable debut is as wise in the ways of the human heart as it is witty and vivid in its depiction of the charismatic Alfred Gibson, and the habits, mores, and personalities of Victorian London.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart (July 14 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0771007868
  • ISBN-13: 978-0771007866
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.2 x 3.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 726 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #595,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

“This juicy novel imagines the private life of a famous couple: Catherine and Charles Dickens…. Arnold sticks close to the Dickens’ life story but changes all the names…. Smart readers will connect the dots.”
People magazine

“Wonderful…. Arnold's knowledge of Dickens is impeccable…. Beautifully written, entirely satisfying.”
The Times

“Fabulously indulgent Victoriana…. A lovely, rich evocation of the period [with] complex characterisation and silky prose.”
The Observer

“Arnold's portrayal of Gibson/Dickens is spot-on.”
The Guardian

“Fascinating…. A moving story about the special burden of loving a universally adored man…. [What] Arnold handles so effectively, is portraying the intermingling of love and resentment, affection and pettiness, that renders any marriage mysterious to outsiders.”
Washington Post

“Arnold picks apart domestic psychology as efficiently as a housemaid cleaning a coal stove…. The sections in which [Dodo] recollects their years together pulse with the excitement of a secret courtship and a highly erotic early married life, as well as the anxieties of a woman increasingly exhausted by the arrival of child after child…. Dickens aficionados will delight in winky references to his novels, as well as to his biography.”
New York Times Book Review

“Arnold's achievement, in constructing a busy, engaging, above-all empathetic fiction on the foundation of facts, is considerable. Gibson emerges as a monster of a kind, narcissistic and voracious, yet his gaiety, inventiveness and magnetism shine off the page.”
Miami Herald

“Readers interested in the life of Charles Dickens will find [Girl in a Blue Dress] engaging and surprising…. Arnold's easily recognizable reworking of Charles is Alfred Gibson, a literary genius with immense energy and charm.”
Winnipeg Free Press

About the Author

Gaynor Arnold was born and brought up in Cardiff, Wales. She read English at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she acted in many plays, notably at the Edinburgh Festival and in a tour of the U.S. She has two grown children and lives in Birmingham. Girl in a Blue Dress is her first novel.

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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dickens lovers will enjoy the fictional life of Charles and Catherine Dickens in "Girl in a Blue Dress" Aug. 14 2009
By C. M Mills - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
He was the greatest Victorian author in all of British literature. Charles Dickens was a brilliant author of such masterpieces as David Copperfield; Hard Times; Bleak House; A Tale of Two Cities; Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit; Oliver Twist and many others. Yet little is known about his longsuffering wife Catherine Dickens.
In this new first time novel British author Gaynor Arnold recreates the domestic life of Dickens and Catherine. She calls the author "Alfred Gibbons" and his wife Dorothea. Dody is a buxom beauty who is wed to the young energetic Gibbons. He rises to fame with his genius while she stays home giving birth to many children. The famous and spoiled author has an affair with an actress, leaves his wife taking his children with him and condemning her to ten years of living alone is a small London flat.
The novel begins on the day of the author's funeral. We hear Dodo tell her story as she remembers the high and low points of her life with the fascinating but unfaithful author. Arnold has done her homework allowing the reader inside the home of a celebrity and his family. Dickens was childish and selfish but loved his wife. He was easily infatuated by a pretty face and fell into a long romance with a young actress name Wilhemine. She and Dodo confront each other following his funeral. This is the most dramatic scene in the novel.
Arnold has done a good job in her first venture into novel writing. The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Arnold's research is commendable and her discussion of adultery is tasteful rather than prurient. Her book will win legions of admirers in book clubs across the English speaking world.
As a longtime Dickensian I was already familiar with much of what Arnold tells us. Someone who is coming new to this material will probably enjoy the book more than I did. It was interesting and kept me turning the pages, though, and that is the goal of a good historical novel.
A good first start by a new author whose best work may lie ahead of her.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars (3.5) "How easily she was won over, how easily we all were." July 14 2009
By Luan Gaines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Arnold's depiction of a Victorian marriage is painfully accurate, a fictional biography of a prolific English writer, Alfred Gibson and his wife, Dorothea, a thinly-veiled account of the marriage of Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine. Names and events have been changed, of course, but it is certainly reasonable to extrapolate a sense of the marriage and how difficult a life with such a man could be. From the bright days of early marriage to a struggling writer who will capture the imaginations of countless fans, "Dodo" exemplifies the Victorian wife, subservient, gracious and self-sacrificing. But as Alfred's creative genius expands, his self-importance multiplies in equal measure. At the same time, whatever the complex psychological constructs of this man, it becomes his mission to denigrate and belittle his wife, as though to grow his own stature it is necessary to diminish hers: hence the years of humiliation, criticism and finally rejection.

Arnold's challenge is to cast Alfred in the true colors of his nature, while imbuing Dodo's character with compassion, humility and the debilitating burden of petty jealousy justified by her husband's outrageous appetites. For all her suffering, the lonely years of childbearing and Alfred's barbed attacks, her figure lost to the rigors of too many births and an excess of laudanum, Dodo fulfills her wifely duty at the cost of her soul. Rationalizing Alfred's behavior, justifying his misdeeds, Dodo temporizes, apologizes, crumbles under the weight of her husband's demands. Instead of a spirited, brave lady married to a demanding, domineering man, Dodo becomes his victim. As the tale moves between Alfred's death and the reminiscences of confrontation, humiliation and emotional abuse, this rogue's gallery of demeaning incidents is painful to explore, competition with her sisters for the affection of her husband, the ultimate betrayal of a mistress replacing her in the family home, Dodo's removal to a smaller dwelling.

Given the author's familiarity with Dickens and his family history, had this been offered as a biography, it might have been more palatable to this reader. But Dodo's long-suffering cooperation in chapter after chapter peels away any compassion I might have, replaced by frustration and disappointment. This is the story of a victim, unlike her Victorian counterparts in that Dorothea is married to a man beloved by the people; he shall always be a hero, she a tragic failure. But without spirit- or hope- Dodo fails on a more significant scale that that of society's expectations. Battered and denied, in a laudanum-induced fugue when her children need her, Dorothea wears her crown of thorns proudly, parading her scars like badges of honor. It is literally painful to endure the weight of this marital story, the stripping of one to appease the massive needs of the other. Dodo makes me weary, her weakness my burden. And there is no relief with Alfred's death, Dodo clinging to the fragments of a severely dysfunctional relationship. Luan Gaines/2009.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully compelling Dec 15 2008
By Ellis Bell - Published on Amazon.com
The thinly-disguised story of Catherine Dickens, wife of the famous author, is at the heart of this unpretentious, unassuming novel.The celebrated author Alfred Gibson has died, leaving England in mourning. His estranged wife, Dorothy (or "Dodo") sits at home as the funeral and reading of the will take place. As she sits, she looks back on her twenty-year-plus marriage to "the One and Only," and "The Great Original." An invitation to visit Queen Victoria, as well to her sister Sissy and the actress Wilhelmina Rickets, leads to another series of reflections on her marriage.

It's a quiet novel, simple yet complicated in many ways. There's not much action, certainly not in the present day, but there's a certain gentleness of language that makes this book compellingly readable. Dodo, despite her shy, retiring ways, is a likeable heroine, strong in the ways a "typical" Victorian woman wasn't supposed to be. In addition, I enjoyed the way the characters interacted with one another: Dodo's daughter Kitty, the son-in-law who is obsessed with money; but most of all, Alfred Gibson himself: control freak, obsessed with keeping poverty at bay (even when he was in his most successful period), and eagerness to change the truth when it suits him. I get the feeling that Gibson isn't supposed to be likeable, but he's charismatic enough that the people around him tend to overlook his flaws. The only one who realizes who Gibson really was is, ironically, Dodo.

To the modern reader, the Victorian era is a strange place--all those customs regarding mourning, for example, are simply mind-boggling. Dorothy's world is one that's strictly defined by traditions and conventions, and Dodo's story is that of a woman who isn't afraid to bend the rules a bit. In all, an excellent novel, worthy of having been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I know that the price of this book is a little steep for a paperback, but add it to your wish list this holiday season. It's definitely a book that's worth it.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Character Study Sept. 14 2009
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
PBS's popular "Masterpiece Theatre" program recently produced a multi-part televised adaptation of Charles Dickens's LITTLE DORRIT, considered by many to be one of the author's most accomplished works. During the introduction to one of the episodes, the host commented that despite Dickens's lifelong marriage, by the time of the writing of this novel he had fallen out of love with his extremely fertile (and, as a result, rather stout) wife, preferring instead the affections of a childlike, domestic, sweet and mild-mannered girl --- someone very much like the character of Amy Dorrit herself. In LITTLE DORRIT, the hero, Arthur Clennam, is horrified to discover that, during his years abroad, his childhood sweetheart has ballooned into a vast but vacuous woman, a figure to be both pitied and mocked --- and contrasted with the earnest sweetness and childlike beauty of Amy Dorrit. What must Dickens's wife have felt to see her own sad marriage reduced to fictional farce?

In GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS, author Gaynor Arnold seeks to explore this question and others, as she writes her book from the point of view of a woman inspired by Charles Dickens's wife, Catherine. The Dickensian character is named Alfred Gibson; his wife is Dorothea. However, it would soon become clear to those with even a passing knowledge of Dickens's career that Gibson is a stand-in for the most famous Victorian novelist. Catherine Dickens has been reduced to supporting character status in most books about her famous husband; here she is given a chance to tell her own story.

GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS opens the day of Gibson's funeral; Dorothea, who has been cast out from the family (including being estranged from most of her six surviving children), chooses to remain in the shadows rather than face the twin horrors of the crowd's adulation of her husband and her own very public shame. Dorothea is visited by her eldest daughter, Kitty, who, although she was her father's favorite, has still remained loyal to her mother. As Kitty recounts the mania that has overtaken London in the wake of her father's death, Dorothea casts her mind back to the very earliest days of her courtship by "The One and Only," as Gibson becomes known. Gibson is alternately egotistical and endearingly eccentric, dramatic and dour, as he entreats Dorothea to be more fun-loving but reminds her that they both must work very hard to avoid the poverty and misery that characterized so much of his own youth.

With marriage came conjugal bliss and babies; faced with Dorothea's more matronly figure and maternal responsibilities, Gibson's attention often strays elsewhere. The master storyteller, however, is also quite skilled at fabricating justifications for his own interest in, and behavior toward, young women --- including Dorothea's own younger sisters. As Dorothea retells the sad saga of her marriage to Gibson, she illustrates the combination of pride and disappointment that characterize marriage to one so talented, so famous and so single-minded --- a man whose greatest devotion was not to his wife, but to the characters he created.

In the days and weeks following Gibson's death, even as she considers all this history, Dorothea has a choice to make. Will she continue to be a virtual prisoner in her own home, bound by shame and isolated from the friends and family who used to love her? Or will she use her famous husband's demise as an opportunity to rejoin the outside world?

Those with only a passing knowledge of the life and work of Charles Dickens will still find much to enjoy in this fascinating character study of a Victorian woman in what seems to be an impossible situation. Dickensophiles, however, will be delighted not only by the opportunity to read a fictionalized autobiography of one of the key figures in Dickens's own life, but also by the seamless way in which Arnold skillfully incorporates Dickens's characters into his life story. GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS will show readers a new side of Dickens --- one that portrays the great author as more flawed, perhaps, but also more human --- and a portrait of the great man's wife as a fully realized character, a product of her times and circumstances, not just as a literary device or farce.

--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I couldn't put it down July 14 2009
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a powerful novel based on the actual life of Mrs. Charles Dickens. Since the story is well known, it isn't a spoiler to say that in this work of fiction, we have the story of a woman who falls madly in love with a charismatic young man, marries him, has a load of kids, and is then publicly and unceremoniously scorned and dumped, booted from the family home, for what was basically the crime of no longer charming him.

How can a man who holds himself up to be a virtual paragon of family virtue behave so badly? And how can the scorned wife refuse to publicly chastise his behavior.

This is a book about the powerlessness of Victorian women, in many ways. It is also about the kind of self deception and hypocracy that the character based on Dickens (Alfred, also called Fred) indulged in.

The author has clearly studied Dickens and the lot of Victorian women thoroughly, and presents a compelling and highly readable book.

I recommend this book highly to anyone who wants to read a fascinating book, although I would not have been as forgiving as the protagonist in this book.

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