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.