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