25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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