Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens Hardcover
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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.
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.
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
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.
I could not put it down.
Dorothea Gibson (Catherine Dickens), might easily have been over-looked, as she states, "simply a footnote in history." But in the (dreadfully titled), "Girl in the Blue Dress" we hear a believable voice, one which grows stronger as the novel brings this world to life.
As "Dodo" tells her story, she provides powerful dimension and insight into The One and Only, Alfred Gibson's (Charles Dickens) persona.
The novel begins at the funeral to which Dodo is uninvited, having been banished from their home, ten years prior, when Alfred took up with an actress, the same age as his daughter Kitty. Dodo looks back at her life and shares it with the reader.
Alfred, a charismatic youth, swept Dodo off her feet with his love letters and charm. Their marriage produced eight children, and drained Dodo of her youth. Arnold has, of course, fictionalized, but believably so. Children, friends and servants are skillfully painted, each with his or her personal color, nuance, shadow and light. Arnold has loved and understood each one, and makes it easy for the reader, as well.
The widow Dorothea is called to visit with Queen Victoria and they share their mutual losses and discuss the issues that women struggle with in Victorian times. Dorothea Gibson finds the courage to meet with her sister, who came to help, then stayed to undermine her role as wife and mother. She meets with the young actress, with whom Alfred spent his final ten years. Separated from her children for a lifetime, presented the author opportunity for further intelligently written scenes, with strong and believable dialog. Dodo finds within herself an astounding ability to listen and forgive.
Despite a lifetime of scandal and heartbreak, Dodo never stopped loving her Alfred. In this exceptionally well-written novel, author Gaynor Arnold has captured the Victorian era, insights into Dicken's life and a story of a marriage of its time.