Author celebrity is nothing new. In fact, our version of author celebrity is quite tame compared to what Charles Dickens enjoyed in his life time. During his publicity tour of America,for example, he was thronged in the streets and every event sold out. Today, Charles Dickens is a household name, as are many of his beloved characters. Yet, Dickens as the man, not the author, is not as well known – at least not to the general public. Many do not know that the man who espoused family values and care of the hearth actually threw his wife out after 20 years of marriage to pursue a (somewhat clandestine) affair with an actress. Or at least this is the version according to Gaynor Arnold’s 2008 debut hit Girl in a Blue Dress.
Based on the life and marriage of Charles Dickens, Arnold’s novel follows Alfred and Dorothea Gibson (Charles and Catherine) through their courtship, marriage, separation, and Alfred’s death. Told from Dorothea’s point of view, the novel presents a viable explanation of troubling events: Gibson marries Dorothea out of great love, has 8 children with her, grows distant, and eventually pushes her aside – literally forcing her out of their marital home and into a small apartment with no family about her and only one servant. Through flashback, letters, and great emotional insight, Dorothea tries to come to terms with her husband’s treatment of her and the wreck of their married life.
Most interesting, perhaps, is Arnold's clear portrait of Alfred’s megalomania and his indisputable will. Family and friends cower in front of his every whim and Dorothea, often blinded by love and a little fear, never truly stands up for herself. Not that she should be expected to. Women led different lives in Victorian England, and Arnold’s subtle positioning of Dorothea’s experience in the context of Victorian womanhood is a triumph. Her 8 pregnancies leave her body tired and fat. Her despair over two dead children render her (mostly) incapable of handling the duties of her household and needs of her remaining children. Though Alfred pays lip service to Dorothea’s needs, his escapades in the middle of the night, worship of her sister Alice, reliance on her sister Sissy, and inability to see anything from her perspective, indicate his lack of deep caring for his wife. His writing and his needs are always paramount in his mind, as they should be – his behavior makes clear – to everyone around him.
Though it would be easy to see this novel as a portrait of female repression, it is not as clear cut as it seems. As soon as the reader wants to cast Alfred off as nothing but a patronistic pain, Dorothea or Arnold are quick to provide another view of him, one that forces the reader to see the complexity of this marriage. Dorothea is treated poorly, but there are two sides here, which Dorothea herself is quick to remind us.
Although, Arnold does not intend for us to take her version of this story as a literal interpretation, the characterization, historical detail, and persuasive motives, make it difficult to realize that this absorbing first novel is fiction. One feels at the end of this novel as if Charles Dickens and his challenging personality has been completely revealed.