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In 1879, as Catherine Dickens - the wife of Charles Dickens - lay on her deathbed, she turned to her daughter, Kate, and gave her all the letters she had received from Dickens during her lifetime. She murmured, "Give these to the British Museum, that the world may know he loved me once".
That one simple, yet moving, sentence inspired Gaynor Arnold's fictional 're-telling' of Charles and Catherine Dickens' marriage and life, in the novel the Girl in the Blue Dress.
=====The Dickens Family=====
I am including a brief biography of Dickens and his family here so that you can put the book in context and, in effect, is the plot of the novel. I also think it's worth highlighting that I am not an expert on Dickens and so I apologise beforehand should any of the following be incorrect - although I have carried out some background reading before compiling this review.
The son of a clerk, Charles Dickens was born in 1812, the second of eight children. From all accounts, his early years were relatively happy and carefree, but by the time he was twelve, his father had run up enormous debts trying to maintain a lifestyle he could ill-afford. Dickens' father was finally imprisoned and Dickens himself was put to work in a blacking warehouse. His father was eventually released, but the cycle of debt continued. This period of Dickens' life was to heavily influence his novels.
At the age of fifteen, Dickens became a solicitor's clerk, which he didn't enjoy, but by 1828, he had obtained the position of a journalist with the newspaper, Mirror of Parliament. It was during this time that Dickens fell head over heels in love with Maria Beadnell and it is known that Dickens became emotionally tormented by this passion, as Maria's parents strongly disapproved of the match and Maria herself was ambiguous in her attentions. Dickens could never be sure of her love, so (partly) to win her affection, Dickens devoted his time to developing his learning and writing abilities. As an aside, this required an equal devotion to a social life (of course!). However, by 1833, all hopes of being with Maria were lost. It is believed that this left Dickens emotionally scarred.
Nevertheless, Dickens continued to write successful newspaper reports and other pieces, including sketches on the daily life of London. He eventually became acquainted with the editor of the Evening Chronicle, George Hogarth, who later introduced Dickens to his family. Dickens was immediately attracted to George's eldest daughter, Catherine, and by the end of the summer of 1835, they were engaged. On 02 April, 1836, they were married.
During the next couple of decades, I think it goes without saying that it was one of the most prolific times of Dickens' writing career. It was also prolific on another front. Catherine and Charles had ten children in total, and they travelled extensively throughout Europe and America.
However, there were one or two major incidents that occurred during their time together, which had heavy consequences. Firstly, in the early years of their marriage, in 1837 in fact, Catherine's younger sister, Mary, moved into their household. Dickens is known to have become very attached to his sister-in-law and was inconsolable on her death. Mary even died in his arms!
The second matter came in 1842 when Catherine's other sister, Georgina, moved into the household and effectively became the 'woman of the house'. This became particularly relevant as over the years Charles came to see Catherine as an incompetent mother and an even worse wife. He even blamed her for the birth of their children, largely because so many children were an enormous financial worry. I also believe that Catherine's state of mind was effected by medication, which she had to take having had so many children in a short space of time and which was compounded by the grief of having some of them die.
During all this, Dickens is believed to have continually become attracted to young women, and one of them, a young actress, Ellen Ternan, became central to the end of the Dickens' marriage. In May 1858, Catherine opened a package and inside it was a bracelet. This bracelet was intended for Ternan. Thus, by June 1858, Catherine and Charles had separated. Catherine was forced to leave her home and children. Shortly thereafter Dickens published an article, 'justifying' his actions. It was followed by wild speculation regarding the nature of his relationship to Ternan, which he constantly denied as having been more than platonic. Whether this is the case is debatable, but there is speculation that Charles and Ellen had a son, who died in infancy.
All this features as the basis for the novel, Girl in a Blue Dress.
====The Girl in the Blue Dress====
The story opens with Dorothea ('Dodo') Gibson (i.e. Catherine), in her parlour on the day of her husband's funeral. Her husband, Alfred (i.e. Charles) - by this time the greatest novelist of the age - is being interred in Westminster Abbey.
His death is mourned by thousands as they line up to watch the procession. There is one noticeable absence. His wife of twenty years, Dodo, does not attend. As his estranged wife, she has not been invited. To make matters worse, Alfred's will favours his children, his sister-in-law, Sissy, and his mistress, Miss Wilhelmina Ricketts. Dodo is left with barely a mention.
Thus begins a re-telling of Dickens and his personal life through the eyes of his wife, as she examines her memories and in turn, her own life. She recounts their romance and early marriage, the years of constant childbirth, and the ultimate betrayal of the separation. As this occurs, she comes face-to-face with the children she has been unable to see, her sister Sissy and later, the other woman in Alfred's life. There is also a moment when she addresses Queen Victoria herself!
====The Key Characters===
* Dorothea 'Dodo' Gibson - is a kind and good woman, but readers may initially become frustrated with her as she remains devoted and loyal to Alfred, regardless of what has occurred. However, over time, it becomes clear that Dodo was incredibly naïve in her view of love and marriage. I found that, by the end, Dodo was endearing, having emerged a free and independent woman in her own right.
* Alfred Gibson - I will admit that, given Dickens' life, I was expecting to greatly dislike this character. There is no doubt that Gibson is a selfish, self-centred, controlling character. He is often cruel and hypocritical; much of what he holds accountable in others, he has committed himself. Moreover, he is very much into justifying his actions, never finding fault in his own behaviour and generally at the expense of someone else.
The thing is, and I think this is a credit to the author, the character is just too charismatic and charming that I couldn't hate him. As a result of his charisma, as the reader you can begin to understand why Dodo remains so loyal to him and continues to love him despite all he does.
* Kitty (Gibsons' eldest daughter)
This character features predominantly in this book as a means of provoking Dodo into reminiscing. She is similar to Alfred in character, but does acknowledge the wrongs he has done.
* Sissy Millar (Dodo's sister)
Throughout the majority of this book, Sissy is only a background feature; she is only mentioned in conversation or memory. Consequently, for the vast majority of the novel, she comes across as the dark, evil sister that plays a central role in the break-up of the Gibsons' family and marriage.
However, again a credit to Arnold, she has managed to include a segment in the story where Sissy is able to express her side and you begin to understand why she acted as she did.
* Miss Wilhelmina Ricketts
Like Sissy, Wilhelmina sits in the background for most of the book and again, you tend to think she is some sort of dreadful woman. Yet, again, Arnold allows Ricketts a voice at the end. Interestingly, the reader is left with sympathy for this young woman, as she too has been controlled by the whim of Gibson.
* Michael O'Rourke (Alfred Gibson's closest friend)
He is one of Gibson's closest friends and Dodo's main ally. The stark contrast is character to Gibson is very noticeable. He comes across as a good man, with sound principles.
====About the Author====
Born in Cardiff, she studied English at Oxford University and is currently working in Birmingham's Adoption and Fostering service.
Most definitely. This novel was one of the best that I have read in a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the way in which Arnold gave voice to all characters and allowed their perspectives to come through in order for the readers to understand and occasionally empathise with them.
I will confess that at first I was unsure of the ending. I won't give anything away, but to me, it initially came across as the weakest part of the book. However, as I pondered (as you do), I realised that there really wasn't another way in which Arnold could have ended it. The reader needed to see Dodo come into her own, and I think the reader also needed to know that despite all that had happened there was some sort of final reconciliation between Alfred and Dodo.
Overall, it is a well-written and well-researched novel. It is a worthy member for Booker prize long list.
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Tindal Street Press (14 Aug 2008)
ISBN-10: 0955647614; ISBN-13: 978-0955647611