Sunday, 25 July 2010

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold

GENRE: historical novel/fictionalised biography

Alfred Gibson’s funeral has taken place at Westminster Abbey, and his wife of twenty years, Dorothea, has not been invited. Dorothea is comforted by her feisty daughter Kitty, until an invitation for a private audience with Queen Victoria arrives, and she begins to examine her own life more closely. Her recollections uncover the charm, deviousness and hypnotic power of her celebrity author husband. Now Dodo must face her estranged grown-up children, and worse, her redoubtable younger sister Sissy and the charming actress Miss Ricketts.

This historical novel is a fictionalised biography of Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine, and I absolutely loved it. It is just my sort of historical novel, and I think the idea of presenting Dickens and his family through a fictional character is a really interesting one and it worked really well in this novel.

The story begins on the day of Alfred Gibson’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. The nation is in mourning, as they have lost their One and Only, one of the greatest writers England has had. Everyone is there, from friends, family to strangers; everyone except for the one person that should be there: Gibson’s wife Dorothea. She was not invited to come. When everyone is at the funeral, Dorothea reflects on her life of the past twenty years, and through her memories we learn all there is to know about her and her husband Alfred Gibson.

Dorothea has spent the last ten years of her life, ever since her husband left her and moved her out of their house, hidden from the public. She has been alone with her housekeeper, with very few people to keep her company, one of them being an old friend who never approved of what Gibson did to Dorothea. She is without her children and only Kitty, her eldest daughter, visits her mother occasionally. Kitty resents her father; she was old enough to know what happened between her parents, and that is probably the reason why she does visit her mother at all.

I felt a lot of sympathy for Dorothea. She was reduced to such a sad state because her husband, the great Alfred Gibson, had to indulge his fascination with a certain young actress, Wilhelmina Ricketts. If you are familiar with Dickens’s biography, then you probably know to which period of his life I am referring. He always called his wife Dodo, and I don’t know if the author meant to convey that, but I immediately thought of dodos, the extinct animals, and that really fits with the story because Dorothea Gibson is as good as extinct in this world. She is all alone, abandoned by her husband for another woman, not allowed to see her children, although she had every right to raise them, so Dorothea really strikes me as a sort of dodo.

Of course, things were not always like this, as we learn through Dorothea’s narration. There was a time when Alfred and Dorothea were deeply in love, and they were very happy, although they struggled at first when he was not an established author yet. She was always there for him, and put up with his quirky whims. But there were already things that foreshadowed Dodo’s future unhappiness. They were very subtly inserted, and the obvious ones were really well described. There were some really nice parallels made to Dickens’s life, and I love the way Arnold fictionalised them.

Obviously, the author did extensive research on Dickens’s life and novels; and not only that. I got the feeling that she really understood Dickens’s novels, what he tried to say with them and she also understood the man. She included all of her understanding of Dickens into Gibson’s character. I did not really know much about Dickens’s life before reading the novel, only his works and theoretical discussions about his works, but afterwards I did some research myself and I have to say that Arnold’s description of Gibson/Dickens is spot on. Lovers of Dickens will really enjoy her take on him through Gibson.

I have to say that I felt torn between hating Gibson and admiring him. The author presented him so well, with all his talents and quirks, that she endeared him to me. But then, he betrayed Dorothea and hid the betrayal behind a mask of altruism, which makes the betrayal so much worse. I am still torn. How could a man who wrote such amazing, wonderful, in-depth novels act like such a prick in real life? It’s even more horrible because Dorothea thinks so maturely about him, and she is even forgiving to a point. There are moments when she is angry and knows that she is a victim of grave injustice, but ultimately, she is lured away from such thoughts by fond memories and by her appreciation for and admiration of his works. Gibson has a mesmerising effect on everyone, it seems; he even had one on me. I can say that he was a prick, but an amazing prick at that. It hardly makes any sense.

Things change for Dodo, very dramatically, when she is invited to take tea with Queen Victoria, another widow in mourning. That meeting is masterfully written, I must say, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I mean, I pretty much enjoyed every bit of the novel, but that moment is one of the highlights, by far. Just as she characterised Gibson so well, Arnold also characterised Queen Victoria very well. The meeting felt genuine and it was quite a poignant experience, not only for the reader, but foremost for Dorothea, who found a kindred spirit in the queen. The meeting with the queen changes Dorothea. But, I have to say that her change was a bit too quick for me. She spent ten years in a certain state of mind, and suddenly, after one conversation with the queen, she experiences an obvious change. I really love Dodo’s tragic character and I am glad she grows a backbone, but that should be done gradually. Consequently, the ending is a bit abrupt. I mean, it came at the right point in the novel, but the process of conclusion is a bit too fast for my taste.

I don’t know what it is with authors and their wanting to conclude a book fast. This novel was building up so nicely, at a pleasant tempo: not too fast, not too slow. When the tempo is broken, I really don’t like it. If you wrote 438 pages, I’m sure you can add just 30 more. The ending was not vague and all was explained, it’s just that Dodo’s change was a bit too fast.

Still, the novel was such a wonderful read to me. It has wonderful period details, and foremost, it is a great fictionalised account of Dickens’s life. Many aspects of Dickens's and his wife's lives are covered. If you are a lover of historical fiction, then this is just the novel for you. I recommend it.

THIS MISS RATES: / (4.5 stars)


Blodeuedd said...

The ending was concerning, like you say, if that much is written then surely there can be 30 more pages

Julie P said...

Very nice review, Irena! I have no idea that Dickens was so scandolous!

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

Blodeuedd: Totally agree!

Julie: I know, that completely surprised me. Especially since he was such a moralist as a writer.

Jen said...

this sounds like a really good book. i'm gonna have to check this one out soon. hope all is well with you!!

Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

sounds really interesting! thanks for the great review of a book i hadn't heard of before :)

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I bought this at a used book store 6 months ago, but it still sits on my shelf, unread. I may have to force it the top of my TBR pile.
Thanks for the review.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, my! I had known the bare bones of the story of Charles Dickens' marriage, but had no idea the truth was so heartbreaking. =(

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

@Jen: I hope you like it if you read it!

@Carrie: I'm glad I could introduce you to a new book.;)

@Gerbera Daisy Mom: I hope you force it to the top of your TBR pile. It's such a great novel, IMO.

@+JMJ+: I know, my jaw dropped. Dickens, of all people! Who would have thought it?

Enbrethiliel said...


And he usually comes across as so compassionate, doesn't he? What an extraordinary blind spot!

Jan von Harz said...

What a wonderful review. I am not a big fan of Dickens, but this sounds like a very interesting book.

safe meds said...

it was a good read, recommendable for children, theres no doubt about it.