Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Book review: 'Girl in a Blue Dress' by Gaynor Arnold is a take on Dickens' marriage

How well do we ever really know another person — even those we profess to love? In Gaynor Arnold's first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, based on the marriage of author Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine, the question hangs over readers through the entire book who must then draw their own conclusions.

Dickens' name is never used: Here the couple is thinly disguised as Alfred and Dorothea "Dodo" Gibson. He is an amusing, flashy, highly prolific writer, actor, hypnotist and womanizer with a streak of cruelty even to his children who he professes to love so much. She is kind, befuddled, jealous, passionately and desperately in love with him, and after years of child-bearing, quite plump. Their marriage is at first rapturous but in later years ghastly.

The story, told by Dodo, begins at Alfred's funeral. But where is Dodo? Shut away in a cramped apartment, where she has been forced to live away from her husband and children for the past 10 years. She was pushed into this tragic separation by "One and Only" as he called himself while he, her younger sister Sissy (his lover, perhaps) and the children remained in the family home.

Could this be the Charles Dickens we've known and loved from school? Yes, it is. Through his novels, his periodicals and other writings, he fought against social injustice. But in his own life, he was hardly a champion for even those who were supposed to be closest to him.

Gaynor Arnold's research is well-documented. Catherine Dickens wanted it all to be preserved in the British Museum, plaintively noting "so that the world will know he loved me once."

Girl in a Blue Dress is not a diatribe against marriage or men. It is Dorothea's way of coming to understand her own failings — and his.

As Dodo wonders and remembers, the novel moves forward. Shortly after the funeral, she receives an invitation to have tea with Queen Victoria. The two widows discuss their marriages to "great men"; the difficulties of childbirth; Alfred's unfinished novel; then again about "our battalion of children" as the queen describes them. Although Dodo has not been part of the lives of her husband and children for 10 years, she responds to the queen's questions as if she has. The queen, preoccupied with her own grief, seems not to notice or perhaps, pretends not to know about Dodo's banishment.

That banishment was described in no uncertain terms in the formal separation agreement, signed by Dorothea and sent to newspapers for publication.

The behavior is shocking but in Victorian London, it was soon forgotten as the genius of Alfred Gibson/Charles Dickens continued to thrive and more great literature was produced for the adoring public.

Girl in a Blue Dress is a dazzling novel that sheds light on a complex marriage, the madness of creativity, and finally, a woman who finds the courage to confront her past and her demons.

Rachel Pollack is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.


Girl in a Blue Dress

By Gaynor Arnold, Crown,

432 pages, $25.99

Book review: 'Girl in a Blue Dress' by Gaynor Arnold is a take on Dickens' marriage 08/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. 5 ways officials are trying to stop Pinellas' teenage car thieves


    In the last week of June, bleeding into the first days of July, 20 cars went missing in the city of St. Petersburg.

     U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, left, takes notes as St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, right, talks about car thefts in St. Petersburg during a meeting earlier this month.
  2. 'Deadliest Catch' captain talks reality TV, Snoop Dogg and Tampa Bay


    Keith Colburn is best known as captain of the Wizard on the Discovery Network series Deadliest Catch. Colburn and crew go to battle in the Bering Sea working one of the deadliest jobs in America. A seasoned veteran, Keith has filmed 11 seasons of the show and is still going strong with his relief captain …

    Captain Keith Colburn is seen in this undated photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel
  3. Police: Video shows teens watching, laughing as man drowns


    COCOA — Authorities in Florida say a group of teens watched and laughed as a man drowned in a retention pond last week.

    Jamel Dunn drowned in a retention pond in the city of Cocoa on July 9. Cocoa police say they later discovered a group of teens recorded the 31-year-old's drowning on video. [Florida Today]
  4. As Rubio avoids public settings on health care, disabled Tampa man's story gets attention


    Michael Phillips was hunting demons Monday night when the news broke: The Senate health care bill was dying.

    Michael Phillips at home in Tampa with his mother, Karen Clay
  5. HomeTeam 100: Players 51-60


    TAMPA - Wharton defensive back AJ Hampton will help lead the Wildcats into the 2017 season. Taken 7-6-17 by Scott Purks