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.