Sunday, January 9, 2011

Girl in a Blue Dress - Gaynor Arnold

Summary: At the end of her life, Catherine, the cast-off wife of Charles Dickens, gave the letters she had received from her husband to their daughter Kate, asking her to donate them to the British Museum, “so the world may know that he loved me once.” The incredible vulnerability and heartache evident beneath the surface of this remark inspired Gaynor Arnold to write Girl in a Blue Dress, a dazzling debut novel inspired by the life of this tragic yet devoted woman. Arnold brings the spirit of Catherine Dickens to life in the form of Dorothea “Dodo” Gibson–a woman who is doomed to live in the shadow of her husband, Alfred, the most celebrated author in the Victorian world.

The story opens on the day of Alfred’s funeral. Dorothea is not among the throngs in attendance when The One and Only is laid to rest. Her mourning must take place within the walls of her modest apartment, a parting gift from Alfred as he ushered her out of their shared home and his life more than a decade earlier. Even her own children, save her outspoken daughter Kitty, are not there to offer her comfort–they were poisoned against her when Alfred publicly declared her an unfit wife and mother. Though she refuses to don the proper mourning attire, Dodo cannot bring herself to demonize her late husband, something that comes all too easily to Kitty.

Instead, she reflects on their time together–their clandestine and passionate courtship, when he was a force of nature and she a willing follower; and the salad days of their marriage, before too many children sapped her vitality and his interest. She uncovers the frighteningly hypnotic power of the celebrity author she married. Now liberated from his hold on her, Dodo finds the courage to face her adult children, the sister who betrayed her, and the charming actress who claimed her husband’s love and left her heart aching.

A sweeping tale of love and loss that was long-listed for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, Girl in a Blue Dress is both an intimate peek at the woman who was behind one of literature’s most esteemed men and a fascinating rumination on marriage that will resonate across centuries.
Summary from book, cover photo from

My Review: The inspiration for this tale was drawn from Charles Dicken's failed marriage and the rumors surrounding it. The author has taken certain fictitious liberties in creating this story by changing all names and certain circumstances, for example Dodo bears eight children and loses two during their childhood whereas Catherine had ten children and only lost one. Yet many facts, such as the love Alfred has for Catherine's sisters and how he deeply morns the passing of one, remain true to history.

Set in Victorian society, the essence of Dickens is preserved within the life-like characters Arnold creates. Dicken's character is played by Alfred Gibson, an essentric writer with an uncanny ability to dazzle woman. Dorothea (Dodo) is cast in Catherine's role and she narrates this tale as an abandoned hermit woman set in the weeks following her estranged husband's death. The narrative alternates between Dodo's present and her past beginning as a love-struck priviledged teenager.

As the tale winds in and out of the past and present through trials and celebrations it is quite easy to become entirely absorbed. The message of  love's power is encountered in many forms and in the end demonstrates it's ability to make one forgive the unforgivable. This great work of art from a first time novelist entertains all the way through ending in a completely satisfying manner.

My Rating: 4 Stars

To Sum it up:  A tale of undying love and forgiveness spun from the threads of Dicken's failed marriage.

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