Some months ago one of the reading groups that I belong to online was buzzing about a novel set in the Victorian period. Many considered it to be a very good novel and worth the effort to read, and when it was released here in the States, I decided to add it to my never-ceasing stack of books to be read.
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First time author Gaynor Arnold uses the life and marriage of Charles Dickens to create a haunting story of a life that was burdened by fame and responsibility, with unforeseen and tragic consequences. While the characters of Alfred Gibson and his family are fictional, the author created the story from the very well known Charles Dickens, and his rather unusual home life.
At the start of the novel, Alfred Gibson, novelist and playwright, the most famous of the Victorian writers and possessed of a devoted following around the world, has died. "The One and Only"s wife, Dorothea -- called Dodo by her family and friends -- watches the hysteria with calm. For nearly twenty years she was with him, raising their numerous brood of children, putting up with his traveling and moods, but the man that she had worked so hard to please cast her aside a decade earlier, banishing her from their children's lives, and sentencing her to a life of half-shadows and misery, in a small home and no company save for her maid, Wilson.
To the public, Dodo Gibson is a spurned wife, and his husband moved her sister, Sissy, in to raise their children, and rumours of his taking up with a pretty young actress, Miss Ricketts, for companionship. Denied access to her children, Dodo has waited, but for what, is never really made clear. As the world mourns Alfred Gibson, Dodo's first visitor is her eldest child, Kitty, decked out in extravagant mourning and enraged by the fact that her mother is ignored. Dodo takes it all in stride, apparently uncaring.
But inside, the reader is treated to quite a storm indeed. For through Dodo's eyes, we get to see a very different Alfred Gibson. Swept away by him as a young girl, Dodo married him in haste, and Alfred, full of fire and enthusiasm, set out to change the world and make his fortune as a writer. Dodo falls in love with this paragon, and at first, struggles to meet his expectations of a helpmeet, striving to keep their ever growing brood of children, and the finances and household in order. And Alfred soon discovers that not only can he write and act -- he is determined to be the lead not just at home but on the stage as well -- but that he quickly develops a following that not just adores his work, but clamours for more. Alfred provides that, creating friendships with everyone it seems, but also oblivious to the fact that his wife has her own dreams as well.
And much like the sun, Alfred dazzles everyone, creating a blinding light that not just illuminates the dark side of Victorian life, but also enchants the young women that flock around him. For Dodo, she tries to bury her jealousy and own hunger for her husband's company, shaping herself into the very model of the perfect wife, and suffers from deep self-doubt and questioning. As we follow her life, we also see her grown up children, and the constant fight for not just herself, but also for privacy in a world that is discovering a need for celebrities...
Ms. Arnold not only captures the psychological drama of a woman denied, but also the right feel of Victorian England. I was caught up in this one right from the start, and found Dodo's story fascinating to read. For Dodo is a very believable character, and Gaynor Arnold gives her a vibrant voice in describing what it must have been like for the partner of someone who not just is famous, but has quite a few quirks of his own to deal with.
The author includes quite a few twists as well, taking the titles and plots of Charles Dicken's very real life and books and giving them a new vibrancy. If the reader is familiar with Dicken's works, there will be a few quiet chuckles over the titles that Gibson's produces, but it's done with such a subtle touch that I at first didn't quite notice it. While most of the action is shown to the reader among Dodo's recollections and conversations with the people who are grieving along with her over Gibson, it's done with plenty of skill, and I never did get annoyed with the story.
Because the enjoyment for the novel comes not just with creating a very detailed look at the daily life and customs of the time, but also a mystery that is wrapped up within the story -- just who was Alfred Gibson? Worshipped as a celebrity, the man who he was in private takes a very different angle in Dodo's eyes and story, and I was compelled by what the reality was. While I certainly felt sympathy for her situation, and at first, was slightly annoyed at Dodo being a bit of a doormat, as I got to know her, I liked her more and more. All too often, authors make the error of creating a strong willed woman character for their heroine, but then have them behaving in ways that are unrealistic for the time and place.
Dodo is very much a product of her time and place, and the real story lays in how Arnold is able to draw her out of the role of abused wife to her own voice and a future that is hers. And frankly, by the end of the book, I was ready to brain Alfred Gibson with a poker for being such a sadistic, selfish jerk of a man -- but then too, that was the Victorian view of the world at the time, and Arnold draws on her source material in a terrific way.
For those who have read widely in Victorian literature, this is a gem of a book. While the story does indeed remain that of the Gibsons, there are enough little clues and asides in the story to make it believable, and as I read, I found a renewed interest in the works of Charles Dickens. The writing is subtle, the plot interesting, and the final resolution a very believable one. It's a book that is going to my keeper shelves, and one that I think I will be returning to in the future. It's no surprise at all that this was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
As to future writings by Gaynor Arnold, I'll be looking out for her next book. If this is any indication of her skill as a writer, she stands to be a knockout.
Four stars overall, happily recommended.
Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel of the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens
2008; Crown Publishers, Random House Inc.
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