Monday, August 17, 2009

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold - Guest Review by Nicole Dettmar

I would like to thank Wendy for offering the opportunity to write. Although I am a medical librarian, one of the things I have yet to do for my job is read and review books because my focus is distance education for other librarians. I’ll also let you in on a little secret: I knew Wendy as we were growing up together in our suburban neighborhood. She is even kinder than she expresses here at Musings of a Bookish Kitty and always has been!

Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life & Marriage of Charles Dickens by Gaynor Arnold

Crown, 2009
Fiction – Historical; 414 pages

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.
-Publisher’s blurb

While I am a Victoriana fan in the closet when it comes to tea parties & architecture and acknowledge Charles Dickens’ influence on both literature & society, I’ve never been really into his stories. Before reading Girl in a Blue Dress I was completely unaware of his domestic life being at such odds with the public image of a prominent author who spoke out against the grave societal injustices of the Industrial era. The personal lives of historical great figures are not often mentioned in school compared to today’s world where every new aspect is immediately published in a blog somewhere!

Arnold’s novel did indeed show Charles Dickens as a powerfully driven and vibrant man in Alfred Gibson, for whom “Love was such a radiant feeling that he never stopped to divide it into what was suitable for a wife, or for a sister, or for a friend.”

From the day they met and danced at Dodo’s childhood home through a whirlwind courtship of secret love letters transported by her younger sister who later died in Alfred’s arms (a true story, Dickens deeply mourned her loss the rest of his life), their early relationship was so full of passion that they had eight children in quick succession. Alfred curiously absolved himself of his role for their being, and seemed to blame Dodo for their family’s size. He often ranted and raved that they would all be sent into poverty despite his increasing fame and income which was his lifelong fear based on his own childhood (also drawn from Dickens’ real life).

Raising so many children is challenging enough, to do so in a house where all family members are merely satellites to a brilliant One and Only star at the center is exhausting. After Dodo suffers a nervous collapse she recovers at an institution, and then returns to her family to find she has been completely shut out while another young woman has captured Alfred’s attention. Divorce was unthinkable in Victorian society; she is sent to live away from the home, and then devastated by his statement in the newspaper about their separation stating that she was an unfit wife and mother.

What I sought and could not find was a realistic persona for Dodo in the story. Vacillating from assuring her daughter, full of rage at her father, that “If I have had heartache in my life… your father was not to blame for it. He gave me everything I have valued.” to suddenly inquiring of Queen Victoria “Does it not strike you as unfair, Ma’am, that a simple question of one’s sex should condemn one forever to a particular sphere?” over tea after ten years in banished seclusion struck me as out of synch and jarringly modern.

To be fair, there is very little documentation of Catherine Dickens to draw on compared to Charles, but I regret not being able to ‘get’ Dodo the way I did Alfred. I struggled to keep reading through the latter part of the book and was a bit baffled by a surreal (and supernatural) ending. I had previously read several positive reviews and agree there are well-written moments, such as Dodo’s confrontation with Alfred’s paramour that compels you to challenge assumptions about what an affair is, but I was not sucked into a page-turner of a time.

Instead I find myself reflecting on what the roles of a husband, wife and society are in marriage & family and how they have changed over the centuries. For this the book is a captivating peek at Victorian society from a woman’s perspective, a rare thing indeed.

Many thanks to Nicole from Eagle Dawg Blog for writing this terrific review. When I requested volunteers to guest post on my blog, I did not expect to hear from my childhood friend, Nikki. It was a wonderful surprise, to say the least, and I am thrilled to introduce you to her today.


  1. What an interesting look at this book Nicole! Thanks for being a guest writer. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  2. This was a very interesting review. I have this book on my TBR pile and am looking forward to seeing what I think of it.

  3. Great guest post! And what wonderful words between long time friends :)

  4. An excellent review. Glad you decided to particate as a guest blogger.

  5. Hi Wendy! Hi Nicole! This is a great post and I hope to get a copy of this book at my local bookstores. :)

  6. Wow, Nicole--this book sounds fascinating. I secretly love Dickens (not in that way of course), but I'm also very intimidated by his writing. This seems like it would be a great companion to his novels to understand the author a little better.

  7. I haven't read this one, but the review makes it sound really interesting.

  8. This book sounds amazing. I was about to profile it for W.O.W....LOL

    I do have a few others; actually plenty of others!

  9. Nice review. I haven't heard about this one. Thanks for sharing! (And I agree, she is very nice and sweet.)

  10. Thank you all for your comments! I'm so glad Nikki could step in and help me out like this (thank you, Nikki!).


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