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Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens Hardcover – July 14, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Arnold's accomplished debut is a fictionalized take on the tumultuous marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens. On the day of famed writer Alfred Gibson's public funeral, his estranged widow, Dorothea (Dodo), sits alone in her small London apartment, reminiscing about the One and Only. Although caring deeply about his public image as a family man, Alfred's actual relationship with his brood is fraught by his egomaniacal demands and philandering, his career eclipsing everything else. Dodo wishes she could climb onto the page, become one of her husband's protagonists and cajole him to pay attention to her. After years of marriage, Alfred casts Dodo out of the family home after taking up with a mistress, publicly shaming her, and admonishing their children not to visit her. After Alfred's death, Dodo grapples with the choice of emerging from her self-imposed exile or remaining in seclusion without facing the public who revered him. Arnold's impeccable research paints an entirely different portrait of Dickens than that assumed by readers of his fiction. (July)
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“Arnold’s knowledge of Dickens is impeccable, and she uses fiction to give Mrs. D. what she never had–a chance to interview her husband’s mistress and reclaim her beloved children. Beautifully written, entirely satisfying.”
The Times (London)

“A fine work of imagination and compassion that offers up other ways for us to understand a popular genius and those who loved him.”

“Fabulously indulgent . . . a lovely, rich evocation of the period that rises above the faintly damning ‘historical fiction’ label with its complex characterization and silky prose. A neat rendering of a celebrity marriage with all the pressure and expectation that courting fame invites.”
The Observer

“A fascinating portrait of a Victorian woman in the near-impossible position of maintaining a sense of self while married to a famous, difficult, and wildly charismatic genius.”

“With his manic energy and flamboyant waistcoats, Gibson is a Dickensian character–and no wonder, for Arnold’s inspiration for her wholly absorbing novel lies in the complex married life of Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine.”
Daily Mail

“I could not put down this compelling and beautifully written novel. A young girl falls wildly in love with a brilliant, sensual writer. As the years pass, he becomes a genius adored by all Victorian England though in his personal life he turns against her, banishing her from him and their children when he falls in love with someone younger. Slowly she calls upon the greater power of ordinary real love in the face of genius and moves forward to take back her life. I cheered for her on every page of this deeply touching story.”
—Stephanie Cowell, author of Marrying Mozart

"Arnold paints a vivid picture of the breakdown of a marriage, the selfish demands of creativity, the suffocating confines of Victorian society, and the complex bonds between men and women. Her compassion for all of her characters, no matter how flawed or unsympathetic, makes for utterly compelling reading."
—Elizabeth Hickey, author of The Wayward Muse

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 14, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307462269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307462268
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 10.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #506,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
He was the greatest Victorian author in all of British literature. Charles Dickens was a brilliant author of such masterpieces as David Copperfield; Hard Times; Bleak House; A Tale of Two Cities; Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit; Oliver Twist and many others. Yet little is known about his longsuffering wife Catherine Dickens.
In this new first time novel British author Gaynor Arnold recreates the domestic life of Dickens and Catherine. She calls the author "Alfred Gibbons" and his wife Dorothea. Dody is a buxom beauty who is wed to the young energetic Gibbons. He rises to fame with his genius while she stays home giving birth to many children. The famous and spoiled author has an affair with an actress, leaves his wife taking his children with him and condemning her to ten years of living alone is a small London flat.
The novel begins on the day of the author's funeral. We hear Dodo tell her story as she remembers the high and low points of her life with the fascinating but unfaithful author. Arnold has done her homework allowing the reader inside the home of a celebrity and his family. Dickens was childish and selfish but loved his wife. He was easily infatuated by a pretty face and fell into a long romance with a young actress name Wilhemine. She and Dodo confront each other following his funeral. This is the most dramatic scene in the novel.
Arnold has done a good job in her first venture into novel writing. The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Arnold's research is commendable and her discussion of adultery is tasteful rather than prurient. Her book will win legions of admirers in book clubs across the English speaking world.
As a longtime Dickensian I was already familiar with much of what Arnold tells us.
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Format: Hardcover
Arnold's depiction of a Victorian marriage is painfully accurate, a fictional biography of a prolific English writer, Alfred Gibson and his wife, Dorothea, a thinly-veiled account of the marriage of Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine. Names and events have been changed, of course, but it is certainly reasonable to extrapolate a sense of the marriage and how difficult a life with such a man could be. From the bright days of early marriage to a struggling writer who will capture the imaginations of countless fans, "Dodo" exemplifies the Victorian wife, subservient, gracious and self-sacrificing. But as Alfred's creative genius expands, his self-importance multiplies in equal measure. At the same time, whatever the complex psychological constructs of this man, it becomes his mission to denigrate and belittle his wife, as though to grow his own stature it is necessary to diminish hers: hence the years of humiliation, criticism and finally rejection.

Arnold's challenge is to cast Alfred in the true colors of his nature, while imbuing Dodo's character with compassion, humility and the debilitating burden of petty jealousy justified by her husband's outrageous appetites. For all her suffering, the lonely years of childbearing and Alfred's barbed attacks, her figure lost to the rigors of too many births and an excess of laudanum, Dodo fulfills her wifely duty at the cost of her soul. Rationalizing Alfred's behavior, justifying his misdeeds, Dodo temporizes, apologizes, crumbles under the weight of her husband's demands. Instead of a spirited, brave lady married to a demanding, domineering man, Dodo becomes his victim.
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Format: Hardcover
PBS's popular "Masterpiece Theatre" program recently produced a multi-part televised adaptation of Charles Dickens's LITTLE DORRIT, considered by many to be one of the author's most accomplished works. During the introduction to one of the episodes, the host commented that despite Dickens's lifelong marriage, by the time of the writing of this novel he had fallen out of love with his extremely fertile (and, as a result, rather stout) wife, preferring instead the affections of a childlike, domestic, sweet and mild-mannered girl --- someone very much like the character of Amy Dorrit herself. In LITTLE DORRIT, the hero, Arthur Clennam, is horrified to discover that, during his years abroad, his childhood sweetheart has ballooned into a vast but vacuous woman, a figure to be both pitied and mocked --- and contrasted with the earnest sweetness and childlike beauty of Amy Dorrit. What must Dickens's wife have felt to see her own sad marriage reduced to fictional farce?

In GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS, author Gaynor Arnold seeks to explore this question and others, as she writes her book from the point of view of a woman inspired by Charles Dickens's wife, Catherine. The Dickensian character is named Alfred Gibson; his wife is Dorothea. However, it would soon become clear to those with even a passing knowledge of Dickens's career that Gibson is a stand-in for the most famous Victorian novelist. Catherine Dickens has been reduced to supporting character status in most books about her famous husband; here she is given a chance to tell her own story.
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