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Mrs. Dickens's Bleak House

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS

A Novel Inspired by the Life & Marriage of Charles Dickens

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By Gaynor Arnold

Crown. 414 pp. $25.99

Charles Dickens was the modern age's first great celebrity, a writer who not only essentially invented Christmas -- as a recent book argues -- but also created many of our sentimental attitudes about hearth and home. Two new novels remind us, though, that Dickens's own hearth and home were just the sort of mess we get from today's movie stars and defense-of-marriage politicians. "Girl in a Blue Dress" is the second book about the Victorian author's tortured private life that I've come across in a month. The first, from the aggrieved husband's point of view, was Richard Flanagan's "Wanting," and now Gaynor Arnold's very different novel sounds like the wife's rebuttal. I wish I could tell you which one is better, but like the spineless friend of a divorcing couple, I love them both, and if I still belonged to a book club -- particularly a coed book club -- I'd insist on inviting this irreconcilable pair.

Flanagan portrays Charles Dickens's marital unhappiness with deep, partisan sympathy, allowing us only glimpses of the bitter, otiose woman at home. But Arnold takes up Mrs. Dickens's side of the marriage, and as any divorce lawyer could predict, it's an entirely different, equally fascinating story. Arnold acknowledges in an author's note that "Girl in a Blue Dress," which was long-listed for the Booker Prize, is "a work of fiction" and that she has "taken a novelist's liberties [and] changed many things" (most notably all the real figures' names). But those liberties and changes free her to write a moving story about the special burden of loving a universally adored man.

The back story here is heartbreaking. Soon after wedding a young woman far above his lowly station, Dickens got her pregnant, and though he complained ungallantly about the financial burden of so many mouths, he managed to get his wife pregnant at least a dozen more times. And then, after years of verbal and emotional abuse, he finally threw her out of their house, separated her from their children and published a self-justifying notice in the newspapers that brought the situation to everyone's attention while begging the public to respect the "sacredly private nature" of his arrangement -- the precursor of today's hilarious practice of appearing on Oprah, Larry King and Charlie Rose to defend your privacy.

Arnold's novel seems poised to enact a much-deserved act of feminist revenge, something like Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea," which exposed the brutishness of Rochester in "Jane Eyre." But Arnold is ultimately too charitable and too attendant to the historical record for anything like that. "Girl in a Blue Dress" is, among many things, the story of one woman's remarkable resistance to bitterness and the blessings that eventually flow from that spirit.

The story opens on the day of the great writer's funeral, as though it were only possible to look at the little people orbiting Dickens once his star went dark. The narrator, the new widow, Dorothea Gibson, sits alone while "half of London follows him to his grave." Riots break out as adoring fans surge around the carriage carrying his casket. Soon afterward, friends and family members drop by the little house where she's been cooped up for 10 years and needle her to rage against her husband's atrocious behavior.

"Aren't you angry at the way he used you?" one daughter asks. "Don't you want to howl up to Heaven at the unfairness of it all?" But Dorothea is neither Medea nor Penelope; she's a kind of Victorian, domesticated Job. She acknowledges what she's endured but refuses to curse the power responsible for it. "I have been angry, and jealous, and sorry for myself. But such emotions only feed on themselves," she thinks. "I am no longer interested in winning or losing."

Still, these visits from her children and friends, most of whom she never saw during her decade of exile, inspire a searching reassessment of her marriage to "The One and Only." As the novel progresses over the next few days, we're treated to her memories of their passionate courtship, the early thrill of matrimony and those long years of neglect, illness and jealousy. She realizes, as no one else does, that her husband was not a saint or a serial adulterer. "Love was such a radiant feeling," she thinks, "that he never stopped to divide it into what was suitable for a wife, or for a sister, or for a friend." How impossible would living with such a man be?

In this clever act of biography and fiction, Arnold brings him exuberantly alive: the entertainer, the raconteur, the Wonder Dad -- always brightly dressed, captivating and magnetic, ready with a joke or a silly face. Alfred Gibson, as Dickens is called here, was a ferociously controlling man with boundless energy and an insatiable appetite for affection. He doted on young women, even those in his own family, with obsessive attention that would drive any wife to jealous alarm.

The manic power of his imagination -- driven by a fear of the poverty of his youth -- was constantly employed in creating new stories, plays and novels, but he was also busy shaping the narrative of his family life so that he always appeared understanding and kind. "You can control prose," one of their daughters tells Dorothea. "And his prose-children did what he wanted them to do. But he was never so passionate about his real children."

Yes, the world's most popular writer comes off looking rather bad, but that's the easy part. The more difficult and satisfying task, which Arnold handles so effectively, is portraying the intermingling of love and resentment, affection and pettiness, that renders any marriage mysterious to outsiders.

Ultimately, Dorothea must confront the object of her husband's most passionate and humiliating obsession: a young actress whom the world assumes was his mistress. In real life, this woman was Ellen Ternan, but in Arnold's novel this meeting between lover and wife is a daring act of invention that makes for an insightful climax. Love, the author insists, is more complex and expressed in more varieties than we usually admit. To the extent that "Girl in a Blue Dress" shows the darker side of a great writer's character, it also leaves us understanding him rather than despising him, and that's far closer to what his long-suffering wife must have felt. After all, on her deathbed Catherine Dickens donated her letters to the British Museum "so that the world may know he loved me once."

You can follow Charles on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roncharles.



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