Watchful readers will know that I've recently finished reading Dickens' Bleak House after an interminable three months. (Not interminable because the book wasn't to my taste - I loved almost every page - but interminable because of my reduced reading schedule and my naughty habit of putting big, bulky classic reads to one side while I fritter my way through some contemporary fiction.) Having put it down for the last time I felt bereft and, in a moment of weakness, toyed with moving straight on to another fat Victorian novel (I was seriously considering some Trollope - Phineas Finn, probably, which would have been on my bedside table until June at least). But I reminded myself of the huge pile of Orange Prize longlistees I had dragged home from the library and made a compromise: I chose a book inspired by a Victorian novelist rather than a Victorian novel. I'm enormously glad I did. Gaynor Arnold's Girl in a Blue Dress (which has been on my radar since the Booker longlist last year) is a neat pearl of a book - literary but light, well-written without being uptight and thoughtful without being morbid or preachy. It has been the perfect answer to three months of Dickensian inertia. I read it in just a few days, throwing off my Archives reading and pretending not to have a syllabus to prepare for next month's teaching. If all books were this enjoyable I'd never get anything done.
As you may know, Girl in a Blue Dress is a fictionalisation of the fraught marriage and scandalous seperation of Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth. Admittedly, the characters do not bear these names - instead we have Alfred Gibson and Dorothea Millar - but the parallel is hardly subtle. The couples lead virtually synonymous lives - from the children born and buried, to the novels written and magazines published (all with barely disguised titles) and the emotional breakdowns endured. There are some minor differences - eight children rather than ten, for example - but only one major one. While Catherine Dickens was a silent party in her wedded life, drowned out by her husband's eloquence and the demands of social propriety, Dorothea Millar's is the only voice we hear in Arnold's novel as she narrates her present and her past to us. We hear her side of the couple's story: young love, initial happy poverty, Gibson's growing success, the children that come one after another and the emotional rift that begins to yawn between them, arguably widened by the arrival of a certain young actress in her husband's life. Alfred (and, by association, Dickens) is heard at second hand; he is reduced, powerless, put in his place. I can almost hear Gaynor Arnold saying 'There! See how you like it!'.
Like Charles and Catherine, Alfred and Dorothea are an unlikely match from the beginning. When they first meet he is an aspiring but penniless writer, little better than a clerk, and she is the plump, pampered daughter of rich man; he has endured a childhood overcast by debt and hardship, while she has sewn samplers in a pre-lapsarian suburban eden. In temperament, experience and ambition they are entirely at odds. Nevertheless, they fall in love instantly - Dorothea with Alfred's exuberance, confidence and charm; Alfred with Dorothea's otherworldly innocence and, perhaps, the curve of her breasts in a certain blue dress. As is so often the case it is precisely the things they initially admire in each other that bring them into conflict later. As they years pass Alfred's nervous energy, combined with his insatiable ambition to be a Great Man, begin to wear on Dorothea, who craves simple pleasures and uncomplicated intimicies. At the same time Dorothea's inability to keep house or play the glamorous hostess, frustrates Alfred's longing for a helpmeet to smooth the passage of his genius. It doesn't help that Dorothea swells up like a balloon and pops out a child every 18 months, followed by a period of exhaustion and post-natal depression. After 20 years of marriage everything that was once Dorothea - the vivacious confident girl in the blue dress - has been thoroughly repressed in 'Dodo', a fat, jealous embarrassment of a wife, abnegated to the point of extinction.
There is no one who recognises this as thoroughly as Dodo herself. As the book opens we find her sitting alone in her tiny parlour on the day of Alfred's funeral, a forgotten widow. Publically cast off almost ten years earlier (but still a lawful wife - divorce would have been an unthinkable scandal), she grieves with the heart of the girl she once was, holding on to the memory of Alfred's once-upon-a-time love. Yet while she continues to offer herself at the altar of the author's greatness, she recognises the extent and injustice of her sacrifice. The sacrifice all respectable married women are forced to make:
But I can't help reflecting on the Queen's situation; and how even she, the most powerful woman in the land, was under the thumb of her Prince. And I see as if for the first time how we put aside all that is strong within us, all that is particular about us, and bend to the will of our husbands.
At a glance, and seen through Alfred's eyes and the eyes of the fashionable world, there isn't very much strong or particular in Dorothea to begin with. Alfred cuttingly refers to her at one dinner party as humourless, soulless and without conversation - in jest, of course; when she jokes, he laughs not at the joke but at her attempt to make it. Dorothea's own memories are all about Alfred's conversation, Alfred's exploits, Alfred's ideas; it is only obliquely and through the memories of others that we discover her real qualities. She is visited in her closeted widowhood by Alfred's oldest friend, Michael O'Rourke (who may have amorous designs of his own), and it is clear that he remembers a very different Dorothea to the one she imagines; similarly, her children's nurse reminises about a very different sounding woman. The Dorothea they describe is full of quiet grace and gentle conversation; a peace-maker; a loving mother and a caring wife; a retiring woman ground down by a tireless, obsessive, emotionally-constipated genius. But not so retiring as to be Alfred's doormat -when she is ill-used or neglected, she demands restitution and fair treatment. It is only as much as her love deserves:
I never set out to quarrel with him, of course, and cannot count the occasions on which I bit back words of complaint or censure even as they rose to my lips. But it is not always possible to hide one's feelings, and my very love for him seemed to draw me into querulous demands that were out of my mouth before I knew, and jealous tempers that I despised even as I was in the midst of them. He accused me of having a limited mind; and wanting to limit him too. You would quench my light. You would silence my voice. You would claw me down to the commonplace. But to be commonplace is not a fault. The world needs commonplace people as much as it needs original people, and it is the worship of the commonplace people that made Alfred who he was.
The problem with her marriage, it becomes clear, stemmed not so much from her flaws as from Alfred's desire for opposing qualities at once: Dodo was to be undemanding and selfless, and yet always ready to fulfill his unspoken demands with energy; she was never to be jealous of his passion for other women, but still to be utterly devoted to him alone; she was never to get pregnant but always be available to share his bed. In other words, she was to be the Angel of his House, a Little Woman along the lines of Esther in Bleak House: part servant, part dependent, part companion, part saint. Never wanting anything, and being grateful for every crumb that dropped from the Great One's table. After Dorothea's banishment from the marital home, Alfred finds a replacement for her in her sister, Sissy (Georgiana Hogarth in Dickens' real life), who serves as his housekeeper and caregiver and is always at his side be it morning and at night. Dorothea acerbically confronts Sissy's smug service late in the novel: Try giving birth to eight children in sixteen years, she says, at the same time as getting up at 4am to brew your husband's coffee and lay out his writing materials. See if you don't fall short too.
As the novel progresses and Alfred Gibson's old age indiscretions with the seventeen year old actress Wilhemina Ricketts emerge, one begins to sense that a deeper psychosis is also at the base of his failed marriage to Dodo. Dorothea recalls his passionate obsession with her fifteen year old sister, Alice, who died of a fit in his arms, and finds echoes of it throughout his life. She does not imagine - and nor should we - that Alfred was sexually attracted to vulnerable innocents (or, god forbid, little girls), but she comes to recognise that he was emotionally fixated on their qualities. That their youth, beauty, sexual innocence, dependence and awe of him provoked his finest feelings of sympathy and love; that they embodied the sweetest version of the Angel in the House. The 'girl in the blue dress' of the title is the composite of all these girl-women, the cumulative ideal of Gibson's imaginings. Dorothea realises this fully in meeting her nemesis, Miss Ricketts, who turns out to be nobody and nothing particular either. Just a delicate sparrow of a woman in need of a father figure:
'But it seemed - I beg your pardon - as if he needed something more. Some ideal companion he had not yet met.' ... My blood chills in my veins as I hear the drum-roll of his discontent once again, and recognise that under all his compulsive romancing, and flirting, all his excessive hilarity, all the falling in and out of friendships, all the work, work, work, all the restless changes of his life - there was always the headlong quest for something that was forever beyond his grasp.
Innocence, after all, was always beyond Gibson's grasp and tragically so. If he acted to possess the objects of his fancy, they were no longer what he wanted them to be; if he did not act, then they were lost to him and drifted into the arms of another. This is why he mourned so extravagantly and so long for little Alice, his lost love. After the shock and initial pain has past, he held on to grief because it was delicious. By dying at the height of her perfection, Alice was always what Alfred wanted and needed. He could possess her memory entirely, frozen in aspic. Meanwhile, the brief moment in which Dorothea, plump and pretty in her blue dress, fulfilled his fantasy was destroyed instantly in marrying her. She explains to Miss Ricketts:
I sigh. 'Women don't have to do anything,' I say, 'They merely have to be. The men will make what they will of us. Don't you see that you were simply another young creature to be endowed with all the perfections of his imagination. You are very much in the mould - his own particular mould, I mean. The mould I never fitted once I became his wife.'
All of which should make clear that Girl in a Blue Dress is a study in psychologies: the psychology of a Great Man and his wife, and the psychology of Victorian men and women more generally. It is also a talking-cure novel, a record of character therapy - by telling us her story, Dorothea works out and through the difficulties and joys of her life. This leads to some overly pointed philosophising at times, particularly on the issue of women's marital rights, but generally it is very smoothly carried off. Arnold's prose trips neatly out of Dorothea's mouth, sweet and quirky and infinitely readable.
The question on everyone's lips seems to be: Does the novel tell us something new about Dickens? No doubt Gaynor Arnold knows her Dickens well, insofar as my 3-novels worth of knowledge can judge. And no doubt Girl in a Blue Dress is an intriguing, insightful exercise in fictionalising historical figures, reimagining well-rehearsed details and skewing them slightly. As to whether it is a commentary on the 'true' history, I think not. Arnold is playing a game of ideas and feelings with reality, but she has no agenda for re-evaluating it in light of her fiction - and this is why she changes the names, I think. Not just out of sensitivity and clarity as regards issues of fictionalisation but in order to highlight how personal and how particular her vision of Charles and Catherine Dickens' life is, one psychological pathway out of many.
I think the book has a relatively good chance of making the Orange shortlist - it has the balance of readability and extended scope that the judges seem to have favoured in their longlist. While I was reading it I also received a press release about the 2009 Desmond Elliott Prize for best debut fiction and I note its appearance on that list as well. There is certainly something pleasing about this novel that may not immediately meet the eye.