Review: Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold

Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold. Birmingham, Tindal Street Press: 2011 (2008), 438 pages, £7.99 paperback, ISBN 978-1-906994-15-0 

“My husband’s funeral is today. And I’m sitting here alone in my upstairs room while half London followed him to his grave.”

Cover image of Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold
Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold

So begins Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress, a novel which traces the story of Dorothea Gibson following the death of her estranged husband, famous author Alfred Gibson. Narrated from Dorothea’s perspective, the novel sees her look back over the years of their courtship, marriage and separation, telling her side of a history in which she was frequently silenced by those around her.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to identify that the Gibsons are not entirely fictional creations: references to writer Alfred Gibson’s “precious Public” (18), “the savage masses in America all those years ago” (3), and his status as “the One and Only, Yours Truly, the Great Original” (6) are the first of many indicators that the Gibsons have their real-life counterparts in Charles and Catherine Dickens. Throughout the novel a familiar set of characters emerge: Dorothea’s younger sister who is much beloved by Alfred, another sister who becomes a mother-figure to the couple’s numerous children, and a suspected “other woman”. The key events are similarly structured around the Dickenses life, from the couple’s engagement that sits uncomfortably with Dorothea’s family, her removal from the family home accompanied by a public announcement of separation, and her estrangement from her young children. Central to it all is the “Great Man” himself, author here of works including Edward Cleverly, Little Amy and Richard Masterman, capable of immense feats of productivity, and driven by his obsessive love for “the Public”.

The novel emerged out of Arnold’s personal fascination with Dickens’s life and works, and her detailed knowledge of Dickens constantly comes through both in the events that structure the novel and in the personal habits and behaviours of many of the characters. However, in the author’s note at the end of the novel Arnold emphasises that the Dickenses provide only a framework for the story, which she sees as an imaginative exploration of the past rather than an attempt to be accurately true to the real history. Speaking at a recent author’s event Arnold reiterated that the process isn’t just a case of changing the characters’ names; to her these are new, independent characters that become her own in the process of writing.

With this in mind I set out to enjoy this novel on its own terms, not looking to judge it as a piece of Dickens biography but to see how Arnold would handle the imaginative departure into the lives of her characters. I felt, however, that ultimately this is a novel held back by its strong rooting in historical events and that often seems confused as to how to bridge fiction and reality. Arnold’s choice to narrate the novel from Dorothea’s perspective is a worthy attempt to give voice to a woman whose life, both then and now, has been overshadowed by that of her husband, and this opens up a potentially rich field for exploration. Indeed at times Arnold does well to convincingly secure the reader’s sympathy for Dorothea’s situation, evoking the frustration of a woman whose increasingly emotionally fraught attempts to prove her mental stability to her husband and sister serve only to further demonstrate to them her mental fragility. But the development of Dorothea as a character seems held back by the need to return to the facts underpinning this story, and lacks the emotional depth that might have been achieved. In having to fit the imaginative rendering of the characters’ inner lives into a trajectory of events beyond the writer’s control I felt that the text often becomes explanatory instead of exploratory, seeking to offer psychological reasons for situations rather than finding freedom to fully develop characters in their own right.

Contributing to this, the novel lacked the grounding in ideas of Victorian thought, feeling and emotion that was needed to enrich the development of the characters in this way. The historical context is there in the attention to facts and details, but although the characters operate with an awareness of Victorian social codes they often read as modern interpretations of, or responses to, those codes, rather than as convincingly “Victorian” in so far as how their inner lives and thoughts are shaped through interactions with Victorian structures of thought and feeling. As with many neo-Victorian novelists writing in recent years, Arnold uses her position as contemporary writer as an opportunity to offer more open narrative handling around issues of sexuality and femininity: an interesting case in point is the encounter between Dorothea and Miss Ricketts, the Nelly Ternan figure of whom she suspects her husband was having an affair. The meeting presses at the question of the extent of the relationship between her and Alfred Gibson:

‘Yet do you still insist nothing improper passed between you?’ I watch her face, with its air of injured innocence.

‘Nothing I consider improper. The world may have a different view, and I suspect it does. But then the world consideres all loving transactions between a man and a woman to be completely carnal.’

Carnal! I have never heard that word said by a woman. I look at her sweet little mouth with surprise. Yet her assumption of innocence is absurd. (386-7).

As in many other passages, here Arnold seems trapped between a sense of what these women should think and feel as Victorians and a desire to do something more with this, but I didn’t feel she was quite successful in achieving this. She takes the opportunity to have the women speak with something approaching a more modern liberty of expression whilst working within an understanding of what Victorian women might have said, but this never quite becomes comfortably accommodated in the writing: the shock Dorothea expresses here might be “accurate”, but the self-conscious recognition of that shock is just one of many instances where the narrative remains all too aware of the position it straddles between fact and fiction, past and present.

This was a novel that I wanted (and tried) to enjoy more than I did, and I think my disappointment came largely from the feeling that there was strong potential in the subject that could have been more successfully drawn out. Ultimately I felt that Arnold remains constrained by her duty to address a real past, and yet there wasn’t a rich enough sense of the historical period surrounding the central characters to give the emotional depth and resonance that the most successful neo-Victorian novels achieve. I wonder how much this is the case with biographical fiction that emerges out of interest in a particular character or set of events, rather than those novelists that take a broader understanding of the period as their starting point and carve out a narrative within that. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s experiences of reading neo-Victorian biographical fiction: what do you think makes for a successful novel of this kind, and what other novels would you recommend?

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