Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress was a title I had never heard of before the Booker Prize 2008 longlist was announced. There’s no shame in that, as I suspect the only people who had heard of it were the author and publisher. The publisher in question is Tindal Street, a small Birmingham-based press who have bucked the odds by having three novels listed for the Booker since 2003: an astonishing achievement for a publisher which issues only a handful of books a year. Admittedly last year I wasn’t much enamoured of Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, but I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised this time, even if Tindal Street Press’s logo, of the road sign representing a dead end, doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does the design, as when it arrived I thought Girl in a Blue Dress looked not so much like a fiction book as a fictional book; a prop novel in a TV series; the title and author sounding like something a Victoria Wood character might read. But all that might change when I started reading.
The Girl in a Blue Dress of the title is Dorothea ‘Dodo’ Gibson, widow of Alfred Gibson, the most successful novelist of the Victorian age, the self-styled “One and Only” – Charles Dickens, in other words. Arnold is open and clear about this parallel, and about her intention, that
in Dorothea Gibson I have tried to give voice to the largely voiceless Catherine Dickens, who once requested that her letters from her husband be preserved so that ‘the world may know he loved me once’.
This she does, in scenes where Dorothea recalls Gibson’s courting of her, and despite her father’s warning that Gibson’s “circumstances are – unstable. He has a headlong nature,” she is seduced by this “master of every emotion,” by his energy and enthusiasm, not to say his
voluptuous long hair, far too wayward and rich for a man; and deep brown eyes, too wayward and rich for anyone. They shone like stars. His whole face seemed illuminated.
It may be a sort of madness that illuminates his eyes, as Gibson is presented not so much like Charles Dickens as Robin Williams: always ‘on’ and capering and mucking about to a maddening degree. He is a man of passion, driven to workaholic excess (“holidays were purgatory to him, unless he set himself tasks”) – and to domineering single-mindedness – by early fear of the poorhouse, and quite unable to relinquish control of any aspect of his work or life.
This, then, is the difference between the public and private face of Gibson – of Dickens, presumably – and it’s quite an eye-opener. He keeps a mistress and effectively cuts his wife and daughter out of their inheritance, he is a “cruel, cruel man. Cruel to his wife, and cruel to his children,” because he was unable to control them as he could control his “prose-children”. He is a man never at rest within his own mind.
[I] 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.
This book is clearly a considerable labour of love and a work of real sincerity; in a Booker Prize longlist peppered with underwritten characters, Girl in a Blue Dress presents a full and rounded portrait of a woman, and must surely be at all points precisely what Gaynor Arnold intended it to be. There are interesting and well-executed set pieces, such as a meeting with Queen Victoria and a confrontation with Gibson’s mistress (which provides the book’s only cliffhanger chapter ending), and some fascinating insights into Gibson’s/Dickens’ life such as an interest in hypnotism.
However this is also part of the problem. When the book is interesting, it succeeds because it fills in details about a real person I knew little about; it never flies as a work of fiction in itself, and the writing and storytelling don’t take off. Arnold’s own position on this is curious: on the one hand, assuring us that she has “attempted to keep true to the essential natures” of Charles and Catherine Dickens, but on the other, assiduously inventing new specifics, new names, even new titles and extracts for Dickens’/Gibson’s novels (Edward Cleverly, Ambrose Boniface, The Weaver of Silver Street, and so on). This seemed a too neat attempt to have one’s cake and eat it. By the end, to adopt a more vulgar cliché, I just wished she would shit or get off the pot.
There seems to be too much unvarying emphasis on Gibson’s dark side – we hear the same complaints against him again and again – while only occasionally are there hints that Dorothea may be less than the perfect wife herself. The twin poles of his personality – the charming excess, the selfish singlemindedness – are hammered home with nausea-inducing repetitiveness over a long 440 pages. The ending, which concerns Gibson’s unfinished novel, is terribly twee, and I would have liked more about Gibson/Dickens himself, or in particular the relationship between the writer and the public – this early form of celebrity – which is touched on only tangentially. For admirers of Victorian fiction, Girl in a Blue Dress may be a very great treat, but for me its faith in Dickens’ own verbosity made for a dull, gruelling read most of the time, other than at the successful set pieces mentioned above.
Early on, Dorothea reflects on her continuing fidelity to her late husband’s books, despite all her disappointments in him. “I still read a chapter every day, you know. And when I finish each book, I start another. And when I finish them all, I start at the beginning again.” Sounds like a never-ending Booker longlist challenge to me. I think I’ll pass on this one next time around.