Gaynor Arnold: Girl in a Blue Dress

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.


  1. I’m no fan of historical fiction. It is, as James Wood said, science fiction facing backwards, and I can never shake off the feeling that I’m just being lied to. But, as for the title, I think they must be going for the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ market.

  2. I’m fine with historical fiction, but not so much with historical fiction which fictionalises actual lives which could otherwise have been covered by a decent biography.

    There are always exceptions, I, Claudius springs to mind (and the good but less successful Claudius the God), but in the main I’d rather read a good biography than a fictionalisation. In a fictionalisation, narrative must sometimes give ground to fact, but as a reader I do not know where fact gave ground to history. I end up with a peculiarly untrustworthy document as a result.

    Not one for me, good to see Tindal Press still backing books they believe in though. Long may they do so.

    Shame you didn’t like What was Lost, I enjoyed it and largely agreed with Sam Jordison of Guardian fame’s take on it. I’ll have to go read your review now and see where it failed for you.

  3. I don’t mind fiction that fictionalises actual lives – ‘The Master’, for instance, though, for some reason, I don’t seem to consider that hist-fic. Talking of Henry James, he famously didn’t at all get on with hist-fic and had some strong words on the whole genre. He said that the problem was: ‘the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.’ And I suppose that’s my problem with hist-fic, too, and why I tend to get a sense when reading it of being spoken to not quite truthfully.

  4. Interesting Henry James quote there, I can see his point, genuinely creating the mindset of a person who existed before the developments that shape our own mental constructs is a tall order.

    Not I think an impossible order, on a slight tangent I think the Patrick O’Brien naval novels succeed, as in my view do the Robert Graves’ novels I mention above (I haven’t read his Count Belisarius yet, apparently a tad dry I’ve heard), but in the main most historical fiction is us in fancy dress. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court without the honesty of time travel as a motif.

    But then, as Theodore Sturgeon once famously said, 90% of everything is crap. Historical fiction has challenges that other genres may not share, the creation of an authentic historical voice is notable among those (another would be communication of period without exposition, authorial intrusion or tedious overdetailing), but the quality in the genre will surpass that challenge while the more quotidian works will not.

    The differentiator may be depth of knowledge. Taking my own examples, Patrick O’Brien knew his period and subject matter intimately. Graves too was an accomplished classicist (Belisarius is early Byzantine, but we are still talking Roman empire in essence, certainly the Byzantines would have insisted they were a continuation of the Roman empire).

    Both novelists therefore had spent a great deal of time, more than one would I think typically spend simply researching a novel, steeped in the mental space of their respective periods and cultures. Most historical novelists lack that depth of personal immersion, and so struggle to evoke the same on the page. To truly evoke a period, the author must perhaps first inhabit the mental space of that period, and few authors have the time, inclination or training to do that.

    Before I leave the point, I’d also possibly cite Stephen Saylor’s Roman crime novels, now in a new and horribly potboilery range of covers that do him no justice at all. Saylor is not the most famous name working in that area, but he is I think the most thoughtful, spending in one book an entire chapter on the pride a father feels as his son puts on his manly toga for the first time. I’d have to reread though to see if he avoids the falsity of voice you mention, I’m confident Graves and O’Brien do, Saylor I’d need to check.

  5. “Talking of Henry James, he famously didn’t at all get on with hist-fic and had some strong words on the whole genre.”

    HJ wrote one work of historical fiction (The Europeans??). It was savagely attacked by critics on publication, who laughed at its many historical inaccuracies.

  6. obooki, if that’s true that Henry clearly knows of what he speaks.

    Max Cairnduff, I take your point and you may well be right, but I guess I just struggle to believe that immersion leads to (the appearance of) authenticity: even if I went and lived with the Masai warriors for a year – a group of people whose consciousnesses are built on different constructs to mine – I don’t think I could emerge saying that I now understood the ‘Masai’ consciousness. I think they’d be hugely insulted if I said I could pin down their consciousness in just a few months! Perhaps paradoxically, I think imagination best leads to (the appearance of) authenticity (which is why I think when we want to know about the Napoleonic Wars we first turn to ‘War and Peace’ – but Tolstoy wrote that only sixty years after the event, so it can’t really be claimed as a piece of hist-fic). I guess I just doubt the capacity of our imaginations to fully inhabit another, differently-built, consciousness. As for Sturgeon, well, I guess ninety-percent of his quote must be crap, too.

  7. Lots of criticisms are made of literary prizes, but one of the benefits of the Booker is that it can not only bring attention to novels which may otherwise get overlooked, it can also bring attention to independent publishers like Tindal Street. Along with Canongate, which is based in Edinburgh which is a capital city itself, any thriving publisher based outside London is a venture to support. In the long term it can only lead to a more healthy and varied literary culture both in Birmingham and in the country as a whole. Would be great to see more presses based in cities outside London thriving.

  8. The Henry James quote seems very apposite to me (coincidentally, James is a lurking presence in Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog, which I am now reading). As for Sturgeon’s Law, isn’t it usually interpreted as meaning that 90% of work in any particular medium, style, form etc is crap? In our terms, that would mean that 90% of historical fiction, of science fiction, of literary fiction, is crap. If anything, he seems to me to be erring on the side of generosity.

    Yes Paul, I support wholeheartedly a more vibrant countrywide publishing scene, though admittedly neither of the Tindal Street Press titles I’ve read has done much for me, and these are the ones being hoisted aloft for our attention by literary prizegivers. Myrmidon, based in Newcastle, is another interesting one. They were longlisted last year for Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, which I liked.

  9. That is what Sturgeon’s Law is meant to indicate, 90% of any given genre or style or whatever is crap. I think he meant the vast bulk, rather than a precise metric. It was a response to those who said most sf was not very good, his answer being most of anything is not very good and why should sf (or historical fiction) be an exception? Your wiki link is fairly good on it.

    Sam, I see your point also. All I can ultimately say is that some authors have persuaded me, and some have not. Was I right to be persuaded? I don’t know, fiction is in a sense a magic trick, and some of us are taken in and some not. Then again, if by some mystery of time travel we were to take say Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx and transport it to Victorian London different readers then might take different views of the authenticity of its narrative voice.

    The point on the Masai is a good one, but that immersion is still the only characteristic I could think of in common with those I think have succeeded in this field (for me anyway). That doesn’t preclude that there may be other factors I’m missing. It may be as banal as saying that better writers persuade more than weaker writers, but I’d hope to get a bit further than that. Although it is hopeless to understand the consciousness of the Masai (not that they have such, they just have a load of individual consciousnesses with some common elements we lack and some we have) I would have thought someone with an experience of their culture would make a better stab at some degree of decent reflection than someone with a lesser knowledge.

    The impossibility of fully inhabiting inhabit I would grant by the way (it’s a huge theme of A Dance to the Music of Time, which I’m currently working through), I think the best we can manage is a simulacrum which by writerly sleight of hand and readerly imagination somehow appears as if it is that inhabitation. How good that simulacrum appears is a matter of how good the writer and how willing the reader, but isn’t that true of all fiction?

    Hm, now I feel like reading The Prestige, which is quite unrelated to this thread.

  10. Max, I agree, especially with your final paragraph: the reader should be expected to put something in if they want to get something out. As someone much cleverer than me once said (and as I’m sure disgruntled writers remind themselves following a bad review): ‘A book is like a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out’. That may be where I’m going wrong!

  11. I actually quite liked What Was Lost myself, John. I have not read any of their other titles, but as you say, it can only be good in the long term that they succeed and get recognition.

    Interesting discussion being had about Historical Fiction. Just from reading John’s review of Sea of Poppies, it appears that Ghosh somehow pulls off the trick of inhabiting characters and recreating the world of that era, perhaps a certain vibrancy of imagination, something as vague as producing a believable ‘feel’, the creation of an atmosphere of verisimiltude surrounding the narrative. It seems to me to be a terribly difficult thing to put your finger on, what makes this kind of novel work, what makes it fail.

  12. John talked recently of the chemistry between book and reader, which struck a real chord with me. A novel on its own is merely a physical artefact (perhaps soon not even that). It is only in its interaction with a reader it can take life.

    Sometimes I choose not to read a particular novel until I have read other related novels, Absurdistan is on hold pending my reading The Idiot, Self Help similarly pending my reading a few more Russian superfluous man novels (though as my blog title suggests, I’ve some familiarity with that specific genre). That is me choosing to become a better informed reader so as to better engage with a given work. In a sense, choosing to help the chemistry along (and I wouldn’t bother if the other novels I wish to read first weren’t worth reading in their own right).

    Sometimes that chemistry happens, sometimes we can help it along, sometimes personal circumstances bridge flaws in the work itself, sometimes the novel is so well crafted that almost any reader can respond to it. Sometimes the novel is so overwritten or overplotted it leaves nothing for the reader to do, making that chemistry impossible (John criticised Child 44 for this as I recall).

    I agree with Paul, it’s hard to put your finger on what makes a historical novel work or fail, but that success or failure is part of the chemistry and so in a sense we cannot come to a firm view without taking account not just of the novel but of the reader.

    Indeed, on that last point and to close an already overlong post, an uninformed reader may be more easily persuaded by a weak novel than an informed reader would be, but an informed reader may be all the more persuaded by a strong and itself informed novel. Whether that information relates to historical detail, or truth about human character, I think the analysis would still hold good.

  13. Sometimes I choose not to read a particular novel until I have read other related novels

    That’s a diligent stance which does you credit, Max. I keep telling myself I won’t read Ulysses until I’ve tackled The Odyssey; but that’s just an excuse to put off reading Ulysses.

    I didn’t know Absurdistan (which I have in my TBR pile) had a debt to The Idiot. Can you explain?

    In relation to the impossibility of recreating a ‘vanished’ consciousness, I wonder if this is something John Fowles solved in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by having his heroine as a deliberately modern figure in a Victorian setting – a woman literally out of time. I can’t answer that myself as it’s so long since I read the book, but it seemed an interesting approach, and he was very likely aware of James’s dictum.

  14. You never need a reason to put off Ulysses. Besides, have you read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman yet? If not, you certainly can’t read Ulysses.

    That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

    Oddly, it had never occurred to me that Ulysses and the Odyssey were linked, though there is a bit of a clue in the title now I come to think of it. The Odyssey is tremendous, as is the Illiad (and while we’re on the subject of epics as is Beowulf though I regard the Song of Roland as optional myself – I kept wanting to enter the book and slap some sense into Roland which was not I think the desired effect).

    Absurdistan contains a direct reference to The Idiot, the narrator of Absurdistan compares himself to Prince Myshkin. Many reviwers seemed to think A Confederacy of Dunces even more relevant, which I’ve also not read as yet. Not a huge problem, Absurdistan may well turn out to be too absurd for my tastes anyway.

  15. Well, John, this may be the only book on the longlist I don’t read and review this month, if ever. A few weeks ago when the publishers were the only ones selling it I wrote their service email to ask about shipping costs to America, but I didn’t get a response. Now, I’m kind of glad! That gets me one step closer to being done this year!

  16. Well, I ordered a copy direct from the publishers as soon as it was announced, Trevor, and also emailed them to see when it was being released. As a result they sent me a review copy, which I read and posted on, as you can see … and then on Tuesday the copy I paid for arrived also! So I ended up with two copies, both of which are now available cheaply in my local charity bookshop.

  17. Isabel.

    Ouch. This paragraph made me laugh though:

    “One of the members was looking forward to reading this novel, because she enjoyed The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. But, then she noticed that the plot was too similar; the only difference was the weight of the protagonists.”

    While this one I thought a tad worrying:

    “She also noticed that the professor that is involved with Rowena is actually the author. (Look at the photo on the flap and read the description.)”

    But overall, oh dear, that’s a damning review and quite a persuasive damning review. Would you say this is basically a poor man’s Confederacy of Dunces?

  18. When I read Confederacy, when I was in my 20s, I laughed very hard and enjoyed it very much.

    I re-read it recently because my sister was reading out loud, portions of it to her kids.

    I enjoyed it but not as much as before. I guess I am more PC as I grow older and didn’t like how Toole wrote about the characters.

    Katrina drowned or drove away some of the really nutty people in New Orleans, so I don’t think that another Confederacy could be written today.

    But, Ignatius does think highly of himself, even though he is gross. Snack Daddy of Absurstitan is also gross but he doesn’t really like himself too much. At least Ignatius had a goal of being the best writer in New Orleans. I don’t know what Snack Daddy really wanted to do with his life.

    I missed the reference to the Idiot. I have to tell the book club members about it.

    PS – My sister skipped the nasty parts of Confederacy when she read it to her kiddos.

  19. I don’t have any missile defense system I just hope it isn’t as bad as the exploding mangoes.

    I have finished The Northern Clemency in one sitting and there is a short review on my blog. It is going to take something really spectacular to remove this book off the top of my list. I loved the Rushdie but Hensher is something else. I loved it and it reminds me of Byatt’s quarter from a few years ago.

    Are you going to mention the mangoes?

  20. Yes, I’ll be writing about Mangoes, Candy, probably next. I just don’t guarantee that I’ll have very much to say about it!

    Very impressed with your reading The Northern Clemency in one sitting! I’m at about page 100, and can’t claim to find it as gripping as you did. But similarly, I don’t feel quite as negative about it as one poster on the Man Booker forum, who is about to place it below Child 44 at the bottom of his list!

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