DAN'S PAPERS, June 12, 2009 Page 32 www.danshamptons.com
Dickens Redux, Part III By P. J. Mills The Girl in the Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens by Gaynor Arnold was published to rave reviews and listed for the Booker Prize in England in 2008. It is slated for publication in the United States this coming July. The book is a beautifully crafted imagining of the marriage of Alfred Gibson (Charles Dickens) and Dorothea Gibson (Catherine Hogarth Dickens), from the perspective of the wife. The story opens with Dorothea Gibson sitting alone in a set of tiny, shabby rooms on the day of her husband’s funeral. Alfred Gibson, a brilliant writer adored by all Victorian England, is being buried with thousands of his readers in attendance. Dorothea has not been invited to the funeral services at Westminister Abbey where her husband will be laid to rest in the Poet’s Corner. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, we learn the reason for Dorothea’s exclusion: Ten years earlier, her husband Alfred, with whom she had eight children, publicly declared her an unfit mother and wife. He then took custody of the children, and began a relationship with a much younger woman, the actress Wilhelmina Ricketts (Ellen Ternan). Since her public humiliation and forcible removal from the marital home, Dorothea has been living as a recluse, too ashamed to be seen in public. With the Great Man’s death, Dorothea is
suddenly in the spotlight again when Queen Victoria invites her to Buckingham Palace. The two widows comfortably commiserate together and thus begins not only Dorothea’s return to normalcy, but her attempt to reclaim her status as the wife of “the great man” who once loved her. While the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens was the inspiration for this tale, we are warned in the Afterword that a “novelist’s liberties” have been taken with many facts of their life together. Since the story is written from the viewpoint of a wife who never actually told her story, we must surrender to Arnold’s conceit of giving a voice to Catherine without expecting historical accuracy. What Arnold has attempted here is, instead, a study of the emotional reality of the abandoned wife. She seems to take her cue from Dickens himself, in her portrait of him in the guise of Alfred Gibson: “He was the best of men, he was the worst of men…” Thus, while we are privy to a full accounting of the heartlessness of Gibson’s treatment of Dorothea, Dorothea continues to remember all the goodness in her husband, as well as his greatness as a writer, and is magnanimous and forgiving in her final assessment of him. Arnold’s portrait of Dickens underscores, for me, the age-old conundrum of the relation between “the man” and “the work,” a problem I cannot seem to resolve for myself but one I
can never completely ignore. Do not misunderstand me. I do not subscribe to a simple dismissal of “the work” because “the man” behaves badly… yet I cannot forget the man behind the words. Dickens the man was cruel to his wife; his “work” is that of a writer of genius, a storyteller without equal. And, to be fair to Dickens, his behavior towards women other than his wife was quite progressive. In 1847 he helped establish a “Home for Homeless Women,” and in his novels he writes about the perils of single women and the importance of female friendships in a world ruled by men, long before these were popular topics in literature. There is also the mitigating factor of his wife’s drug habit. It seems that Catherine Dickens was addicted to laudanum, an opium derivative, prescribed by doctors for the depression that plagued her after the birth of each of her ten children. Of course, none of this excuses the deplorable treatment of Catherine Dickens by her husband. That said, and the bad behavior of Charles Dickens duly noted, his “work” remains a gratifying gift to the reader, even to a reader unable to be as forgiving of “the man” as Dorothea was. The Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens by Gaynor Arnold. 432 pages. Crown Publishers. Scheduled for publication in the USA July 14, 2009.
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Published on Jun 12, 2009
Published on Jun 12, 2009
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