Girl In A Blue Dress

Paperback | July 6, 2010

byGaynor Arnold

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The celebrated debut novel inspired by the life and marriage of Charles Dickens

Alfred Gibson’s funeral is taking place at Westminster Abbey, and his wife of twenty years, Dorothea, has not been invited. The Great Man’s will favours his children and a clandestine mistress over the woman he sent away when their youngest child was still an infant.

Dorothea hasn’t left her small apartment for years, and accepts her exclusion — until an invitation to a private audience with Queen Victoria arrives. The exhilaration of finding that she has much in common with the most powerful woman in England spurs Dorothea to examine her own life more closely. Her recollections uncover deviousness and the frighteningly hypnotic power of the genius she married, but also raise questions about her own complicity in her unhappiness. Questions that finally compel her to face her grown-up children and the two women she has long felt stole her husband: her own younger sister, Sissy, and the charming actress, Miss Ricketts.

This remarkable debut is as wise in the ways of the human heart as it is witty and vivid in its depiction of the charismatic Alfred Gibson, and the habits, mores, and personalities of Victorian London.

From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher

The celebrated debut novel inspired by the life and marriage of Charles Dickens Alfred Gibson’s funeral is taking place at Westminster Abbey, and his wife of twenty years, Dorothea, has not been invited. The Great Man’s will favours his children and a clandestine mistress over the woman he sent away when their youngest child was still...

Gaynor Arnold was born and brought up in Cardiff, Wales. She read English at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she acted in many plays, notably at the Edinburgh Festival and in a tour of the U.S. She has two grown children and lives in Birmingham. Girl in a Blue Dress is her first novel.From the Hardcover edition.

other books by Gaynor Arnold

After Such Kindness
After Such Kindness

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Lying Together
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Girl in a Blue Dress
Girl in a Blue Dress

Kobo ebook|Feb 1 2009

$15.39 online$20.00list price(save 23%)
Format:PaperbackDimensions:432 pages, 8 × 5.1 × 1.1 inPublished:July 6, 2010Publisher:McClelland & StewartLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0771007876

ISBN - 13:9780771007873

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent A long time fan of the books of Charles Dickens I thought this book would be a nice introduction into what his life was like during his life of marriage and writing. “Girl in a Blue Dress” captivated me throughout the telling of Alfred Gibson’s life, detailing with vivid description of his quirks and antics to acquire the woman he desired to marry, which carried through to his writing and future success in literature, theatre and speaking engagements; and raising children. All the foregoing as told through the viewpoint of his estranged wife, Dorothea Gibson. It brings to the forefront the difficulties women had during the Victorian era, their limitation of choice once they became married. Dorothea, or Dodo, as she is called by her family and Alfred, initially appreciates being with her sweetheart husband despite their meager lifestyle. When Alfred’s writing career takes off with great success, complete with social functions and lavish dinners held at his new house, Dodo begins to find herself overwhelmed with producing children on a yearly basis and a lack of private time with her husband. After being wife for twenty years she is ousted from the family home and placed into private lodgings. Scandal ensues with suspicions directed at Dodo’s sister, Sissy, who came to take care of the children and remained in the household; and at a young actress, Wilhelma Ricketts, whom Alfred takes as a mistress, and whom ends up with a share of his estate. Ms Arnold describes in wonderful detailed characterizations of how everyone has an impact on each other complete with consequences of actions. It is a thrilling yet sad story, even tragic of how marriage and circumstances of those involved have far reaching effects. A mismatched marriage from the beginning: Dodo from a prosperous family with parents who disapproved of her suitor, to Alfred, an overambitious man working toward success to escape a childhood of poverty through his own parents’ mismanagement of money. As to the true life story of Charles Dickens I am ignorant, except for his parents’ stint in debtors’ prison, and one of his sons joining the North-West Mounted Police after a naval career. However; “Girl in a Blue Dress” has raised a curiosity in me to look farther afield for more information.
Date published: 2011-04-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A bit slow paced but well written I won't go into the plot summary because it's already there. I found parts of this book were powerfully written, especially the insight "Dodo" gains. However, it was slow paced and I found the author could have added more tension or written a much shorter book. I couldn't believe all that the poor woman endured, but it's an all too familiar tale. Men leave and the women who dedicated thier lives to making a home are out of luck. I was surprised to hear that this was pretty much true. Charles Dickens was brilliant but like most genius he had shortfallings. His wife did as well but much of it seemed post partum depression related. She had a tough hand to live with after he dumped her!
Date published: 2010-08-04

Extra Content

Read from the Book

1My husband’s funeral is today. And I’m sitting here alone in my upstairs room while half of London follows him to his grave.I should be angry, I suppose. Kitty was angry enough for both of us, marching about the room in a demented fashion. They couldn’t stop you, she kept saying. They wouldn’t dare turn you away — not his own widow. And of course she was right; if I’d made an appearance, they would have been forced to acknowledge me, to grit their teeth and make the best of it. But I really couldn’t have borne to parade myself in front of them, to sit in a black dress in a black carriage listening to the sound of muffled hooves and the agonized weeping of thousands. And most of all, I couldn’t have borne to see Alfred boxed up in that dreadful fashion. Even today, I cannot believe that he will never again make a comical face, or laugh immoderately at some joke, or racket about in his old facetious way.All morning I have waited, sitting at the piano in my brightest frock, playing “The Sailors’ Hornpipe” over and over again. The tears keep welling from my eyes every time I try to sing the words. But I carry on pounding the keys, and in the end my fingers ache almost as much as my heart.At last, the doorbell rings, and in seconds Kitty is in the room. She has an immense black veil, a heavy train running for yards behind her, and jet beads glittering all over. “Oh, you should have been there, Mama!” she cries, almost knocking Gyp from my lap with the force of her embrace. “It’s completely insupportable that you were not!”I pat whatever part of her I can feel beneath the heavy folds of crepe and bombazine. I try to calm her, though now she is here — so strung up and full of grief, so pregnant with desire to tell me all — I am far from being calm myself. My heart jitters and jumps like a mad thing. I dread to hear what she has to say, but I know of old that she will not be stopped. She is near to stifling me, too; her arms are tight, her veil is across my mouth. “Please, Kitty,” I gasp, “You will suffocate us both! Sit down and gather yourself a little.”But she does not sit down. On the contrary, she stands up, starts to wrench off her gloves. “Sit down, Mama? How can I sit down after all I have been through? Oh, he might almost have done it on purpose!”“On purpose? Who? Your father?” I look at her with amazement. What can she mean? What can Alfred possibly have done now? What mayhem could he possibly have caused from beyond the grave? Yet at the same time, my heart quickens with dismay. Alfred always hated funerals, and would not be averse to undermining his own in some preposterous way.“Oh, Mama!” She throws her mangled gloves on the table. “As if it’s not enough that we’ve had to share every scrap of him with his Public for all these years, but no, they had to be center stage even today, as if it were their father — or their husband — who had been taken from them!” She lifts her veil, revealing reddened eyes and cheeks puffed with weeping.So it is only his Public she inveighs against; nothing more sinister. “Oh, Kitty,” I say. “It is hard, I know, but you must allow his readers their hour of grief.”“Must I? Really, Mama, must I?” She takes out her handkerchief. It is silk with a black lace border and I cannot help thinking that she must have outspent her housekeeping with all this ostentation. She dabs at her eyes as violently as if she would poke them out. “You’d have expected, wouldn’t you, that after giving them every ounce of his blood every day of his existence, at least they’d let him have some peace and dignity at the end?”“And didn’t they?” My blood runs cold; all kinds of grotesquerie fill my mind. “For Heaven’s sake, child, what did they do?”“They were like lunatics, Mama.” She takes an angry turn around the curio table, nearly knocking it over.“Lunatics?” Surely that cannot be the case. Even the most cynical of his critics would not have begrudged him a decent funeral. “Do you mean there was no respect?”She pauses, shrugs reluctantly. “Well, I suppose there was at first. When I looked out of the drawing room window, I even thought how patient they’d all been: men, women, and children standing six foot deep, even though it had been raining for hours. Everyone still and silent, save for the sound of the carriage wheels, and the shufflings and sighings and doffings of hats. But the moment we turned away from the park, some desperate wretch ran out and started pulling at the heads of the horses, crying, ‘No! No! Don’t leave us!’ And then it was as if a dam had burst, and the crowd was a great surge of water, flowing everywhere. It was terrifying, Mama! The horses were rearing, feathers floating in the air. I thought we’d be turned over and trampled to death. Trampled by his very own Public at his very own funeral — how fitting that would have been!” She glares around the room, as if daring the furniture to disagree with her.So that is all; simply some overexuberance of the crowd. But she is not used to it, of course; she never had to run the gauntlet of the riotous masses in America all those years ago, when I’d had to cling to Alfred’s arm as he cleaved through them, smiling as if it were nothing in the world to be pulled about by strangers who thought you belonged to them, body and soul. “Poor Kitty,” I say. “How dreadful for you! And yet your most fervent wish is that I had been there to witness it all.”She looks a little chastened. “But it was your right, Mama,” she says, sniffing loudly. “You should have insisted. It is a matter of principle. You should not have allowed Sissy and the others to win again.”As always, she sees life as a battle. But I am no longer interested in winning or losing, especially with my proud and pretty sister. It’s all too far in the past, and none of Kitty’s ridiculous raging will make one iota of difference now. I look at her sumptuous frock, her extravagant train, her acres of beading, and her very fine, long veil; only the mud around her hem spoils the theatrical effect. “But your clothes seem undamaged, Kitty. Surely the excitement of the Public cannot have been so very bad?”“You think I exaggerate?” she exclaims, casting herself into the fireside chair. “Well, you can ask Michael. He was in the carriage with Alfie and me. If he’d not kept hold of the door handle, we’d have been pitched out on the road! And if I hadn’t clung to the curtains, I’d have cracked my head against the windows or been knocked to the floor! There was such a monstrous surging ahead of us that I would not have put it past them to have laid hands on the coffin itself.” She wipes her nose defiantly. “He would really have belonged to his blessed Public then!”I am distressed at her ordeal, but there is something in me that wants to laugh, too. I see Alfred in my mind’s eye, throwing back his head and roaring with mirth, but poor Kitty sees only the disrespect. “I’m sure they did not intend to frighten you, Kitty,” I say. “They were simply expressing their grief.”“Grief? Well, it was a strange kind, then! It seemed more — oh, I don’t know — as if they were some kind of savages and he were some sort of god! In Piccadilly they actually pelted the carriages with flowers; at the corner of Pall Mall they chanted his name and pressed his books to their hearts as if they were holy icons. Ladies fainted and had to be carried away by the dozen. Gentlemen lost hats and gloves — and even boots.” She shakes her head vehemently.I smile to myself: urchins and pickpockets must have had a fine time.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. What do you think are the particular attractions for an author of setting a work of fiction in the past? The particular challenges? What attracts you, as a reader, to such a novel?2. Alfred and Dorothea Gibson are closely modeled on Charles and Catherine Dickens. What reasons do you think the author may have had for choosing not to use their real names in the novel?3. Did reading Girl in a Blue Dress change your feelings about the novels of Charles Dickens? Were you a fan of his works before this? Will you read, or re-read, his work now that you have a fresh perspective on the man who wrote it?4. Do you have a favourite Dickens novel? Which is it, and why?5. In chapter 1, Dorothea recalls the first time she met Alfred Gibson: before she even sees him, his laugh makes her giddy, and once she does see him, she is struck speechless by his “deep brown eyes, too wayward and rich for anyone. They shone like stars. His whole face seemed illuminated.” Do you believe in love at first sight (or sound), or do you think it is the stuff of fiction? What does this scene tell us about Dorothea’s character, both as a young woman and as an older one recalling it?6. How would you describe Alfred Gibson’s personality in contemporary terms? And Dorothea’s? If you could imagine them transplanted to the early twenty-first century, what different (or similar) courses might their lives, and their marriage, take?7. As the very title suggests, clothing plays a significant role in Girl in a Blue Dress. What are some of the ways in which the author uses clothing to define character, and to allow us a window into Victorian society and mores? A few instances you might consider are Alfred’s personal style and his abhorrence of mourning (and how whether or not to wear mourning becomes an issue amongst family members at different stages); the white dress he insists Alice be buried in; and Augustus’s personal style versus O’Roarke’s.8. On page 62, shortly before Alfred and Dodo are married, he enumerates what he loves about her: “I love your whole life: your house, your garden, your excellent parents, your little sisters. And most of all I love your dear Self, sitting in the middle of it all in a blue silk gown showing your very nice bosom—and stitching away with such an earnest look as if you have no idea of what you do to a man. It’s all quite perfect.”If you could whisper in Dodo’s ear at this point, what would you say about this?  In what ways does Alfred betray—or fulfill—this image he has of Dodo during the course of their marriage? (Perhaps think about Dodo musing on Alfred’s story Richard Masterman in chapter 13.)9. The novel is filled with details about Victorian morals, customs, attitudes, as well as the concrete matters of everyday life (what people ate and drank, what they wore, how they got their food and clothes and coal, how they traveled, etc). Did anything in particular leap out and surprise you? What aspects of daily life in nineteenth-century London, as presented in the novel, do you find most attractive? What aspect makes you most grateful not to be living then? What other books, fiction or not, have you read that opened a window onto this era? Is there something particularly intriguing about the nineteenth century for you?10. One review of the novel (in the Financial Times) said: “Girl in a Blue Dress ponders a perennially troubling question for the thoughtful book-lover. How much love-rattery do we forgive great writers for the literature they give us?” How would you answer that question? Did reading about Gibson/Dickens’ behaviour towards Dorothea/Catherine change your feelings about him at all? In the end, is Alfred Gibson a hero or a villain? Is that a useful question to discuss with regard to literature?11. The novel shifts between Dorothea’s present – the weeks and months following Alfred’s funeral – and her reminiscences of the past, most of which focus on Alfred. Does Dorothea ever seem unreliable as a narrator? How does her own perception of her actions (and inaction) alter as the narrative progresses? If you were to describe her character at the beginning of the novel and again at the end, would those descriptions differ? How?

Editorial Reviews

“This juicy novel imagines the private life of a famous couple: Catherine and Charles Dickens…. Arnold sticks close to the Dickens’ life story but changes all the names…. Smart readers will connect the dots.”— People magazine“Wonderful…. Arnold's knowledge of Dickens is impeccable…. Beautifully written, entirely satisfying.” — The Times“Fabulously indulgent Victoriana…. A lovely, rich evocation of the period [with] complex characterisation and silky prose.”— The Observer“Arnold's portrayal of Gibson/Dickens is spot-on.” — The Guardian“Fascinating…. A moving story about the special burden of loving a universally adored man…. [What] Arnold handles so effectively, is portraying the intermingling of love and resentment, affection and pettiness, that renders any marriage mysterious to outsiders.”— Washington Post“Arnold picks apart domestic psychology as efficiently as a housemaid cleaning a coal stove…. The sections in which [Dodo] recollects their years together pulse with the excitement of a secret courtship and a highly erotic early married life, as well as the anxieties of a woman increasingly exhausted by the arrival of child after child…. Dickens aficionados will delight in winky references to his novels, as well as to his biography.”— New York Times Book Review“Arnold's achievement, in constructing a busy, engaging, above-all empathetic fiction on the foundation of facts, is considerable. Gibson emerges as a monster of a kind, narcissistic and voracious, yet his gaiety, inventiveness and magnetism shine off the page.”— Miami Herald“Readers interested in the life of Charles Dickens will find [Girl in a Blue Dress] engaging and surprising…. Arnold's easily recognizable reworking of Charles is Alfred Gibson, a literary genius with immense energy and charm.”— Winnipeg Free PressFrom the Hardcover edition.