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?
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?
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?
Do you have a favourite Dickens novel? Which is it, and why?
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?
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?
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.
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.)
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?
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?
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?