The story appears on

Page B12

July 19, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Bleak housekeeping

DICKENS lovers are having a great year. It has already brought two thrillers built around his unfinished "Mystery of Edwin Drood," in addition to a trim novel by Richard Flanagan, who contrasts the emotional life of Dickens with that of a young Tasmanian aboriginal girl. And now, in her first novel, "Girl in a Blue Dress," Gaynor Arnold has taken inspiration from Dickens' failed marriage, as seen through the eyes of his droopy, plangent, but remarkably good-hearted wife.

Arnold recasts Dickens as the flamboyant Alfred Gibson, a manically prolific writer, mercurial family man and amateur hypnotist - all qualities shared by his real-life counterpart - who harbors a weakness for those young ladies in blue frocks. His eventual wife, Dorothea (nicknamed Dodo), dons one to win his heart; unfortunately, some years later an actress called Miss Ricketts favors an outfit of similar hue.

What happens afterward leads Dorothea to provide her daughter - and the reader - an engrossing if occasionally languorous meditation on marriage, womanhood, genius and grief, all played out in a teeming milieu of characters drawn from life and literature.

Dorothea's narrative opens as the streets of Victorian London go black, with readers mourning the death of their favorite author, the self-styled "One and Only" and "Great Original." Consigned to a "wretched" apartment and all but forgotten, she has not been invited to the funeral; instead, she stays home to play her piano, striking the notes through a veil of tears.

She was once the adoring if weary support for Alfred's talents, but when he fell under the sway of his new love (and distaste for his wife's increasing bulk and growing brood), he banished Dorothea from the house - retaining her younger sister, Sissy, as housekeeper, child minder and (so it was rumored) lover. Even more humiliatingly, he took out a newspaper ad to announce that for some time his wife had been unsatisfactory - detached, ill, uninterested in motherhood or running a household - and that their separation was necessary for his own well-being and that of the children.

For the past decade, Dorothea has barely left her apartment, and she has seen only one of their eight offspring. Still devoted, she has bided her time reading and rereading her husband's novels, rehearsing her memories, growing fatter by the day.

Baroque as this back story sounds, it is based on the Dickenses' actual lives. Indeed, Arnold draws on the surviving correspondence that Catherine Dickens wanted preserved in the British Museum so "the world may know he loved me once." Clearly Mrs Dickens, like her husband, had an investment in public opinion.

Drawing on her own background as a social worker, Arnold picks apart domestic psychology as efficiently as a housemaid cleaning a coal stove. Dorothea presents herself as a victim but forestalls accusations of self-indulgence by blaming herself as much as she does her husband. Even as she describes Alfred's cruelty, she acknowledges her own flaws and declares, "he gave me everything I have valued."

The sections in which she 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.

Although Arnold rarely falls into the trap of imitating Dickens's style, the novel's most memorable passages are gothic - or would be if Dorothea's mind worked that way. When her sister Alice dies a sudden and unexplained death in Alfred's arms, he sobs over her body like a lover: "Oh, my darling girl! Please don't leave me." (This bit is also taken from history; one of Catherine Dickens's sisters died unexpectedly, and Charles mourned her for the rest of his days.)

Fettered as Dorothea's life may be while Alfred is alive, on the day of his funeral it begins to unfurl. More of the children arrive on her doorstep, and she visits the old marital home to plead with Sissy for funds that will save a flighty daughter and spendthrift son-in-law from the poorhouse.

Invited to tea with Queen Victoria, she accepts a ride to Buckingham Palace from Alfred's best friend, who may have more than a friendly interest in the new widow. Those who hope that Dorothea might open her heart to love again probably cherished a similar expectation for Dickens's Miss Havisham. Those who hope for a fiery confrontation with Alfred's actress paramour, Miss Ricketts, stand less chance of disappointment.

Wilkie Collins once wrote playfully of a thinly fictionalized Dickens, "a man who can do nothing by halves seems to me a fearful man." In Arnold's best-of-times, worst-of-times account, Dorothea goes whole hog, proving that husband and wife may have been a good match after all - one partner dangerously talented, one pathologically devoted, both longing for a happiness that could only be imagined.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend