Girl in a Blue Dress
All of Victorian London is mourning the death of famous author Alfred Gibson, but one woman has not been invited to the funeral: his widow, Dorothea, who has lived in virtual seclusion since being cast out of her husband’s life years before. Shut off from most of her family after the separation, Dorothea has accepted her position with a quiet dignity that borders on passivity, but as she mourns her brilliant husband and reflects on their lives together and apart, she will slowly muster the courage to re-enter the world, to face those from whom she has been long estranged, and even to encounter the woman who Dorothea believes stole her husband from her.
Girl in a Blue Dress is based heavily on the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens, but Arnold, by turning Catherine Dickens into Dorothea Gibson, gives herself the freedom to stray from the historical record, though the personalities of the main characters remain very close to their real-life counterparts. Dorothea, the narrator, commands our respect and sympathy but has enough inner strength to avoid being pitiful, and the rest of the characters are vividly drawn as well. In her portrait of Alfred Gibson, Arnold does justice to Dickens’s own charisma and complexity; we deplore his behavior toward Dorothea while feeling the same attraction for him that his wife does. Gibson even gamely tackles the task of supplying Gibson’s literary oeuvre with Dickens-like prose and characters.
First published in the UK in 2008, Girl in a Blue Dress was long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s easy to see why: this is a richly satisfying debut novel.