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Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens    by Gaynor Arnold order for
Girl in a Blue Dress
by Gaynor Arnold
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

What pulled me through Gaynor Arnold's Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens was a burning desire for the worm to turn. Dickens' wife Catherine (represented by the fictional Dorothea 'Dodo' Gibson in the novel) seemed like such a wimp - in accepting her husband's dismissal of her from his and their children's lives - that I felt like railing at her after his death just as her spirited daughter Kitty (the child most like her father) did.

In Girl in a Blue Dress, celebrated Victorian author Charles Dickens is Alfred Gibson, 'The One and Only, Yours Truly, the Great Original'. Arnold's interpretation of his life and marriage opens on his funeral, ten years after he forced Dodo out of his life (declaring to his all-important Public that she was unfit as wife and mother) and into meagre lodgings with a single servant to look after her.

As the reader wonders what could possibly have led to this, Arnold doles out information slowly and steadily, moving back and forth in the timestream of the great writer's life and relationship with Dodo and her sisters. She creates a credible background in Alfred's early life (in a family plagued with debt) for his development into a controlling domestic tyrant, highly charismatic and with the ability to mesmerize those around him, yet always seeking a relationship that eludes him.

Who was the Girl in a Blue Dress? At the beginning of the novel, readers believe, as indeed Gibson's wife does, that it is Dodo. We join her in a journey of discovery - after her implacable husband's death. She's invited to tea with Queen Victoria and they reminisce about their husbands. Some of her eight children visit her, full of regrets. She confronts the sister who betrayed her and her husband's young mistress, seeking the truth behind the desolation of her life.

Dodo's quest turns this quiet, giving (and forgiving) woman into 'something of a Radical.' The worm does turn - just a little - in a satisfying and apt fashion, in the conclusion to Girl in a Blue Dress.

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