Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Dickenstown review: Girl in a Blue Dress

I don't know if you've heard, but I moved recently. I now live in Rochester, a town whose greatest claim to fame is that it was once touched by the heavenly hand of Charles Dickens. Our greengrocer's is called Pip's, the clothes shop opposite is Estella, there's an Indian restaurant called Two Cities and the real Satis House (aka Restoration House) is just off the High Street. Also, if you're on the way to the library you can stop off at Charles Dickens' writing shed, which for some reason is stitting in the garden of Eastgate House with bits of paint peeling off it.

Here, look I took a bad picture of it on my phone just for you. Sorry about the quality. Just imagine that Dickens is just about to emerge from it in a blaze of heavenly light and disclose the real ending of Edwin Drood. Also, please note that whereas for most writers a writing shed would mean just that, Dickens required a two-story writing chalet with applique lion on the front (you can't see the lion, but it is there). This seems like unneccessary literary bling to me. After all, how do you write on two floors at once?

Basically, around here, Dickens is the man. We even have Dickens World in the next town over, where I hear they have mechanical Miss Havishams bursting into flames every half hour. (I might have made that up).

I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with all this jazz. Yes, I once wept openly in the car over the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, but I have a funny feeling that in person the Great Man may not have been that great. Not only do I suspect that spending more than half an hour in his hyperactive, egotistical presence would have sent me crazy, but there's that whole leaving-his-wife-of-forty-years-for-a-teenage-actress thing, and also his weird penchant for hot dead teenage girls.
Kate Beaton's excellent take on the situation
No, I do not exaggerate. I have explained the hot dead girls here in an article I wrote for Litro a few months ago. Suffice it to say: think about how many hot teenage girls there are in Dickens novels. Think of how many of them subsequently die. Now think about how much hotter they are presented as being once they are dead angels in heaven. See what I mean?

Essentially, Dickens liked his women daft as brushes, dead as doornails and fifteen forever, and so his real, not-dead, not-teenaged wife seems to have had a fairly awful time of it. I stress seems. Since she never actually wrote anything about her life, we don't actually know, and this leaves a lot of room for people to speculate.

That's exactly what Gaynor Arnold has done in her Girl in a Blue Dress, a book about the neglected wife of a very thinly disguised Great Victorian Writer who, yes, kicked her out years ago to make way for his youthful actress broad. The novel opens on the day of Charles Dickens' Alfred Gibson's funeral, as his wife Catherine Dorothea reflects on her past life and tries to decide once and for all whether her husband was an out-and-out heel or whether he just behaved like one sometimes.

At first, all the evidence is on the former side. Arnold's Great Writer Gibson was a man with a manic need to be SUPER FUNNY AND INTERESTING 100% OF THE TIME, something presented as superficially charming but secretly extremely exhausting and annoying. But, of course, it's not all that simple. Over the next few weeks, as Dorothea reunites with her estranged children, meets the queen (note: this part was stupid) and hangs with her husband's mistress we hear the whole story of their life together, which turns out to have been somewhat good and somewhat bad - essentially, as standard and non-surprising as this book.

What I liked about Girl in a Blue Dress was that it didn't really try to turn Catherine/Dorothea into a lurking feminist superwoman. I recently read Lilian Nayder's biography of Catherine Dickens, and it was basically just Nayder desperately trying to reclaim her for the feminist cause on really tenuous (read: absolutely no) evidence. There were many, many women from history who lived fantastically interesting lives, and who deserve recognition, but just as most rich white men (despite all those advantages from running the world) still managed to be normal and boring, most women just existed, being nice and thoughtful and good but not necessarily doing anything that needs to be written about now.

In another time, those women might have been able to accomplish something awesome. If she had been alive today, Catherine Dickens might have been one of the world's great human beings. I don't know what she was capable of. But what she actually did with her life was pretty much a) stare at the wall and b) have babies. The strength of Arnold's novel is that she doesn't try to add random suffragist canvassing or a passionate fling with a sympathetic gentleman. She goes with the ordinary material she has, and in the process shows that small domestic activities can still make up a valid life, if not a totally satisfying one for the person living it.

Girl in a Blue Dress was never going to be a rip-roaring adventure book. This is partly because its subject matter's pretty staid, but more because Arnold's not a fine enough writer to make chatting about not doing anything seem gripping. But it's mumsily enjoyable, and probably fairly close to the emotional truth of what went on in the Dickens household. Yes, everyone in the novel has an irritating tendency to talk in dramatic capslock and quotation marks, and yes, it's all a bit cute at times, but on the whole this was both pleasant and admirably ideologically restrained.

2.5 stars.

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