Historical fictional biography isn't everyone's cup of tea. Those who don't like it will not enjoy Girl in a Blue Dress, which is a slightly disguised fictional biography of Catherine Dickens, wife of Charles Dickens.
Gaynor Arnold takes up where, so to speak, Charles Dickens left off. Alfred Gibson (Dickens) has just been buried and his wife Dorothea (Catherine Dickens) is briefed on the funeral by her daughter Kitty. It soon becomes clear that Dorothea did not live with her husband, and that there was scandal and wrongdoing in the Gibson household.
In a pageant of Victoriana - with servants and morals and etiquette and horses - Dorothea reflects on her ill-starred marriage to Gibson, moving from courtship and early love, through the rigours of childbirth, through to her long and lonely estrangement. And the story of Gibson, as seen through others' eyes, is of a man who is revered, both by himself and by others. He can do no wrong; he can treat women with high-handed arrogance, cruelty even, and the women will look within themselves for the fault.
Dorothea, in particular, cannot bear to see Gibson's cruelty for what it is. She looks for evidence that Gibson once loved her, as though this would matter. Dorothea refuses to hear criticism from Kitty, and even appears in the final pages to rationalize Gibson's relationship with his mistress - for whom Dorothea had been passed over. And the children, too, look to blame anyone other than Gibson for the breakdown of their household. They simply won't acknowledge the central role played by Gibson in controlling lives and manipulating information. The one exception, perhaps, was Kitty who did venture some negative opinion - but was perhaps easily dismissed as having her own axe to grind.
Gibson was a wonderfully well drawn character - his natural arrogance spurred on by public acclaim. His passion for work and fear of debt are well known, but manifest themselves in this novel in the form of absolute control freakery - but delivered with a false smile. He is a master of self-justification, and every slight and misdemeanour comes with a carefully thought through rationalization. Quite simply, Gibson didn't permit himself to make mistakes. Having said that, even Gibson could not halt the ravages of time, and appeared to trade in his female companionship for slightly newer models. This seemed to be the one area where Gibson admits to making a mistake - that of marrying Dorothea - even though the irony of the situation is that his one admission of a mistake is not really a mistake to be admitted. Rather, it is just a flimsy excuse for his shabbiness.
The beauty of the novel is in some of the detail - and an audience with Queen Victoria herself is a clear highlight. The frustration of the Queen, caught between trying to engage in real conversation and pompously maintaining her rank. And the visit from Eddie, a foppish - even camp - son is pure vaudeville. Then the hapless Augustus and his money worries...
Girl in a Blue Dress is a simple novel, very well told, and with a surprising hidden complexity in the relationships, emotions and motives at play - all hinging on the greatness of the self proclaimed One and Only (Gibson/Dickens, not Chesney Hawkes) - and people's desire for greatness by association, whatever the cost. For myself - a fan of both Dickens and historical biography - it was spellbinding, compelling and impossible to set down. The pages flew by in a voracious hunger for more gossip and salacious details.