Girl in a Blue Dress, By Gaynor Arnold

Bleak household
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Recreating a real-life character in fiction is not easy, and for this moving and intelligent tale of love gone wrong, Gaynor Arnold has taken on one of the best known and loved figures: Charles Dickens. (He and his wife, Catherine, are renamed Alfred and Dorothea Gibson in the novel.)

We may know that Dickens dumped Catherine, the mother of his eight children, in favour of the actress Nelly Ternan, but we don't know how she felt about it. The lure of historical women is strong: silenced, yet witness to the achievements of gifted men, their own stories are tantalisingly lost to us. What was it like to be wooed by Dickens? To live with him, be loved by him, and finally discarded by him?

Dorothea's reminiscences in this novel are heartbreaking. The young Alfred cuts an appealing figure: ambitious but friendly, exuberant and, with his brightly coloured clothes and wild hair, eye-catching. Dorothea is captivated, and Arnold does an excellent job of convincing us of her adoration.

Soon, though, a series of pregnancies drives the couple apart, and the young wife experiences the coolness of being shut out from her husband's light. While it's understandable that Arnold might want her heroine to be reconciled with her estranged children and confront her usurper, that section is not as convincing as the rest of the novel. But there is no doubt about her sincerity or her power to move: Dickens himself might easily have shed a tear at this tale.