Gaynor Arnold Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Gaynor Arnold
Photo: Richard Battye

Gaynor Arnold

An interview with Gaynor Arnold

A conversation with Gaynor Arnold about her first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, inspired by the life of Charles Dickens's second wife, Catherine Dickens.

What inspired you to write Girl in a Blue Dress?

It's a long story, starting in my childhood when I first became fascinated by the novels of Charles Dickens. Later, I graduated to reading about his life and became equally fascinated by his rags-to-riches story, his thwarted loves, his doomed marriage, and his secret mistress. The more I read, the more intriguing it seemed that a man so full of compassion for his fellow men—and who was such a supporter of family life and the sanctity of the home—came to act so harshly towards his wife. I was fascinated by the contradictory psychology of the man, and the psychology of the whole marriage (a supremely Victorian marriage), but it did not occur to me for many years that there was a novel in it. After all, the facts were a matter of public record, painstakingly researched by professional biographers; what could I add? I was in the meantime busily writing about contemporary men and women. However, the "Charles Dickens story" niggled away at me and gradually the notion evolved that maybe I could write something from the point of view of the scorned wife, a woman about whose thoughts and feelings relatively little is known. This notion was strengthened when I learned how Catherine Dickens had pathetically handed over her love letters for public scrutiny in the hope "that the world may know that he loved me once." It suddenly opened up the possibility of a fictional piece of writing, and once I had my Dorothea's authentic "voice," I was away…

How much of the novel is historically accurate?

It's a mix. The gist of it is true, but I have rejigged many events and changed many of the dramatis personae, while making others up completely. I deliberately gave my protagonists different names—Dorothea and Alfred Gibson—so that they could be free to do and say what I wanted them to without bringing up charges of inaccuracy from Dickens scholars.

Nevertheless, I have kept within the parameters of fact for the main narrative: i.e., a young man of humble origins, with a scar on his soul from his childhood experiences, enjoys a stratospheric rise to fame shortly after his marriage to a mild and agreeable young woman whose comfortable background is so at variance with his own. He goes on to be the most famous writer of his day—a workaholic, possibly a manic-depressive, churning out weekly journalism, serial novels, thousands of letters, performing in plays, devoting himself to charitable ventures, and finally killing himself with the strain involved in public readings of his work. Alfred Gibson, like Charles Dickens, falls in love all the time, most notably with his sister-in-law and, in his final years, with an actress young enough to be his daughter. He puts his wife out of her home in the most humiliating of circumstances and refuses to see he is any way in the wrong.

However, Dorothea's story—the story of Girl in a Blue Dress, although containing much of the placidity, depression, and occasional bouts of jealousy that are characteristic of Catherine Dickens—has many more invented scenes (including her unhistorical meetings with Queen Victoria and Miss Ricketts). Nearly all the domestic events and her relationship with O'Rourke and her children are very highly fictionalized, and, of course, the conclusions she draws are very much her own.

In some places I have played with characters from Dickens's own books and deliberately included echoes of some of his phrases. I have also added events to create a parallel effect on the modern reader; for example, Charles Dickens did not have a public funeral, but by giving Alfred one, I hope to convey to the reader how enormously famous (and almost worshipped) he was when he died; the scenes of public grief reflecting, perhaps, Princess Diana's modern-day obsequies.

Are you a fan of Charles Dickens? Did your research change your vision of him?

I am a terrific fan of his writing, and I admire much about the man himself—his tremendous energy, his vivacity, his capacity for work, the way he threw himself into projects to help the poor and less fortunate, his tenderness with children, his capacity for friendship, his fantastic sense of humour. But I have always known that there was a darker side to him—his obsessiveness, his self-centerdness, his control-freakery, his capacity for self-deception, his conviction that he was always right, his almost casual cruelty when his own interests were at stake. I was aware of these two sides to him before I set out to write the book. What I wanted to do was to explore these contradictions myself to make sense of them in an imaginative way and see the man through the eyes of a woman who never ceased to adore him. People often ask me whether I would have liked to have met him. My first thought is, of course I would, he was so clearly charismatic. But at the same time, I draw back slightly. There's a lot about his attitudes to women that I dislike (patronizing, paternalistic, sentimentalizing), and I wonder how he would take to the assertiveness of a modern woman. Yet all the same, I would hate to pass up the chance to witness at first hand his wonderful humour, high spirits, and warmth. Life around him was clearly never dull, and he seems to have been great company provided he was in the right mood (and perhaps in small doses).

What were your research processes like?

I have to confess that I did very little traditional research for this book, knowing a fair amount about my subject already. I read a brief social history of the nineteenth century in England just to remind myself of certain facts, and after that, I just winged it and hoped everything would sound all right. I think the value of money was my greatest bugbear, and then things like modes of transport (barouche or brougham? fly or gig? Hansom cab or Hackney carriage?). Items of clothing probably came next (When did crinolines come in and go out? Is it all right for Dodo to wear a pelisse in 1870?). Then I had to check things like the geography of London as it was at various points in the nineteenth century—which bridges existed, when the embankment was built, where the railway lines went. It was all quite small stuff which didn't take all that long to look up, and I did it very much as I went along. I used books I already had around the house or (occasionally) the internet. Mayhew's London Life was good to give a flavor of the streets, but in the end I found going back to the novels of Dickens was the greatest help. He is the best chronicler of the nineteenth century, and full of all sorts of detail you can't get elsewhere.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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