Freshman novelist Gaynor Arnold exquisitely imbues a story that takes place more than 150 years ago with a ripped-from-today's-headlines texture, while simultaneously hurtling readers headlong into the heart and soul of Victorian womanhood. Using as inspiration letters written by Charles Dickens to his wife Catherine, Arnold riffs on a theme we see played out everyday in the 21st century. That is, how much does the family of a celebrity owe to the public and to posterity? Is any sacrifice too great when it comes to supporting a creative genius? To further complicate this dilemma, Arnold's novel takes place in an era of unyielding social standards and moral regulations, a time when many women struggle within the constraints of suffocating options. It is also a time when such raging celebrity as Dickens enjoyed is mostly unheard of.
So it's fitting that Arnold's fictionalized account begins on the day that the "One and Only" Alfred Gibson, beloved author, actor and raconteur, is buried. His widow Dorothea (Dodo) Gibson, noticeably absent from the very public proceedings, is sequestered in a tiny apartment as she has been for the last ten years, far from her children - and farther from Alfred. It was his wish - no, his command. No mirrors are covered in Dorothea's flat, there is no draped crepe, and she's not even wearing proper mourning attire. But there is also no bitterness. It is, rather, a day of reflection and, not coincidentally for storytelling purposes as well as in her life, it ends up being a day when Dodo begins to re-engage in living.
Like a weather-shy refugee tentatively emerging from the root cellar after a tornado, Dodo, now old and doughy, slowly gains strength and assurance from her reminiscences of her first encounters with a young Alfred. She was the eponymous girl in the waist-cinching, bosom-enhancing blue dress that Alfred quite literally swept off her feet so many years ago. She enjoys such fond and sweet memories of the brash young man who, though from far below her own social standing, nevertheless caught her up in the net of his energy and ambition. Little did she know at the time that while the ambition was an inverse reaction to his poverty-stricken childhood, his seemingly boundless energy required a present and constant stream of adulation. Thus she succumbed and, against her father's better judgment, married.
Although we can guess what happens next it does not deter from the narrative the least bit. After an all-too-brief idyllic honeymoon period Dodo becomes pregnant with their first child, then their second, then their third and so on. With inadequate birth control options how can one even fathom denying the "One and Only?" and the babies coming so close on each other it isnt long before genteel Dodo is overwhelmed in every way possible. To make matters worse, her health incapacity (either pregnant or trying to recover from same) makes her unable to provide Alfred with enough of the grist he craves for his adoration mill. By the time she has borne his eight children she feels used up; worse, his addiction to public (and familial) glorification has grown exponentially. His biggest dilemma: what to do about Dodo?
His options too are limited, by social custom as much as by the image of a devout family man he wishes to project to his beloved public; an image critical to sales of his work. So he banishes her from their family home, publicly decrying her as an unfit mother. It would be so easy to hate him here. But we do not get off the hook so easily. Thus Dodo allows us to witness what marriage is all about when one takes the "for better or worse" vow seriously and when one is able (either by the scarcity of alternatives or lack of imagination or both) to see reality as a complicated undertaking. We are left to ponder just who "The Great One" really is in this relationship.
Either way, as Dodo and her children begin the reconciliation process and she comes face-to-face with her own failings and with Alfreds other women, the clouds that hung over all their lives begin to part and a cautious heaven shows itself. Posterity has some groundbreaking fiction and Charles Dickens's, er, Alfred Gibson's family has paid a dear price. Readers around the world, and into perpetuity, are in their debt.
Thank you, Gaynor Arnold, for one fine novel.
This review was originally published in September 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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