July 22, 2009 / 7:41 AM / 10 years ago

Writer focuses on Charles Dickens' own bleak house

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Writer Charles Dickens is lauded for chronicling the way of life in Victorian England in his novels but his treatment of his own wife was also indicative of society in those days, according to a new novel.

British social worker and writer Gaynor Arnold said she is one of many people worldwide with a keen interest in the life and works of the renowned author who lived from 1812 to 1870, but she was also always intrigued by the psychology of Dickens and his relationship with his wife.

A penniless Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and she bore him 10 children before he threw her out in 1858, banishing her from her children, as he took up with another woman.

A celebrity of that era, he even put an announcement in the newspaper to address rumors, asking people to respect “the sacredly private nature” of his arrangement.

For Arnold, the fascination only grew greater when she found out that Dickens’ wife, on her deathbed, asked her daughter to give the love letters from her husband to the British Museum so “that the world may know he loved me once.”

Arnold, who had previously written short stories, said she is not a biographer, so she explored Dickens’ wife through fiction, writing “Girl in a Blue Dress: A novel inspired by the life and marriage of Charles Dickens.”

“There was a huge amount written about Dickens, and he wrote about his own situation, too, but in a partisan fashion and what seemed to me to be missing was what his wife thought about the situation,” Arnold told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“Her correspondence to him was missing because he burned his papers so I thought this was a nice, blank canvas and gave me an opportunity to put myself into her position and how she might feel during their marriage and its sour, brutal end.”


Arnold’s novel, released in the Britain last year but now getting a wider international run due to its success, starts on the day of writer Alfred Gibson’s funeral.

His estranged widow, Dorothea Gibson, has not been invited and his will favors his mistress and children.

Dorothea begins to reflect on her years with her husband, revisiting their courtship and early, happy days before the birth of too many children, his fame, and the tragic events that slowly separated them.

After spending four years writing about Dickens and his wife, Arnold said she emerged with respect for both of them, realizing the expectations that were placed on them in that era.

“I do admire Dickens hugely and like him despite of it. I wanted to get across the contradictions and complexities of the man. He had this tremendous kindness and humor and he was a great father and attentive husband at first,” she said.

“But they both changed and the way he treated her at the time of the separation was appalling. I think he was going through some psychological breakdown at that time so I do have quite a lot of sympathy for them both.”

Arnold acknowledges the wife in her novel is pure fiction.

“She is very made up because she is such a sketch in all that we know about her. She seemed to be very nice and very ordinary and just had the misfortune to be married to an extraordinary man,” she said.

“She was always in his shadow and maybe a lot of the time she was happy to be so as that was the role of the Victorian woman ... and she continued to love him all her life. At the end she just wanted people to know that he too had loved her once.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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