Here are a couple of reviews of recent books about Dickens:
- The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (Crown Publishers, 2008).
Standiford goes very thoroughly into the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of A Christmas Carol. Everything relevant to that story -- from Dickens's life and career, to Christmas traditions and laws stretching back to ancient times, to the financial disappointments and lawsuit that followed Carol's publication -- is explored, which is pretty amazing in a book that's only 226 pages long. Those with only a casual interest in the story and its author may be put off by the mass of detail and the loose structure of this book. But those interested in Carol's genesis, and in its enormous impact on both its own time and our time, will find much to learn and enjoy.
- Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold (Crown Publishers, 2008).
I was very pleasantly surprised by this novel. Given that it's a fictionalized account of the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens -- or as they're called here, Alfred and Dorothea Gibson -- and that it's narrated by the wife, I was expecting 400-odd pages of Dickens-bashing. And given that the marriage was far from the most praiseworthy episode of Charles's life, it would have been a little difficult to argue with such an approach.
But Gaynor Arnold doesn't take the easy way out. Instead, as Dorothea reflects on her life with and without the husband who has just passed away, we see both sides of that sad marriage. We understand what a strain it must have been for the placid Dorothea to keep up with her husband's manic energy and understand some of his strange attitudes and his capacity for self-deception. But we also get a glimpse of how frustrated he must have been by her slowness and her seeming indifference to her home and children.
Dorothea has gained wisdom over the years, but in the flashbacks to her younger days, she somewhat resembles Dora Spenlow (note the similarity in their first names) if pretty, spoiled Dora had lived to be a kind but vague and hazy mother. Alfred, alas, is not as patient a husband as David Copperfield. While Dorothea bitterly resents her sister Sissy, based on Catherine's sister Georgina, for coming in and taking things over, one can't help seeing what a relief it must have been for Alfred and at least some (though not all) of the children to have a little order brought into their lives.
In short, no one gets off easy here, not even our narrator. Alfred necessarily isn't as well fleshed out a character as Dorothea, and that's a little frustrating at times, but she does strive to do him justice even as she still suffers from the pain caused by his behavior.
Arnold clearly has made herself thoroughly familiar with Dickens, and themes and incidents from his work are woven throughout this book. Even the ending, which is moving though not wholly satisfying, faintly echoes A Christmas Carol. Arnold seems to have had lots of fun coming up with books and characters written by Alfred Gibson that resemble books and characters written by Charles Dickens, and even throwing in a little misdirection here and there -- for instance, a book called Little Amy sounds like Little Dorrit but it turns out that it's actually meant to represent Oliver Twist. Unfortunately, when Arnold gives us excerpts from these fictional fictional works, they end up being weak points in this otherwise very strong book. There's a reason why Dickens was called The Inimitable -- or The One and Only, as Arnold has it here.
(One thing puzzled me a little: Dickens's daughter Katey is here represented by a character called "Kitty." After her birth, we see Alfred naming the child to suit himself, over Dorothea's wish to call her "Mary." But since the real Katey Dickens was obviously named after her mother, one wonders why Kitty Gibson wasn't. It seems odd to take an incident that could be used in Dickens's favor and use it against him. But then, as I intimated before, it's true that Arnold very rarely does this.)
A good historical novel leaves you thinking that things might have happened that way. In this book, Arnold's penetrating psychological insight leaves you thinking that things must have happened that way, or at least very close to that way. Especially for a first-time novelist, it's a remarkable achievement.