Charles Dickens' wife, Catherine "Kate" Dickens, has not enjoyed especially good press. In his standard biography of Dickens, Edgar Johnson seems to be on Dickens' side: Kate is clumsy, a poor housewife, a bad mother; she is "like Jane Austen's Lady Bertram, reclining indolently day after day upon a sofa"; her ten pregnancies do not adequately excuse her failure as a "lively companio[n]" for her husband; when out visiting, she is "a colorless nullity."1 Fred Kaplan, more sympathetic, nevertheless hypothesizes that Catherine's poor behavior derived from "her awareness of her inferiority to her husband" and notes the "matronly obesity" that rendered her unattractive to Dickens.2 Gaynor Arnold's Girl in a Blue Dress (2008) attempts to redress the balance in Kate Dickens' favor by retelling the story from her point of view. Or, rather, Arnold does so in the form of a story about one Dorothea Gibson, wife to brilliant novelist Alfred Gibson...a novelist whose career and life just happen to share just about everything with that of Charles Dickens.
At the novel's beginning, Gibson has just died, and the narrrative unspools from there in a combination of present-day encounters and associative flashbacks. Dorothea, we discover, has spent her post-Gibson life as a near-recluse, never venturing outside her apartment and speaking to few human beings beside her servant, her daughter Kitty, and her friend Michael O'Rourke (standing in for John Forster). Although she refuses to venture out to Gibson's funeral--not least because he wouldn't like all the fuss of Victorian mourning--the death ultimately shocks her out of her seclusion: she visits Queen Victoria to accept her condolences, reconciles (at least temporarily) with the sister who took her place, and finally meets the infamous Wilhelmina Ricketts (the novel's version of Ellen Ternan). Meanwhile, the outside also starts coming in, whether in the form of letters, long-absent children, or, indeed, a most Dickensian visit from Gibson's ghost (or not). As she converses and reminisces, Dorothea realizes the extent to which she did not know her husband, her sister, her children, her rival, or herself. Fittingly (albeit not surprisingly) enough, the novel concludes with Dorothea picking up her husband's pen, as it were, to finish his equivalent to The Mystery of Edwin Drood: "Stay home I shall, but I do not plan to go back to my old, idle ways. I almost feel I have Alfred's blood running through my veins. I go to the little desk, and pull a sheaf of paper towards me. I take up my pen. I hold it high up so I don't dirty my fingers. I dip it in the ink. And I start to write" (438). In this, the novel's final paragraph, the triumphant flourish of "I"s announces Dorothea's discovery of agency, as she almost channels her husband's imaginative voice in an act that is nevertheless her writing. Earlier, she had noted how her sister Alice had begun "to hold his [Gibson's] pens and sharpen his quills" while he wrote (102), an allusion to David Copperfield's incompetent first wife, Dora; now, Dorothea (the coincidence of names seems obvious) appropriates the pen for herself, completing the novel in a way that she never managed to complete her husband.
Given that Gibson spends the entire novel constructing a self-enclosed fiction about his marriage, we can read Dorothea's entire narrative as a process of discovering not only how to reimagine her life in a way that suits her, but also how to do so while incorporating as many stories as she can from other people. That's true even when it comes to Wilhelmina Ricketts (the other girl in a blue dress), for Dorothea decides to accept Wilhelmina's contention that her relationship with Gibson was entirely asexual. Gibson tries to narrate over every other possible account; Dorothea, by contrast, realizes that Wilhelmina's tale of chastity may well be a fiction, but nevertheless concludes that "[i]n the end, I find it does not matter; that there is no purpose in asking myself: did they do this, or that?" (399). Her personal closure does not foreclose on other narrative possibilities. Gibson may speak, but Dorothea learns to listen. And only through listening can she identify her own narrative voice while preserving the integrity of other speaking selves. Dorothea's vision of Gibson near the end thus makes perfect sense according to the narrative's logic: Gibson returns to the wife he neglected in life because, in death, he realizes that she is the one best equipped to realize what lies within his own unfinished tale.
It's not quite clear, however, why this isn't a novel about Charles and Catherine Dickens. Arnold leaves both of their biographies almost entirely intact, simply swapping in easily-identifiable parallel events and characters. Even Gibson's novels are obvious mash-ups of Dickens' (The Red House, Little Amy, Miggs' Tales). Dorothea's enduring love for her husband, right down to her passion for his letters, is lifted straight from Catherine, just as Alfred's obsession with control is lifted straight from Charles. The primary difference, of course, lies in Arnold's decision to grant the much-maligned Catherine a happy ending, drawing on the "power of redemption" (436) in which Dickens and Gibson both believe. In effect, Dorothea turns into a Catherine as reimagined by 80s and 90s feminist criticism, right down to her discovery of a self-transformative "voice." But what's odd about this move, I think, is that it leaves the real Catherine right where most readers would have found her: trapped in her aging body, rejected by her husband, and silenced by his biographers. The only way to write sympathetically3 about Catherine, it seems, is to write about someone else...
1 Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), 2:907-08.
2 Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography (New York: Avon Books, 1988), 300, 256.
3 The three narrators of Jeff Rackham's The Rag & Bone Shop, which I discussed briefly a few posts ago, may disagree on many things, but none of them manage to work up any enthusiasm for Catherine; Collins in particular finds her repellent.