Too late, David Copperfield realises that he has married an imbecile: Dora is good-looking and affectionate, but she’s useless with a cookery book and incapable of managing servants. She calls her husband ‘Doady’ and begs him to accept that she can never be more to him than a ‘child-wife’. Worst of all, she will never be able to appreciate his genius. David prepares himself for a life of grief: ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’ He doesn’t suffer long. Dora develops a never specified illness, which allows her to die without any mess or fuss, and from her deathbed summons the girl David really loves and gives her blessing to the succession.
Charles Dickens’s wife was not nearly so obliging. In 1858, between Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens sent out a press release: ‘Mrs Dickens and I have lived unhappily together for many years. Hardly anyone who has known us intimately can fail to have known that we are, in all respects of character and temperament, wonderfully unsuited to each other.’ After twenty years of marriage, and ten children, Dickens claimed that Catherine Hogarth Dickens had all along suffered from a ‘mental disorder’, and was so unfit to be a wife and mother that a separation was required for her own good. It would be a few generations before a rival explanation – Dickens’s infatuation with the teenage actress Nelly Ternan – prevailed. Yet throughout his life Dickens insisted that it was his wife who had failed him, because of the ‘peculiarity of her character’.
Gaynor Arnold’s first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, long-listed for the Booker Prize, is a retelling of the Dickens marriage, and although the names have been changed (the great man is now called ‘Alfred Gibson’), in an afterword Arnold acknowledges her debt to Dickens’s ‘biographers and critics’ – unnamed – who have allowed her to ‘give voice to the largely voiceless Catherine Dickens’. In so doing, Arnold covers two trends in contemporary book-making: novels about famous novelists and biographies of novelists’ wives. And she takes on the task of ‘fictional biography’, a genre that demands much because it seems easy. (This is the converse of the principle that for certain poetic forms – a rondeau redoublé, say – mere adherence to the rules is sufficient to impress.) Fictional biography is biography, but without the biographer’s scruples about getting it right; fiction, but without the need to invent characters and situations. For most of the novel, Arnold’s method is to present episodes from Dickens’s life, imagined from the perspective of a nervous, increasingly jealous wife.
Here is Dickens in a letter to Sheridan Le Fanu, exhilarated by his ability to cure a woman of her neurasthenia through mesmerism:
Wheresoever I travelled in Italy, she and her husband travelled with me, and every day I magnetised her; sometimes under olive trees, sometimes in vineyards, sometimes in the travelling carriage, sometimes at wayside inns during the mid-day halt. Her husband called me up to her, one night at Rome, when she was rolled into an apparently impossible ball, by tic in the brain, and I only knew where her head was by following her long hair to its source.
And here is Arnold’s Dorothea Gibson:
So as we travelled through France and on to the Alps, as we bowled through majestic mountains and picturesque valleys, we were forever preoccupied with Madame Brandt’s condition. And Madame Brandt was wretched and fearful. Especially when Alfred was present. Especially at night. It seemed to me that she babbled and moaned more and more each time he tried his powers on her. And that he became more and more exhausted as he tried to will her into some semblance of serenity.
Dickens has been transformed into clichés. For Mrs Gibson, all mountains are ‘majestic’, all valleys ‘picturesque’. What is the purpose of giving voice to the voiceless if that voice is banal? But the narration is well-paced, and the story becomes interesting despite its teller.
The woman is loving, compliant, dull, clumsy, and has the misfortune to have married a great man. Her husband had been poor when young, and though he earns an increasingly good living, he will always be afraid of finding the bailiff at the door. Her genteel family attracted him, but her parents had sheltered her, and her incompetence at housekeeping makes him cross. He can be mean to her, peremptory and cutting, but he is also the most brilliant man she has ever known. No one can make her laugh as he can, even when she’s the butt of his jokes. She is so proud of him: ‘You are the One and Only,’ she tells him. And he replies: ‘You are the One and Only’s wife!’ She gets pregnant, and the expense of having a child frightens him: ‘The children of the poor – such little wretches! Such half-starved, half-clothed wretches! God save us from ever bringing a child to that kind of life!’ He is unprepared for the way her body changes: it is not the body he fell in love with a few years ago.
When the baby is born, she can’t cope. She is sad and tired. Her sister, a spinster, clever, capable, but not kind, moves in to help take care of her and the baby, and then the successive babies, because the children keep coming. One of them dies, and she is disconsolate. She is told to rest, to let her sister and nurserymaids take care of the household. She is made to recuperate at the seaside, away from the family. They do not need her. Indeed, things run much better without her. Meanwhile, her husband has become a public figure. Everyone tells him that he is exceptional. He has so much energy for work, parties, plays, travel. His wife may be tired out, but not him! Not yet. And she is so unhappy; perhaps he even convinces himself that her suffering is caused by the pressures of family life, that she will improve if they are removed. He is insistent: she must go, though he will not brook the scandal of a divorce. He will provide her with a small house and an allowance. The children will, by custom, stay with him.
In 2005, Dinner for Dickens by Susan Rossi-Wilcox and Lillian Nayder included a transcript of What Shall We Have for Dinner?, a slim collection of menus attributed to Catherine Dickens. For parties of eight to ten, try turbot, shrimp sauce, roast loin of mutton, pigeon pie, broccoli, mashed potatoes, college puddings, macaroni. Or barley broth, fried whitings, roast beef, minced veal, cold ham, cauliflower, mashed and brown potatoes, bread-and-butter pudding. Dinner for Dickens was a protest against Catherine Dickens’s ‘fate at the hands of Dickens scholars – the way in which she has been unfairly dismissed as an incompetent domestic manager by biographers and critics anxious to justify Charles Dickens’s decision to separate’. Her ‘practicality as a menu planner’ and ‘wise use of ingredients’ were supposed to prove that Dickens had done her wrong. Arnold is sympathetic to Catherine Dickens without turning her into a domestic goddess, and until the couple’s separation, Dorothea Gibson is barely distinguishable from the Catherine Dickens we know from modern biographies. Only when Catherine leaves her husband’s house, when her name no longer appears in the Collected Letters and history loses interest in her, does Arnold begin to take over.
For 12 years, Dorothea lives quietly. She reads her husband’s new novels as soon they are printed, keeps no company, misses her children, curses the name of the pretty actress she thinks cost her the affections of her husband. But when her husband dies, she is no longer the cast-off: ‘I (and no one else) am the widow of the most famous man in England.’ She puts on her mourning clothes like a debutante preparing for the cotillion. The entire country wishes to give her their condolences. At tea with Queen Victoria, she becomes a feminist:
‘We have always agreed with the Prince that the highest role a woman can aspire to, whether she be Queen or commoner, is that of wife and mother.’
I am silent. That she – the most powerful woman in England – should hanker after nothing but domestic life seems almost absurd.
‘You do not agree?’
She gives me a narrow look . . . It is as if a door has been unlocked in my mind. I feel a rush of courage: ‘It is simply, Ma’am, that I see my daughter longing in vain for something more in life. I see her baulking at the smallness of our womanly concerns. I see her as a wild horse champing at the bit.’
The Queen frowns, but Dorothea is inspired. For the first time, she thinks that women should have the vote: ‘If women made the laws, wouldn’t things be different?’ She will confront her husband’s mistress. And she will take on the task of finishing her husband’s last novel, a serial with a plot like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, though nothing about her has yet suggested she has any interest in writing fiction herself. Dorothea finds where the ‘woman who destroyed my marriage’ lives, in seclusion with her mother (an account that owes a great deal to Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens), and they have a catfight out of Anita Loos. When Dorothea is victorious, the other woman nearly unconscious on the ground, she feels only regret, and begs forgiveness: ‘I am a jealous woman!’ The mistress is sorry too. When Dorothea leaves her, she feels only sympathy for the girl whom society has forced underground: ‘After all, I can look back on so many happy memories; whereas what little life Miss Ricketts had known was snatched from her, she was forced to trade the bright lights of the stage and the adulation of the audience for a life of solitary confinement.’
Within a few years of Dickens’s death, Nelly Ternan married an Oxford student 12 years her junior; he became a magistrate, and they had children together. But Arnold’s Wilhelmina Ricketts is shunned: a fallen woman. As it was for Little Em’ly, her only hope seems to be emigration. Her life, like Dorothea’s, has been destroyed by Gibson, and they bond in their victimhood; but Dorothea forgives Gibson too. She finds one of her husband’s little notebooks, in which he describes living with his parents in debtors’ prison: she’d known he was poor, but had imagined only ‘some sort of momentary discomfort, like having a little less cake or sugar’. Reading of his childhood privations, she pities him, and thinks of what a trial she must have been: ‘Yes, I make sense of it now.’ She dreams of her husband lovingly asking her to finish his book for him. The closing moments of Arnold’s novel have Dorothea going to her husband’s desk and taking his pen: ‘I hold it high up so I don’t dirty my fingers. I dip it in the ink. And I start to write.’
Gaynor Arnold has given Charles Dickens’s wife the ending we might wish her to have had. But I suspect that the Widow Gibson bears as little resemblance to Catherine Dickens as Dickens’s real family did to his favourite fictional families, gathered together when the cloth has been cleared, the hearth swept, the fire made up. God bless us, every one!