Having read Affinity by Sarah Waters, which mainly depicts the social conditions of Millbank Prison as well as the physical incarceration of women in the nineteenth century, I come across with another Neo-Victorian novel named Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold and experience a poignant heroine rapt with mental afflictions and anguish in living with her husband who is surrounded by huge success, fame, and much-loved admiration from the public. His name is widely known as Alfred Gibson, or Charles Dickens, whom this novel is largely based on. The heroine, Dorothea Millar, while overcoming Alfred’s death and seeking re-connection and reconciliation with new life, she finds herself being indulged with reminiscences of their first romantic encounter to incompatibilities and an inevitable and notorious separation.
- “The One and Only. Yours Truly. The Great Original.”
The novel opens with the ending of Alfred’s life in 1870. Great details of the procession and mourning of the public during the funeral were recalled by their eldest daughter, Kitty. “There were shuffling, sighing, and doffing of hats. In Piccadilly, they actually pelted the carriages with flowers, at the corners of Pall-Mall they chanted his name and pressed his books to their hearts as if they were holy icons.” No means were to placate the public on this day, he had breathed and thrived with the Law and Life of England. He was the veritable man, being omnipresent in every spectrum around the Country, receiving unsullied and impeccable accreditation constructed by himself to the public.
- “You would quench my light. You would silence my voice. You would claw me down to the commonplace.” – Alfred Gibson
Nevertheless, concerning his private life and home truths, it could be in no way unsullied. It was gravely experienced by his wife Dorothea, in this case their marriage which was once a primrose path ended in ruined roads of perdition. There were much to be pondered upon and contributed to the separation and hostility. First of all, it could be a matter of the incompatibility of the temperament between Alfred and Dorothea as they both admitted and stated publicly and personally. “Up until then I’d believed my Mama when she said that a sensible disposition was worth its weight in gold, but now I wished I were possessed of more fascinating arts.” In fact it could be crucial matters, as the difference in character and disposition would lead to jealousy and suspicion of feeling neglected, as a result, it was engraved in Dorothea’s mind while her husband was gregarious and belated with enjoyment of the world, the work and company of society, humankind and arts.
For instance, for the love of humankind and purity of the other sex, Alfred developed an emotion of fondness of Alice, the younger sister of Dorothea, once she moved to Channon Street (Doughty Street) when he and Dorothea were still newlyweds. After her unexpected death of fever, he preserved her lock of hair, a ring, and some manuscripts and novels written by himself with pinpricks of notes jotted down by Alice all in a treasure box. Dorothea’s jealousy was aroused but appeased with Alfred’s explanation.
In another case when Alfred grew fascinations with the practice of hypnotism, Dorothea was insinuated of the hours he spent with his ‘patient” Madame Bradt.
“It only took you minutes to cure my headache. Why were you so long with her?”
“Because, my dear wife, her symptoms are more complicated. Her pain is not a simple defects of the nerves. It stems from a kind of hysteria deep within.”
…”You are jealous – and jealousy and mistrust go together. It is mean-spirited. I am disappointed in you.”
Regarding his widely known philanthropy and charity work, Dorothea had another opinion of his diligent devotion to Utopia House (Urania Cottage) which he worked abreast with Amelia Brougham (Angela Burdett-Coutts).
“It was one thing to campaign for women of a certain sort to be brought from their ways, but I did not see why Alfred had to be involved in such detail with their daily lives…He’d come home and stand by the fender and poke the fire, and tell me how he’d encountered some new young inmate called Sal or Annie, as beautiful as though the very Sun of Heaven shone from her eyes.”
Although defeated by the statement and defence of the accusation from Alfred, Dorothea always was not wholly cpnvinced with the explanations at an afterthought, “His vision of the world was so powerful that it occluded any commonplace realities.” (Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion by Peter Ackroyd) It was never known whether Alfred, to her, was implacable or innocuous as in what he had said or done.