Engrossing examination of the life and failed marriage of a hugely popular Victorian novelist (read: Charles Dickens).
Arnold’s confident debut offers a sympathetic, intensely readable account of the mixed blessings of living with a vast, restless and charismatic talent destined to become a national institution. Alfred Gibson is a playful but penniless actor/playwright/legal clerk when he meets unworldly Dorothea Millar, daughter of a benefactor. But he is a man full of energy, charm and humor, a workaholic whose undying fear is of returning to poverty, and whose ceaseless writing will eventually transform him into “the One and Only,” a celebrity beloved by and in thrall to the Public. Dorothea, initially dazzled by Alfred, sinks slowly into disenchantment, growing stouter but feebler through eight pregnancies, gradually frozen out of the marriage by her passivity, weak health and social shortcomings. Narrated by Dorothea after Alfred’s death, the novel reveals how she was bullied by her husband, who increasingly lavished his affections on younger, slimmer, more childlike women (much like her sister Alice, whose premature death Alfred mourned with inappropriate fervor). Finally, he forced her to sign a separation agreement, and ten years of isolation followed. But the Great Man’s death marks a turning point, with Dorothea reconnecting to her estranged family and coming to terms with Alfred’s character. Drawn out and indicative of sudden changes in its heroine, this last section is the weakest in an otherwise appealing novel.
Humane and plausible.