Dorothea Gibson (or Dodo, as she is so aptly called) is one of the most aggravating characters I have ever read about. In this vaguely disquieting retelling of the married years of Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine - here Alfred and Dorothea Gibson - the Victorian attitudes dictate every aspect of Dodo’s marriage to a writer, the self-described “One and Only.”
It is hard to imagine that such a narcissistic man could have been other than domineering, selfish and unremittingly cruel to his wife. To win her he is all charm, but once she has begun bearing his children, her figure expanding with each new pregnancy, his cruelty is habitual. Worse, he chooses favorites - Dorothea’s sisters - alienating them from the evermore isolated woman. Eventually Dodo is turned out of her own home, denied her children with no legal recourse at a time when women have not even the vote.
Describing the days following Alfred’s death and her rumination on their marital history, Dodo drifts from the realities of her situation to the various incidents where Alfred criticizes, humiliates, cajoles and scolds. Perhaps this is a woman who never has a chance with such a man as Gibson, but her denial and self-justification, her embrace of his judgments, bespeak a woman without a sense of self or the courage to fight her bullying husband.
Author Gaynor Arnold describes Victorian England exactly as it was lived - rigid, moralistic and inflexible - but there is something terribly tiresome about Dodo’s childish acquiescence, the role of victim her natural state. The marriage is so unhealthy, so driven by the egomaniacal Alfred, that it is painful to read incident after incident of outrage and betrayal, a sticky web that finds each party in a deadly, soul-killing dance.
I find myself yearning through the infidelities, the blatant denigrations, the horrors of Dodo’s life to be relieved of this burden. This is the long, agonizing tale of an emotionally battered woman, and there is no relief, no spirit - and no joy. If the author hopes to inspire compassion, she fails with this protagonist, one more victim of patriarchy, albeit hardly without resources or opportunities before her marriage.
A slow, painful journey, this travesty of a marriage is unremitting, a testament to woman as victim, of husband, society and self. I slogged through this novel in search of inspiration, but it never came.