Deborah Friedell writes:
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.