Birmingham author Gaynor Arnold talks to Lorne Jackson about the contradictions in Charles Dickens’ life.
Broad Street is where the 21st century happens and happens and happens again.
Each relentlessly modern minute spent here is gorged upon with gluttonous haste, as if it was a greasy kebab, purchased from one of the roadside shacks on this bustling highway of excess.
Broad Street is pubs and clubs; fast-food frenzy and dizzy decadence; the flow of money, people, traffic, booze and blood.
All of it ending in the gutter.
The avenue where Gaynor Arnold resides is no more than an empty-bottle-of-Becks’ throw from Broad Street.
Yet it’s also another world – another time.
Two stately, stiff-backed rows of handsome Victorian town-houses face one another politely, appearing to be on the brink of a formal bow.
It makes perfect sense that the author of The Girl In The Blue Dress should live here.
Her novel is a thinly-veiled account of the relationship between Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine (though she alters the names of her protagonists to Alfred and Dorothy Gibson).
Gaynor’s home is a product of Victorian splendour, bordering a world ruled by the merciless momentum of the moment.
Both are Dickensian qualities.
And, indeed, Gaynor knows her subject well – down to his deepest flaws.
The Girl In The Blue Dress – which has just been longlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize – is a portrait of the author as man of the people... and household tyrant.
Narrated by ‘Dorothy’, the novel shows ‘Alfred’ to be thoughtless and cruel towards his long-suffering wife.
But is this the genuine Dickens, or did Gaynor use an ample amount of artistic license?
“It’s actually very close to the real story of Dickens’s marriage,” she tells me. “When I first thought about the story I was going to write, I was thinking of just using the life of Dickens as a loose basis for my book.
“But the problem was I knew too much, because I had read such a lot about him, and really knew the novels very well.
“I kept finding myself drawn back into the true story of Dickens and Catherine. So it has a lot more close parallels than when I first intended to write it.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the life of Dickens, Gaynor’s portrait may be surprising, especially when read in conjunction with the Great Victorian’s novels. In his books, Dickens resolutely positioned himself in the camp opposed to every species of male bully.
There is contempt for David Copperfield’s overbearing step-father, Mr Murdstone; also for Sikes, the boorish chimney sweep from Oliver Twist.
So was Charles Dickens a hypocrite?
Gaynor denies the accusation: “Some people have read my book and concluded that he was horrible and a hypocrite.
“It’s true that there was a huge contradiction in his public life and what he wrote, and how he behaved in private.
“But that’s true of a lot of people, and I don’t think Dickens was conscious of it.
“He really was someone who wanted to do the right thing. Through out his life he stood up for the poor, stood up for the less fortunate.
“He did a huge amount. Raised money for all sorts of causes, and got very angry about the state of the nation, and where it was going. All that was absolutely genuine.
“But I think he found it a lot harder to manage some of his personal relations.
“Not all of them. He had a large number of friends and an awful lot of admirers. But he was a very impatient man, a very demanding person.
“When people didn’t meet his high standards, he could be quite cruel and unpleasant. I wanted to try and show the ambivalence of a man who ends up doing the sort of things he actually disapproves of, and how he has to sort this out in his own head and square it with himself.”
Of course the novel isn’t just about the flaws of a great man. It’s also about the woman overshadowed by that greatness – who suffered those flaws.
It is perhaps revealing that Gaynor chose to base her first novel on the life of Dickens and spouse. There is a pinch of both characters in her own background.
She is both an artist and the partially-obscured partner of a successful public figure. It took Gaynor many years to write her first novel. The book – which was also longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize – was released last year, and she is now 64.
For most of her life, she has worked with dedication, though little in the way of fame or plaudits, as a social worker.
Meanwhile, her husband, Nicholas, made his name setting-up the Aston University Centre For The Arts, which later became Triangle.
Gaynor has a long-standing interest in fiction. At school, she was the girl who won the English and poetry prizes. On going up to Oxford, she also discovered a passion for performance with the university theatre group.
So why did it take her so long to launch herself upon the literary world?
“There are people who definitely know that they want to be a novelist,” she says. “And they just, y’know, starve. That wasn’t me! It never occurred to me that I could earn my living being a writer. Very few people can. Very, very few people.
So Gaynor focused on social work, and raising her children, James and Claire, who are now adults.
It was joining the Tindal Street Writer’s Group in her 40s that re-ignited her passion for prose. The publishing wing of Tindal Street also released her novel.
Now she hopes to follow it with a collection of short stories she’s written over the years. She’s also mulling over a follow up novel: “It’s in the very early stages. I think it will be quite a while gestating. I’m certainly no Dickens went it comes to writing. He could write two novels at the same time. Thinking of that, it just floors me!
* The Girl In The Blue Dress is published by Tindal Street Press (£9.99)