Dickens at Warwick Words

Last week saw the annual Warwick Words Festival of Literature and Spoken Word. Among the many wonderful talks, workshops, readings and other events on offer, there were a good selection of Dickens-related evenings.

On Monday, author Gaynor Arnold spoke at Leamington Waterstones as part of the Festival’s new “On the Edge” series in Leamington Spa. Arnold is a “Vic-lit” author, writing novels set in and inspired by events and people of the period. Her first novel Girl in a Blue Dress is inspired by the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens, who become Mr and Mrs Gibson in Arnold’s imaginative fictionalisation. Arnold spoke about how she came to write the novel, which stems from a life-long fascination with Dickens; she’d spent much time pursuing this interest and amounting a huge mass of knowledge about Dickens, but felt that Catherine’s side of the story needed to be told. The narrator of Girl in a Blue Dress is the fictional Mrs Gibson, and the novel explores her thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of Dickens’s death, coming to terms with the discrepancies between Dickens’s public and private personas. Arnold was clear that she sees the Gibsons as very much distinct characters in their own right, and that although the plot is structured by biographical information she very much makes the story and characters her own, finding freedom in reimagining the past rather than seeing this as an attempt to fill the historical gaps. Arnold also spoke about her latest novel After Such Kindness which is loosely based around Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and was written out of a desire to tell the story from the point of view of the child Alice, although the novel did in fact develop to incorporate Carroll’s perspective and attempts at understanding his behaviour and feelings towards the young girl.

I enjoyed hearing Arnold talk about her process of writing and imagining the past, although it was also interesting how cautious she seemed about positioning herself as a “historical writer” or “bio-fiction author”. I’ve only just started reading Girl in a Blue Dress so can’t comment too much on this, although I am finding that there seems to be a certain hesitancy in the writing and the characters thus far don’t quite feel as fully realised as they might – the text hasn’t quite reached the point of finding that freedom in the past that Arnold spoke of.

The next evening biographer Claire Tomalin spoke at the Bridge House Theatre in Warwick, focusing on Charles Dickens: A Life which was published last year. I immensely enjoyed reading Tomalin’s fascinating account of Dickens’s life: it’s rich on historical detail, compelling in its exploration of Dickens’s character, beautifully interweaves analysis of the novels into stages of his life, and is wonderfully written. It’s an engaging, acutely perceptive, and often sharply honest piece of work. As with all the best writing, although I’ve never been that interested in reading biography this left me wanting to read the rest of Tomalin’s work, and hearing her talk last week renewed my interest again. Tomalin spoke mostly about a range of different aspects of Dickens’s life and works, covering themes of education, social commentary, his writing process, and his relationship with the Public – it was impressive in just how much depth Tomalin could respond to such a variety of questions about Dickens, and made for an evening diverse in scope. She also touched on the trajectory of her writing and her development as a biographer, and both The Invisible Woman and her work on Jane Austen are now high on my wish-list, after everything else that I have to read – happily, though, Tomalin also noted that there is a film of The Invisible Woman currently in production, directed by Ralph Fiennes who plays Dickens himself.

There was a third and final Dickens event at Warwick Words with Lucinda Hawksley, who was talking about her new book which explores Dickens the man – you can, however, see Lucinda talking about Dickens the husband and father on the latest film for Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project.

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