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The International Writers Magazine: Review Update

The Invisible Woman: The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin Penguin Books, 1991 (new edition 2012)
• Chris Mills
For many years Nelly Ternan only existed in the shadows, if at all; Claire Tomalin’s research has remedied that situation. The actress Ellen (Nelly) Lawless Ternan is now accepted (except perhaps by die-hard Dickensians) to have been mistress to Charles Dickens from 1857 until his death in 1870.

Last year, after having a book group outing to listen to Claire Tomalin discussing her biography of Charles Dickens, I remembered that I had The Invisible Woman tucked away on my book shelves. I read it avidly when I first bought it in 1998 and so after lending it to a fellow book clubber I decided that it was ripe for a re-reading. Claire Tomalin’s story fascinated me the first time round, but the Dickens fan in me wasn’t much impressed with my literary hero; I never again looked at him in the same light. It wasn’t the fact that he’d had a mistress as such rather it was the callous way in which he had treated his wife and the lengths to which he went to preserve his public reputation. Charles Dickens was an immensely strong personality and was determined to present only his version of himself to the world. I doubt if he ever said ‘be kind to poor Nell’ as another illustrious Charles did at his demise, but he certainly should have done. But how did it all begin? Why the secrecy?

Ternan They met when Ellen Ternan was only eighteen and Charles Dickens was forty-five and still married to Catherine Hogarth, the mother of his ten children. Claire Tomalin’s scholarly investigations have pieced together a picture of their secret relationship despite gaps in the surviving evidence. She writes, ‘this is the story of someone who –almost- wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air... and how – by a hair’s breadth she was reclaimed from oblivion despite strenuous efforts to keep her there’.

Many people conspired to keep her name in the dark even after Dickens died, including Nelly Ternan, her devoted sisters and Dickens’ family and friends. Dickens was arguably the most famous man in Britain in his heyday; he also had an image as a devoted paterfamilias that he didn’t wish to tarnish. But he still wanted Nelly and had already decided that he was tired of Catherine. Dickens somehow managed to keep his image intact throughout his marriage break-up, despite a certain amount of gossip.  He could not afford for it to be too widely known that he had taken an actress as a mistress.  Dickens created elaborate schemes and aliases to ensure that his and Nelly’s connection remained invisible to society at large.

As Tomalin explains, Nelly Ternan was a member of a well established theatrical family; touring in Britain, Ireland and the United States. The life of the theatre world was considered far from suitable for the fair sex and actresses were generally not accepted in polite society, even those as strictly brought up as the three Ternan girls.  It was commonly believed that no female could remain virtuous surrounded by the corruption of the stage world. Respectable society viewed theatre folk, and particularly the women with fascination mixed with suspicion. Even the actor William Charles Macready, felt that it was almost impossible for a woman to remain chaste within the theatrical world. Macready made his actress wife Kitty Atkins leave the theatre and subsequently kept his children off the stage too. Theatre women who ‘bettered’ themselves by marrying outside, very quickly expunged their thespian background from the record so as not to shock the new neighbours.

Tomalin’s recreation of the nineteenth century theatre world, with its pleasures and grinding hardship is brilliantly described in a fluent and vivid style revealing obvious warmth for the hardworking players.  Nelly Ternan’s family springs to life in Tomalin’s hands from her mother, the talented Frances Jarman and her father Thomas Ternan (sadly lacking his wife’s gifts) to the three lively and intelligent daughters Frances (Fanny), Maria and Ellen. Frances and Thomas’ only son died in infancy and the three remaining Ternan siblings formed a protective bond that was to last throughout their lives.  An important aspect of the Ternan story was the close female bonds of the family. Both Nelly’s grandmother and mother lost their husbands while the children were still young so the women were used to shifting for themselves. As Tomalin points out, the theatre was the only professional area at the time where women could function independently and be in control of their contracts and able to equal a man’s earnings. But to emphasis the point made above, a woman’s position was problematic; too often the stage and prostitution became inextricably tangled within the minds of solid, respectable citizens. 

As a result of his passion for the stage, Dickens met the Ternan family when he acted in an amateur and professional production of Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep. This thespian adventure was to sow the seeds of his and Nelly’s relationship, thought it was some time before Dickens’ determined wooing of the young woman paid off. The great conflict and stress of their years together was to be the problem of reconciling Dickens’ private life with the image of a respectable patriarch.

It was a situation that was never resolved satisfactorily and as a consequence it seemed that Nelly led an isolated and often lonely life when Dickens could not be with her.  Tomalin explains that Dickens’ stratagems for living a double life made extensive use of the growing rail networks.  Fate almost caught up with the couple at one point when they were involved in a rail crash at Staplehurst.  Nelly’s name was somehow kept out of the subsequent press reports and a crisis was averted.

As I’ve said above, Nelly’s relationship with Dickens was conducted in secrecy, but it did have its benefits for the whole family. Dickens’ passion for Nelly, caused him (initially as part of his attempt to win her over) to find theatre work for Maria and Fanny through his extensive contacts.  He later published Fanny’s first work when she turned to writing (though under a pseudonym) and he also gave her the opportunity to study singing in Italy.  Through Dickens, Nelly was able to leave the precarious world of the stage for travel and education. She did however lose her independence and identity when she gave up her career. Nelly could have and perhaps should have rejected Dickens; or her mother should have sent him away when he first declared an interest.  After all any respectable Victorian mama would have done so.  Mrs Ternan was known for her respectability and indeed considered herself to be a lady.  So why did she allow this relationship to continue?  Perhaps because the long term prospects for the family were not good.  Even actresses at the top of their profession faced an uncertain and poverty stricken old age.  The Ternan girls, though good, were not apparently as talented as their mother and even she had failed to achieve the dizzy heights of the profession.  So all they had to look forward to were endless tours in second rate companies.

Tomalin doesn’t have enough evidence to show whether or not Nelly regretted her bargain with the famous author. Only hints remain, compounded by the problem that there are periods of time for which no written record of her activities survive. This is sad, especially in the light of faint evidence suggesting that she had borne a child that didn’t survive. All three sisters eventually realised the ultimate nineteenth century ambition of respectable marriage and left theatre life far behind.  Maria married a successful brewer, Roland Taylor; Fanny was to marry Tom Trollope, widowed brother of novelist Anthony, while Nelly married the Reverend George Wharton Robinson six years after Dickens’ death.  The incredible part of Nelly’s future life was that she totally reinvented herself as a young widow of some means; apparently a lady of spotless reputation (who into the bargain, managed to shed ten years from her age).  The relationship with Dickens and her theatre background were obliterated from the record, leaving her new husband in ignorance. It’s hard in our age of Facebook sharing to believe that such a secret could be kept, but it was. Dickens merely had a walk-on part as a family friend; his shade may or may not have appreciated the charade; Nelly’s ‘new’ age gave people the impression that she was only a child when she had known him.  

After her thirteen year relationship with Dickens, Nelly outlived him by over forty years and built a new happy and active life. She went on to have a son (Geoffrey) and daughter (Gladys) with Wharton Robinson and ‘rode the crest of her happy domesticity’. She hid her past so successfully however, that its rediscovery after her death was to prove a shock to her children, particularly to Geoffrey. This is probably the saddest part of the book; Geoffrey was never able to come to terms with his mother’s past relationship and the extent to which her family had covered up both this and the Ternan theatrical background. He was so upset that his image of his mother had been shattered that he destroyed the letters and mementoes she had carefully preserved. His sister Gladys did not appear to be so violently affected by it; she even had some correspondence with Dickens scholars in later life, although having very little new information to offer.

The account of Nelly’s life was a fascinating one, although I felt that the story also rightly belonged to Fanny and Maria and the countless other women who once trod the boards. Both Fanny and Maria carved out new successful roles for themselves away from the stage. Fanny became a linguist; she travelled widely and wrote fiction for many years, later writing a biography of her mother-in-law Frances Trollope with Nelly’s assistance. Maria proved to be the only sister to become a fully fledged ‘New Woman’, throwing off the accepted female role of dutiful wife when she ended her marriage. She worked as an artist, and like the Trollope family she settled in Italy where she also worked as a foreign correspondent for the London Standard. There is even a suggestion that she may have been spying for the British government in a limited way.

It was worth re-discovering this biography and I plan to go on to read Tomalin’s Dickens in the near future. It will be interesting to see whether any further information on Dickens and Nelly Ternan has come to light during the last few years. The 1991 paperback edition of The Invisible Woman contained an extra chapter after Tomalin received a letter shedding new light on her theory that the public account of Dickens’ death wasn’t the real version. There has since been a new edition (2012), which I haven’t had the opportunity to look at yet, presumably published to tie in with Tomalin’s latest book. I still have mixed feelings about Dickens as a man, but perhaps that’s inevitable when he was such a mass of contradictory characteristics. I’ll give him a proper reappraisal when I have read Tomalin’s biography, but for now, the jury’s out.

© Chris Mills September 2013
Twitter: @Landing_Tales

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