Monday, August 16, 2010

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

I've started an absolutely terrific bio by Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. Tomalin is one of my favorite biographers anyway--easy to read, a reliable historian with footnotes and endnotes galore, who is careful to note when the factual record ceases and her speculation begins.

Ellen "Nelly" Ternan was Charles Dickens' mistress during the latter part of his life. He met her in 1857 when he was 45 and she was 18. I've just read part 1 of the bio, which chronicles her family and years before Dickens.

More than reading about Nelly, I found Tomalin's description of the theatrical world into which she was born absolutely fascinating. She was from an acting family, as were most actors and actresses of the Georgian and Victorian periods. Her mother was the most successful of the family, and played leading roles in the regional theatres as well as occasionally in London. Nelly had two older sisters, Fanny, who was a "prodigy" and an immensely popular child actress whose star faded as she matured, and Maria, who also was also an actress. Nelly's father, also an actor and theatre manager, died in an insane asylum when she was quite young, and the family survived by hard work in the theatres. Until she was 16, they were essentially homeless--traveling around England, Scotland, and Ireland, performing and living in hotels and cheap lodgings, and working hard.

Nelly's mother and sisters often acted in male roles as well--her sister Fanny did male impressions, including a popular one of Richard III. I can only imagine what that was like! Nelly was considered the least talented of the four women, but was hardworking and uncomplaining in true Dickensian heroine style.

Tomalin also talks at length about how actresses, while not considered ladies because they worked for pay, were able to control their lives far more than other women of the age. They were exposed to more of the world, regularly negotiated their salaries and could organize and promote benefit evenings in which they were entitled to a portion of the ticket proceeds. Tomalin points out that Nelly Ternan, because of the life she led until she met Dickens, was far less sheltered and much more aware of the world and how it worked than Dickens' daughters who were her contemporaries.

Nelly's sister Fanny, who married Anthony Trollope's brother Thomas, wrote a fictional account of the experience of being an actress, Mabel's Progress, which was published by Dickens. In the book, she is able to: the good qualities of theatre people and to mock the prejudice of those who see a career on the stage as nothing but exhibitionism and sin. She gives a vivid account of working in Ireland with a country company and then in a London theatre, with no glossing over the dirty lodgings with black beetles on the brick floors, the shared beds, the inevitable diet of bread, cold meat and beer, the hard slog of learning four new parts in a week while making costumes, and rehearsing all day and acting long hours in the evening...

Nelly met Dickens when he wanted to take his amateur production of The Frozen Deep on the road. He hired professional actresses to play the female parts because the wives, sisters, and daughters of his friends as well as his own daughters couldn't possibly sully their reputations by appearing in a play on the road. The Ternan family was recommended as ladylike, accomplished, and available, and he hired them.

The title stems from the fact that there is very little historical record of Nelly herself. Dickens Inc. was apparently an incredibly powerful PR machine that kept the existence of Nelly and her relationship to Dickens suppressed until well into the 20th century.

I trust the rest of the book, now that Dickens has met Nelly, will be as fascinating as the first part.


  1. This sounds really interesting. Didn't I hear something about Dickens being in a train accident with his mistress, and he had a bit of trouble hushing that incident up? (Maybe it was another mistress though).

  2. This is a book I really want to read, Jane. I loved Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen, so I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

  3. I have not read this one yet but admire Tomalin greatly and will definately get to it at some point - your post is most inpiring!
    If you were particuarly interested in the theatrical side of it, you might enjoy Michael Holroyd's collective biog of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving - that is really good.

    Thanks indeed for sharing

  4. I too like Tomalin's biographies. I haven't read this one although I have Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens to read (other books keep getting in the way). It would be interesting to compare the two accounts of their relationship.

  5. I've always been intrigued by this secret affair in Dickens's life. Thanks for reviewing this book, Jane. Another one in my wishlist!

  6. I saw a fascinating documentary about Nelly and Dickens a few years ago. It starts off with a train crash Dickens and the 'mysterious woman' were involved in. I wish I could remember who made it or what it was called, but the house or the address of Nelly was mentioned. A real double life. The book sounds great - just up my street, but I'm still reading Wolf Hall (made the mistake of abandoning it for a bit...and now trying to get back into it)

  7. Lynda (Echostains): I will have to look for that documentary--it would be a great follow up to the book, which I think you would really like. Good luck with Wolf Hall--I took a break midway through it also, and was revitalized for the second half instead of counting pages :)