The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles ↠ PDF/EPUB

Now a major motion picture directed by Ralph Fiennes co starring Fiennes and Felicity Jones with Michelle Fairley Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander the unforgettable story of Charles Dickens's mistress Nelly Ternan and of the secret relationship that linked themWhen Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan met in 1857 she was 18 a professional actress performing in his production of The Frozen Deep He was 45 a literary legend a national treasure married with ten children This meeting sparked a love affair that lasted over a decade destroying Dickens's marriage and ending with Nelly's near disappearance from the public record In this remarkable work of biography Claire Tomalin rescues Nelly from obscurity not only returning the neglected actress to her rightful place in history but also giving us a compelling and truthful account of the great Victorian novelist Through Dickens's diaries correspondence address books and photographs Tomalin is able to reconstruct the relationship between Charles and Nelly bringing it to vivid life The result is a riveting literary detective story—and a portrait of a singular woman

10 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

  1. says:

    There is a fashion at the moment for warts and all biographies The popular press delights in exposés of formerly much loved celebrities The salacious the detail to be revealed apparently the better And Charles Dickens would certainly fit into this group Much loved? Certainly Influential? Another decided Yes But what of his private life Does that bear scrutiny? And on that uestion there perhaps should be a meaningful pauseClaire Tomalin says The rewriting of history is a central theme in this whole story since Nelly too almost succeeded in her attempt the problem arises in people's shifting view of morality what constitutes innocence or guilt what makes a man or woman good or bad who is to blame when someone is shocked or outraged or exposedIt has never been a secret that Charles Dickens made his wife Catherine live apart from him after bearing him 10 children or that she was allowed no contact with 9 of these children The general public were aware of this at the time It is a matter of conjecture whether they idolised him so much that they went along with his fantasies about the justification for such actions or whether they simply turned a blind eye Clearly there must be a lot behind such behaviour by an upstanding author one with a great social conscience; one who tirelessly campaigned for better conditions for the poor and underprivileged There must be a reason behind the paradox Is it our place to investigate it?Claire Tomalin is one of our finest literary biographers having won many awards for her earlier works She has written scholarly biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft Thomas Hardy Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen The Invisible Woman from 1990 attracted my attention partly because it would have information about my favourite author Charles Dickens partly because it was misleadingly marketed as a novel and partly because it was by a writer whose earlier books I have enjoyed and for whom I have the greatest respect I wondered what a novel by her would be like And I was also interested in the woman Nelly Ternan of whom I in common with many readers only knew a few facts I knew that Dickens's private letters had been subjected to infra red photographic analysis in the 1950s Beneath the crossings out references to Ellen Ternan were discovered Whether or not this might constitute an invasion of privacy I was not especially worried that Claire Tomalin's book would be inappropriate a grubby little piece I knew better And don't you find that knowing something of an author's life is sometimes enlightening? To know that they were imprisoned for their beliefs or escaped an oppressive regime or family? Simply to visit the country area or even the house they lived in can sometimes cast a new light on the preoccupations thrust and whole timbre of their work This is what I find So I had great hopes that this book would be both an entertaining or absorbing read and also may even help a little in understanding the enigma that is Charles Dickens I am sorry to say after this long preamble that it did neitherThe point is surely that the book is misconceived Claire Tomalin's book The Invisible Woman is a literary biography But does it really ualify as this? In part it is about Charles Dickens's relationship with a young actress Nelly Ternan But is the focus on Dickens or Ternan? Decidedly the latter in this book So what is the hook? For what can be our reasons for reading about the probable mistress of a celebrated author if they are not prurient as we have begun to consider Would we really be interested in Nelly on her own account had she not been Dickens's mistress? It is extremely doubtful Her acting career was very brief In fact it came to an end at the age of 21 as her fortunes rose By that time she owned a fine four storey house near Mornington Crescent very probably bought by DickensSo what we are left with is a biography of a Victorian woman who had a relationship with a famous man which both they and others at the time and since were desperate to conceal It certainly is an incredible story with a lifetime's work in the obsessive attention to detail It is as scholarly as one would expect Every single railway ticket or mention in a letter is credited in a footnote If you are an historian or love reading historical biographies you may find this fascinating But for a general reader this attention the minutiae is simply dull and perhaps doubly so for a Dickens enthusiast For Dickens whatever you think of him as a human being knew how to entertain Invariably Dickens imparts his information in a humorous way His myriad of minor characters pop in and out of his pages as bright stars enchanting us with their colour and personality In this biography there are an eual number of minor characters; the people Tomalin credits are eually great in number Because of the sheer weight of evidence of items bought homes established and seemingly endless trips made here and there the evidence is overwhelming And we appear to have to read every single shred of it Only in the final chapter where Tomalin presents an alternative to what we think we know about Dickens's death is there no hard evidence except for circumstantial evidence such as the exact amount of money in his pocket differing from his earlier withdrawal at the bank which implied that he had spent some of it Appearances had to be kept up could be a mantra for the entire book The first part is from a sociological and historical point of view It describes Nelly's antecedents in great detail both their lives and their difficulties Her grandmother mother father and sisters were all all very hard working professional actors serious about their careers very badly paid and never considered respectable The father disappears from the story uite soon a victim of the Victorian catch all for men the so called General Paralysis of the Insane or syphilis affecting the brain leading to him being committed to the Bethnal Green Insane Asylum with his family not only having to paying the expenses but also cover up the dreadful and humiliating fact Often actresses were mistaken for or grouped with prostitutes because the theatre itself was disreputable Tomalin describes the acting world how difficult and hand to mouth an actor's life was and how fundamentally it was looked down on by Victorian society No respectable person would be involved with actors and actresses Yet the alternative for females having to make their own way in society was either to marry money or the near slavery of becoming a servant seamstress or millinerTomalin scrupulously describes the hypocrisy in society; how the values expressed were never a match for what was actually happening She also makes it clear that an actress such as Ellen Terry was very much the exception in making her name great and almost achieving what everyone craved at that time what was considered to be both critical and crucial respectabilityBy the end of this section maybe a uarter through Nelly is three years old It was perhaps necessary to expound on the earlier history the ideas and facts about society so that we should not judge the main characters Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan too harshly in the light of subseuent events For Nelly's life and that of her immediate family is carefully chronicled from then on despite the fact that Nelly did not actually met Charles Dickens until 1857 when she was 18 At the time Nelly and her family were performing in Dickens and Wilkie Collins's production of The Frozen Deep which has since been all but forgotten Charles Dickens we know grew up in poverty and with little education loved the theatre passionately and cherished its reliance on imagination and spontaneity allied to discipline and self reliance He would thus greatly admire a family such as the Ternans Yet Dickens was now 45 already the most celebrated writer in England so the fact that he showed interest in the young actress must have seemed intriguing providential surprising who knows? Dickens was uite the dandy he had rather of the Regency buck in him and less of the Victorian paterfamilias than is usually believedWhat is clear is that Dickens's solicitous attention was flattering enough to Nelly to result in a secret love affair one which lasted thirteen years a time during which Dickens destroyed his marriage cruelly rejected his wife brutally and publicly as Tomalin says and covered his tracks at every point he possibly could He attempted to erase all trace of Nelly Ternan from the public record And he very nearly managed to do so One diary for 1867 escaped being destroyed as it was in a stolen suitcase in America It resurfaced in 1943 Nelly appears freuently in it although she is never than a letter N The diary reveals that at this time Dickens was spending about a third of his free time with Nelly and often lying to everyone else about his movements Also his bank account shows regular payments to someone called Miss Thomas Some of his friends were in the know despite Dickens's best efforts William Thackeray heard the rumours of a possible liaison with his sister in law but protested to his mother No such thing it's with an actress It's a fatal story for our tradeIn the famous train crash of 1865 at Staplehurst in Kent Dickens heroically saved the lives of several passengers Yet it was nearly his undoing since Nelly and her mother had been accompanying him Dickens tried to conceal their identity but in trying to recover Nelly's jewellery he inevitably let slip some detailsOf course there are other instances too The task of covering up for so many years must have been well nigh impossible Some people did not burn the letters as Dickens had begged them to Although he had various pseudonyms such as Tringham even across the English Channel in France Dickens's face was well known and people remembered it And there was a limit to how often he could protest that he was in one place whilst dashing to another The pace at which he lived his life seems frenetic even without taking account of the sheer amount of time he must have spent on setting up all the various subterfuges Tomalin details And this central part is what has been described as a thrilling literary detective story and a deeply compassionate workThe facts possibly merit this description The writing does not It is tedious Claire Tomalin herself has said Biographers search for traces for evidence of activity for signs of movement for letters for diaries for photographsThis can be skilfully woven into a riveting biography and indeed Tomalin has additionally written an acclaimed biography of Charles Dickens himself But The Invisible Woman just seems to be a catalogue of events without much life which the reader slogs through whilst perhaps becoming increasingly uneasy It is only by remote chance that any incriminating letters survive at all We know that Dickens's son Henry and Ellen Ternan's son Geoffrey Robinson both destroyed all the letters they could Dickens himself burned any personal letters that he could find and also destroyed his diaries at the end of every year Since everyone involved including all Dickens's biographers roughly one every decade since his death went to such great pains to conceal these facts since his family his descendants and his friends sometimes went through great personal difficulties to enable this since we can gain nothing of substance by knowing the truth at this stage what really is the point?During her life there are strong indications that Nelly bore Dickens a male child but that it died As Tomalin says There is too much soft evidence to be brushed aside entirely Dickens the celebrity went from strength to strength He developed public readings of his works which became enormously important to him The couple eloped to Boulogne although Dickens travelled between all his homes incessantly He also wrote two of his greatest novels during these years Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend He sent proofs of these to Nelly and seems to have discussed his work with her Yet after her busy active life as an actress her fight for independence and respectability she now remained hidden in France for several years presumably now twiddling her fingers and bored out of her mind with loneliness Dickens never acknowledged her as his companion in public Indeed Tomalin says He was so successful in imposing his version of what happened on the world that when sixty years after his death it was first publicly stated that he had kept a mistress and that she had been an actress the British public was deeply upset and outragedAfter Dickens's death in 1870 ironically Nelly seems to develop into a new person The final part of the book describes her life after Dickens's death In 1876 she became Mrs George Wharton Robinson having married a younger admirer a schoolmaster Unfortunately he turned out to be a rather dull unambitious disorganised person Their fortunes went from bad to worse but she did subseuently have two children from the marriage None of her family knew of her close relationship with Dickens and she managed to fraudulently place her age at between 10 and 12 years younger than her actual age until after her death This is a significant period as it almost exactly mirrors the length of time which her relationship with Dickens lasted Sadly her son did discover the truth when he was older and when his mother was dead Not surprisingly he did not find the lies easy to accept and just became another casualty in this sorry saga Nelly died in 1914 her son taking her to be buried with her husband the gravestone naming Ellen Wharton Robinson rather than her birth name Ellen Lawless Ternan Even this inscription has become almost obliterated over time As Claire Tomalin says From Dickens Nelly learned how to deceive Just as he had tricked the world by using false names and installing her as Mrs Tringham in the houses he shared with her so after his death she used the simple trick of taking 10 years off her age to protect herself from uestions She reinvented herselfA sad story A story with many casualties not least Dickens himself who not only worked himself to an early death but also died trying to keep too many balls in the air He said I am here there everywhere nowhereJohn Sutherland the great Dickens scholar has said Everyone who knew the full story of Dickens and Ternan took their knowledge or almost all of it to the grave What we can gather about the relationship falls into three categories incontrovertible facts controversial facts and hypotheses drawn from the factsThis book is admittedly probably the most well balanced of the theorists with virtually none of Sutherland's hypotheses until the very end part mentioned before about the circumstances of Dickens's death Tomalin added this after the book's first publication when yet evidence was forthcomingIt has been said that this biography provides a compelling portrait of the great Victorian novelist himself I personally disagree He was a man of his time an individual trapped within his culture and time as we all are We may not like what we read for at the root of it all this is a story about the hypocrisy in the Victorian Age Perhaps you want to know the story to become immersed in the colour and personalities of the tale but are not an historian Perhaps you do not have an obsessive need to dot every i and cross every t Well then on this rare occasion I would suggest you watch the film instead This is a faultlessly detailed chronicle yet I am finding it difficult to rate for the reasons I have stated I have settled on my default of 3 his adult life was lived out during a period of acute hypocrisy in these matters The domestic virtues were loudly proclaimed public displays of bad behaviour such as royal princes consorting with actresses were no longer tolerated and while prostitution of every kind flourished discretion or hypocrisy was reuired from all but the lowest social class Dickens's response to this hypocrisy was never simpleFor all its attention to detail this book still raises uestions than it answers As early as 1939 George Bernard Shaw had his suspicions wryly saying The facts of the case may be in bad taste Facts often arePoor Nelly she was not to know that fashions in sin change as much as other fashions

  2. says:

    There is no real story here—Dickens might have had sex with Nelly Ternan or he might not have Evidence points to its likelihood but he could not have laid Nells as much as he laid his wife Catherine You can stop reading the review at this point if the dirt is your desire The focus here is on the life of Nelly Ternan which for a Victorian life is freuently interesting—if not always thrilling the Dickens bits are the least fascinating since all the evidence as to Dickens’s shenanigans were burned—beginning with her matriarchal upbringing with her two sisters and her education on the stage Her years as a performer in poverty are the most intriguing and full of the drudgery of this particular dark age of no education for women and having to thrive on one’s merits as a stage doll to please male punters Refreshing is Nelly’s post Dickens life Tomalin suggests Boz was something of a choke chain despite the financial freedom and his death freed her into a respectable life where she married a churchman and pretended to be twelve years younger than she was a rather gullible churchman and settled down to a productive life of writing and book matters spoiling it all by becoming a Tory and an anti suffragette Three stars for content four for Tomalin’s telling

  3. says:

    Tomalin writes calmly and elegantly with an acute eye for the hidden lives of Victorian women but however meticulous her research the fact remains that there just isn't enough archival evidence to reconstruct the 'truth' of the relationship between Nelly Ternan and Dickens Was she his mistress? Most probably yes Did she have his child? Highly likely What was she like as a woman? Hmm don't really know The early chapters on Victorian theatrical families is fascinating through a case of bookish serendipity I've recently been reading Daniel Deronda where a number of female characters either aspire to or do work as singers and actresses so I greatly enjoyed Tomalin's reconstruction of this world She's good too on the awkward unsettling side of Dickens that underpinned his fantasies and representations of himself as the uintessential Victorian pater familias who practically invented cosy life around the family hearth Dismissing his wife and mother of his ten children has never endeared Dickens even to his literary fans and the collusion of Victorian society as well as his friends and early biographers has now mercifully been swept away It's within this context that his relationship whatever it actually was with Nelly is situated She was just 18 when she met him a feted and famous almost 50 year old man She was part of a female family mother and 3 daughters struggling to support themselves through the theatre Dickens offered financial security sure but the Ternans were probably less mercenary high minded than that implies We think at least Dickens fell hard for this girl woman who fulfilled the role of his fantasy woman from so many of his books young angelic virtuous essentially a blank slate onto which masculine fantasies can be projected Nelly disappears from the historical record for years at a time and while Tomalin speculates she's clear that that's what she's doing It's hard to get a handle on Nelly's personality she's bright self educated hard working was involved with Dickens for 13 years before his death and after married in her own right Apart from that it's hard to say much about her Given the sparsity of the sources Tomalin has done well to give us a book at all but it's stronger on the context of Nelly's theatrical world and Dickens himself Nelly might be made visible but she's still unfocused and half hidden Which is a shame

  4. says:

    I made the mistake of leaving this on the shelf for many years – until I’d already read Tomalin’s full length biography of Dickens – which meant that too much of the contents felt familiar and speculative I was particularly impatient with the first few chapters which just fill in the backdrop with some generic information about what life was like for actors in the early nineteenth century Still Tomalin’s project was a noble attempt to salvage what few facts we know for certain about Ternan’s early life and her relationship with Dickens and where she has to guess – that Nelly was living in France that there was a child or two – she states that plainly I enjoyed the Ralph Fiennes Felicity Jones film

  5. says:

    I highly recommend Donada Peters reading of The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens It’s an excellent book anyway and her reading of it was thoroughly enjoyable The double biography begins by setting the Victorian context into which Ellen Nelly Ternan was born as a female in a family of actors We learn about her early life how her family became acuainted with Charles Dickens and then watch as her life seemed to disappear from history after she met him The author Claire Tomalin explained how even what information as she had was obtained then painstakingly pieced together and looked at retrospectively Although Tomalin avoids idle conjecture and speculation she does offer interesting observations about Dickens’ views of women which are both astute and acerbic It’s interesting but I guess I always enjoyed his stories so much I never gave much thought to the shallowness pliability and lack of faults in most of Dickens’ heroines The others the ones who are flawed Dora Estella etc can't ever really know love or peace After Dickens’ death Nelly makes a new life for herself while continuing the Dickensian love of deception she lies to her new husband about growing up as a actress misrepresenting her age by over 10 years never mind her relationship with the most famous writer of the day Although he never discovers the truth when Nelly’s son Gregory learns of it after her death in connection with her association with Dickens he is devastated further adding to the destruction of letters papers and evidence which might have shed light on the years the two spent together Both of Nelly’s two children died childless There is circumstantial evidence that Dickens and she had a child who died shortly after being born However this has never been proven This year 2012 is the 200th year of Dickens birth I'm listening to the audio version of this book As a lifelong lover of Dickens this book is an eye opener Don’t get me wrong The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens is not an exposé Claire Tomalin isn’t interested in dragging Boz through the mud or settling some secret feminist agenda She does an exceptional job of putting his life into the context of the day and revealing the existence of a woman he did his best to keep hidden from the world for the last thirteen years of his life In fact Nelly Ternan’s life and the role she played in history has remained largely a mystery ever since Dickens’ death as well adding to his mystiue confounding his biographers and confusing readers alikeHow does this leave me – one of those devoted fans – feeling? Somewhat chagrined but as a Catholic I believe in our sinful nature as well as the redemptive power of Grace In fact I can well imagine Dickens’ rueful realization that he—like the rest of us—hadn’t lived up to his “Great Expectations” which ironically was written not too long after he had ‘fallen’ for Ms TernanPerhaps ‘expectations’ when I finish

  6. says:

    It seems on the evidence of Tomalin's heroic reanimating of a woman who was uite consciously erased from the memory of life that Charles Dickens he of the endless words and boundless talent was as gifted at creating whole selves in his own life as he was on the page I'm not sure that sentence would parse dramatically but who cares? Ellen Ternan was his shadow wife wife in all but name his secret for many years and thanks to zealous biographers forgotten wiped out inconvenient Until Tomalin and some retrieved letters One doesn't think or less of Dickens because of this There was earth air fire and water and Dickens too But there was also this young actress who allowed herself easily I'm sure to serve him to soothe him to be subsumed by him Tomalin is a detective and a tireless one following cold cases of women with the exception of Samuel Pepys Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens notable exceptions certainly unjustly consigned to anonymous graves women who greatly contributed to the achievements of the great men whose shadows they were forced to inhabit

  7. says:

    Although I knew of this book when it was first published it took me decades to get around to reading it something I can only attribute to sheer idiocy and perhaps kindly my preoccupation with my young children back in the 1990s This was an excellent biography of the other woman in Dickens's life that blends fine detective work with compassion for both the lovers and for those whose lives were upended by the liaison

  8. says:

    I don't normally read non fiction Fiction is my wheelhouse so this was a bit outside my comfort zoneNelly Ternan Dickens mistress for the final 13 years of his life is an enigma A woman who's existence was concealed by Dickens during his lifetime and effectively whitewashed by his estate after his death Tomalin's task was not an easy one to reconstruct the life of a figure who clearly had a profound impact on Dickens yet history and respectability would rather remained in the shadows It is a task she manages with expert skill piecing together a life from playbills and covert references in the few letters and papers which escaped the bonfire She presents a woman both pulled along a path by powers and wills stronger then hers but also a deeply resourceful woman who through everything life threw at her found a way to survive and at times thrive Inevitably we also gain an insight into Dickens A man of contradictions who bares little resemblance to the personal persona he wished the public to see On the one hand he had an interest in helping fallen women and others in need on the other was a man with an indomitable will who could bully those into getting what he wished cruelly and unceremoniously separated from his wife and took a mistress Not exactly the personification of the respectable Victorian gentlemanUltimately the book raises as many uestions as it tries answer With such little information to go on the truth will likely never be known about Nelly Ternan and her relationship with Dickens but Tomalin goes some distance in at least presenting a hypothesis based on what little information exists

  9. says:

    It is the true story of Dickens’ longtime clandestine affair with Nelly Ternan who was 27 years his junior In 1857 producer Dickens 45 met Nelly 18 while she was appearing in Collins’ play The Frozen Deep Only a few friends of Wilkie Collins knew of this secret affair Dickens was truly a man that everyone revered greatlyDickens’ lust gets the better of him He decided to change his life and began a relationship with Nelly Nelly’s mother wanted Dickens’ money Dickens broke up his family and everything fell apart Unfortunately his adult children go into different paths; the daughters side with their father since he is their only source of income His wife not only lost her husband but also her daughters as well as her home All this happens in a Victorian society which was a man's world And somehow Dickens is able to hide it from the public In the long run after Dickens death his financial support was given to Nelly It did help her and her sisters to survive It seems to me that this was a difficult book to write regarding the lack of information or possibly some that has been hidden away

  10. says:

    I found this book read for a reading group very hard to get into firstly it wasn't a non fiction subject I would have chosen not being particularly interested in the life of Charles Dickens for one Initially the author bombards you with information about the actors plays etc of the era as if we the reader are well informed and know who and what they are It is only when Charles enters the picture that it started to get a little interesting and I found that I did want to find out what happened in the end Unfortunately despite thorough research by the author it is mostly conjecture and supposition choosing to attach significance to the few remaining references letters and such like I am sure if the book had been about Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters or other such authors then I would have been interested and enjoyed reading about it but I just found myself bogged down with too much information that appeared to be either true or false depending on what you wanted to believe