Header overlay
Ranjit Bolt on Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

A Prisoner of Her Time

Share this

Why wasn’t Charles Dickens knighted, assuming he wasn’t offered the honour and declined it, as some authorities believe? Would it have been because he spilled so much ink lambasting the establishment? I think not. He was too colossal a figure for that to be an obstacle, even in Victorian England. Was it – as you will discover if you read Claire Tomalin’s masterly biography The Invisible Woman – because he kept a mistress, the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan? Highly unlikely, since, as you will also discover, he handled that business with the combination of psychotic secretiveness and extreme canniness that one would expect from such a man.

No, I suspect the answer to this question is supplied by Claire Tomalin en passant. You cannot decline an invitation to perform at the Palace and make Her Majesty come to the theatre instead, then refuse to see her after the show when she has expressed a wish to meet you, and expect to get away with it. Victoria was doubtless not amused, though I dare say she fell off her chair, along with the rest of us, while reading The Pickwick Papers.

It is with the appearance of Dickens that The Invisible Woman really comes alive, but the opening section – an account of life in the second echelon of the English theatre in the first half of the nineteenth century – is still fascinating. One can almost hear the Beatles’ ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ playing in the background. The denizens of this world are every bit as winning as the members of Vincent Crummles’s company in Nicholas Nickleby. One longs to have been in the green room with them; to have found out how blue, or otherwise, their conversation was; how loose their morals – although we are assured that the actress Mrs Frances Ternan and her three daughters, Fanny, Maria and Nelly, were all women of good character. That is, in Nelly’s case, until Dickens arrived on the scene.

Glamorous it wasn

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Why wasn’t Charles Dickens knighted, assuming he wasn’t offered the honour and declined it, as some authorities believe? Would it have been because he spilled so much ink lambasting the establishment? I think not. He was too colossal a figure for that to be an obstacle, even in Victorian England. Was it – as you will discover if you read Claire Tomalin’s masterly biography The Invisible Woman – because he kept a mistress, the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan? Highly unlikely, since, as you will also discover, he handled that business with the combination of psychotic secretiveness and extreme canniness that one would expect from such a man.

No, I suspect the answer to this question is supplied by Claire Tomalin en passant. You cannot decline an invitation to perform at the Palace and make Her Majesty come to the theatre instead, then refuse to see her after the show when she has expressed a wish to meet you, and expect to get away with it. Victoria was doubtless not amused, though I dare say she fell off her chair, along with the rest of us, while reading The Pickwick Papers. It is with the appearance of Dickens that The Invisible Woman really comes alive, but the opening section – an account of life in the second echelon of the English theatre in the first half of the nineteenth century – is still fascinating. One can almost hear the Beatles’ ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ playing in the background. The denizens of this world are every bit as winning as the members of Vincent Crummles’s company in Nicholas Nickleby. One longs to have been in the green room with them; to have found out how blue, or otherwise, their conversation was; how loose their morals – although we are assured that the actress Mrs Frances Ternan and her three daughters, Fanny, Maria and Nelly, were all women of good character. That is, in Nelly’s case, until Dickens arrived on the scene. Glamorous it wasn’t, however. The Ternan girls and their mother worked like slaves. Often they would have to tramp home from a long stint at the theatre to dingy lodgings, late at night, through the ill-lit and rat-infested streets of London, Newcastle, Liverpool or wherever, braving the lecherous scrutiny, if not the attentions, of dissolute swells. But if there was less glamour and fewer shenanigans than the Victorian public imagined, there was a warmth, a solidarity, a sense of the company being a surrogate family (as there still is among the members of theatre companies today) which Claire Tomalin evokes with great tenderness and a marvellous flair for conjuring up atmosphere. Dickens enters the book like a tornado in Chapter 6 and continues to whirl round and through it till his death at the end of Chapter 12. The Invisible Woman brings him alive – unorthodox, wilful, dynamic, eccentric – with the vividness of one of his own creations. For all the selfishness he shows in his dealings with his wife, his children and, above all, Nelly, despite his obvious devotion to her, we cannot but empathize with this charismatic, titanic figure. But it is a warts-and-all portrait and, like Claire Tomalin, one cannot but take deep exception to the double standards he showed in his treatment of Nelly. The spotless morality of his novels is in stark contrast to that of his private life, and his obsessive secrecy in his conduct of the affair has more than a touch of the sordid about it. Another unedifying aspect of Dickens was his treatment of his family, with the exceptions of his favourite child, Katey, and his sister-in-law Georgina, to whom he seems to have been, to put it tactfully, close. Here, too, despite her evident adoration for the man, Tomalin pulls no punches. She points out his capacity for cruelty, as when, for example, his son Edward is dispatched to Australia, having been given no say in the matter, with these typically Dickensian (and rather odious) words of consolation: ‘This life is half made up of partings.’ As for poor Catherine, the long suffering wife, she seems to have been treated with staggering callousness, as when Dickens, acting unilaterally as usual, had a partition put up between his room and hers, thereby making their separation physical as well as emotional. To say nothing of his betraying her with her own sister, as may very well have been the case. As for Nelly, her main job seems to have been to maximize the great man’s pleasure, while leaving his public image intact – a conjuring trick he pulled off with as much dexterity as he must have used in the magic he performed to entertain his children. Not surprisingly, since he was its most successful writer, Dickens’s hypocrisy mirrors that of his age – the age that had given him the fame, the adulation, the wealth, above all, the love, that he craved and would go to any lengths to retain. He seems to have felt, and resented, the straitjacket – witness his remark in a letter to Forster, his literary manager, that there are things he cannot write about because he is trammelled by ‘your morality’. But he evidently lacked the courage and integrity to throw off that straitjacket, either in his art or in his private life. There are hints, of course, in the novels, as well as in the letters, that he was alive to the pernicious prudishness and double standards of the times. Witness his sympathetic handling of Nancy, the fallen woman in Oliver Twist, his compassion for the plight of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. But this is not enough to exonerate him, as this book makes clear. The contrast between the standard, two-dimensional, remorselessly pure Dickensian heroine and the fallen woman he turned Nelly into for the sake of his own selfish pleasure is tellingly drawn. Nelly’s existence as a key part of Dickens’s life could no more be acknowledged than the fact that, in the years before he met her, while he created his sugary heroines by day, by night he prowled the streets of Margate in search of what he called ‘delights’. Only soon he didn’t have to search, because, as he wrote to a friend, the painter Daniel Maclise, when inviting him down to Kent for a weekend of debauchery, ‘I know where they live.’ One also can’t help wondering, and indeed feeling one knows, what his frequent visits to Paris were in aid of. Like his friend Wilkie Collins, Arthur Sullivan and sundry other illustrious artists of the day, Dickens seems to have had a marked fondness for the French capital. How he must have revelled in the sexual freedom he found there (its ‘sophisticated diableries’, in Claire Tomalin’s phrase). What a release the city must have given him from the moral fetters with which Victorian England, and the unique position he held in it, had bound him. This hypocrisy – as manifested in the tragic clash between the kind of openly unconventional life Dickens must have longed to lead with Nelly, and the clandestine one he felt compelled to lead, and which he compelled her to lead – is at the heart of the book. It is a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, and caught, crushed, between the two, is Nelly, driven into obscurity by a combination of the sexual mores of her times and the cowardice and egotism of her lover. I use the word cowardice advisedly and Claire Tomalin implies it. It is particularly striking in a man who was such a fearless critic of other aspects of his society. And even in the Victorian era, it was not impossible to flout sexual convention and remain distinguished and respected. George Eliot managed it. The fact that she lived openly out of wedlock with George Henry Lewes did not deter the Queen from inviting her to the Palace. But Dickens seems to have been determined to have his cake and eat it, even if that meant consigning an entire life – that of the woman he loved – to the shadows. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the book is the feeling it gives of how much Nelly was a prisoner of her time and her society. As Claire Tomalin observes, had Dickens been a French literary icon instead of an English one, she might well have held her head high as the mistress of a great man. After Dickens’s death, she felt obliged to keep the relationship still hidden from the world, though threats of disclosure dogged her. Today she would surely have had her memoirs ready for publication. As Claire Tomalin puts it, ‘Poor Nelly, she was not to know that fashions in sin can change as much as other fashions.’ Claire Tomalin’s intelligence, empathy and insight pervade the book, and she wears her erudition lightly. Where she is obliged to fill in a gap with guesswork, one trusts her intuitions implicitly, as, for instance, when she writes of Nelly after Dickens’s death that ‘She must sometimes have longed for people to talk to. Few people like their past to be entirely and permanently obliterated, and besides there was pride that Dickens had chosen and become dependent on her, as well as remorse that she had been put into a dishonourable situation.’ The Invisible Woman is a master class in biography. In contrast to many of today’s overstuffed and unreadable tomes, it comes in at a refreshing 350-odd pages, and every one of them is dense with information and entertainment.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 31 © Ranjit Bolt 2011


About the contributor

Ranjit Bolt is one of Britain’s leading translators for the stage. He also reviews for the Observer and the Guardian, and has published a verse novel – Losing It. His translation of Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro was performed at The Watermill, Newbury.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.