A Prisoner of Her Time

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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

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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, this summer.

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