The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens
Date of publication: September 1991
The 'invisible woman' of Claire Tomalin's book is the woman who, for the last thirteen years of Charles Dickens's life, was his secret obsession and intimate companion. Her name was Nelly Ternan; she was an actress, reared in a family of actresses and imbued with the traditions of the theatrical world; but within a few years of meeting Dickens she left the stage and disappeared from public view. Although she reappeared, she was always liable to become invisible again, sometimes by her own choice, sometimes at the insistence of those who, for one reason or another, preferred to keep her out of sight.
Her initial disappearance was considered essential for the protection of Dickens's good name with a public that idolized him. It enabled him to continue in his role as the great upholder of family values, and to maintain the image his daughter Kate mockingly described as the 'joyous jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch'. It also protected Nelly from scandal. So efficiently did Dickens and Nelly shield themselves that they managed to efface most of the traces of their association; and so well did she learn her lesson in artifice that she was able to reappear after his death as an entirely new person, constructing a background, history and even age to suit the requirements of the society she wished to enter.
Nelly's three lives - as child actress, as hidden love and as ultra-respectable wife and mother - span the whole of the Victorian and Edwardian ages. Until now her story has been considered only in the light of its impact on Dickens. In her lifetime no one asked her for her version or memories, any more than they asked her remarkable sisters Fanny and Maria, both writers who had also known Dickens intimately, for theirs. All three went silently to their graves, and it was only after the First World War that Nelly's part in his life began to be discussed openly, though even then some vehemently denied the very possibility of the association.
For the first time Claire Tomalin has chosen to look at Nelly's story from her own point of view. The new perspective offers some surprises. We see what it was like to be an actress before an audience that simultaneously despised and desired you; to be spirited out of existence by your great and famous lover; to be forced to live in a world of double identities and secret arrangements; and to find yourself as damaged goods facing an uncertain future at the age of thirty-one.
The Invisible Woman is in part a detective story, involving lost and found diaries and inked-out letters, playbills, census returns and bank accounts, railway networks, newspaper reports, disappearing babies, oblique literary references and letters of instruction still lying in solicitor's offices - many of the ingredients, in fact, of a Dickens novel. It is at once biography, literary criticism and social history, and contains an original and extraordinary account of the theatrical world that both nurtured Nelly and held Dickens in thrall throughout his life. From its pages emerges a startling new portrait of the great writer himself, in all his ambivalence. Finally it is a marvellously entertaining account of a love affair that cast its shadow over two families and two generations, and, more than a century later, is still a matter of spirited dispute.