Tuesday, August 26, 2014
When Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan met in 1857, she was just eighteen years old, the youngest child of a theatrical family. They were introduced when she and her mother and sisters were employed in Dickens' production of The Frozen Deep, a play written by Dickens' friend and fellow author, Wilkie Collins.
Dickens was forty-five: a literary legend, revered as a national treasure on a par with Shakespeare, an international best-selling author. He had been married for twenty years; but his wife Catherine, who had borne him ten children, had outlived her youthful charms. Nelly Ternan was pretty, fresh, appealing. Her situation excited his interest and compassion. Her father had died in an asylum from the effects of syphilis, when Nelly was just a small child, leaving his wife and three daughters to fend for themselves. They earned a living traveling on the theatrical circuits through Britain and Ireland with occasional engagements in London theaters. Although most Victorians still harbored the old prejudice against actresses as being little more than prostitutes, Nelly's family were proud of their respectability and virtuous reputation.
Dickens was a lifelong lover of the professional theater, and involved in many charitable endeavors to assist deserving young men and women in their efforts to improve their lives. He began by taking such an interest in Nelly's family, but his partiality for Nelly soon became apparent to those around him.
Within a year, Dickens' passion for Nelly resulted in his public separation from his wife. He was quick to publish Catherine's failings, and to accuse her of being an indifferent mother. Dickens' insisted that his children remain with him, and his wife's sister, Georgina Hogarth, remained with him also, ostensibly to care for the children. Once they were grown and left home, Georgina continued to run Dickens' household. Catherine was inconsiderate enough to outlive her husband, effectively preventing him from ever marrying Nelly. There was, of course, no possibility of divorce.
Dickens' affair with Nelly lasted until his death in 1870. She quietly retired from the stage. He provided her with a house and an allowance, and with the connivance of both their families and his close associates, kept their relationship so secret that almost all trace of Nelly disappeared from public view.
Victorian sexual and social standards were as rigid as they were hypocritical. Nelly could never be part of Dickens' public life; the scandal would have destroyed his career. His children and close friends knew about her but did not acknowledged her outside of that closed circle. She might meet his men friends but of course would never be introduced to their wives, sisters or daughters. The time he spent with her was limited and carefully concealed amid his many other engagements. He paid her expenses using an assumed name. He left her a legacy in his will equal to those he left to his daughters; his executors described Nelly as his "god daughter. There is some circumstantial evidence that she may have borne him at least one child, who died in infancy. During their last years together she suffered from unspecified illnesses that left her a semi-invalid but completely recovered after Dickens died. She was apparently summoned to his deathbed, but took no part in his funeral, although it seems she did go into discreet mourning.
And afterwards, when Nelly was released from her virtual purdah, she proceeded to rebuild her life by consciously excising all mention of Dickens or any connection with him from her past. She invented a new identity for herself, met and married a clergyman, and raised a family. So successful was she that when, after her death in 1914, her son Geoffrey began to go through her effects, only then did he and his sister begin to suspect that the mother they thought they knew had kept many secrets from them. Nelly not only had concealed her connection with Dickens but her own career on the stage, and her entire family's involvement with the theater. Sometime in the early 1920s Geoffrey approached Sir Henry Dickens, the author's sole surviving son, who apparently told him the truth. The shock was profound.
The story of Nelly Ternan's liaison with Dickens finally reached the public in several books published after Sir Henry's death. It was initially met with outrage and disbelief. However, when Gladys Storey's Dickens and Daughter, based on Storey's interviews with Dickens' daughter, Kate Dickens Perugini, was published in 1939, she confirmed the truth of the affair. This evidence could not be dismissed. Later biographies tried to make sense of Nelly's place in Dickens' life, with more or less success.
In this biography, Claire Tomalin seeks to rescue Nelly from obscurity, and provide as full and documented an account as possible of the private man behind the iconic Victorian novelist. Although much primary evidence was destroyed, Tomalin has combed through Dickens's diaries, correspondence, address books, and photographs, as well as newspapers and other public records, painstakingly reconstructing the evidence of their clandestine relationship.
Claire Tomalin is a literary historian of note who has published a number of biographies, including The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen: A Life, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, and Charles Dickens: A Life.
Click HERE to read a review of the book.
Her biography of Nelly Terman, The Invisible Woman, was made into a film, directed by Ralph Fiennes, starring Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly. It was released in December 2013.
Click HERE to watch a trailer for the film.