|Ellen Lawless Ternan|
I was a bit concerned that The Invisible Woman would be principally aimed at Dickensian scholars, or at least ardent fans, but I was drawn in to Ellen Ternan's story, in which Dickens played a central role, of course, but which had a great deal to say outside her long affair with him. Had her lover been someone less noteworthy, there would be neither biography nor film, and that would be a shame. She led a remarkable life.
Ellen Ternan was born into a family of actors in 1839. Her father went into an asylum, most probably suffering syphilitic madness, when she was young, and he died there soon after. From then onward, Ellen's mother, her two sisters, Fanny and Maria, and Ellen herself travelled around Britain performing on the stage. Victorian England offered pros and cons to women who earned their livings in the theatre: They did enjoy many freedoms and a degree of financial independence unknown to their more conventional sisters, but they also confronted social stigma, their morals often in question and their acting skill derided as inauthenticity, deceptiveness. Of course proper Victorian ladies might attend and enjoy the theatre, but socialising with the players was out of the question.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica had set the tone for all this with its article on actresses, in 1797: "There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents, of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompense, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner, must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour and expence, of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence."What's more, once a woman had been on stage, her die was pretty well cast -- she either had to sink or swim as an actress, because other professional options (and quite often respectable marriage) were no longer open to her. And in truth, many actresses were in fact intelligent and highly principled women, despite the prevailing social prejudice against them. Mrs. Ternan raised her three girls to excel professionally but also to lead dignified lives. It must have concerned her greatly that her youngest, Ellen (or Nelly) did not show as much promise on the stage as her siblings. Life for a mediocre actress was very hard, indeed.
If Nelly was working during her mid-teens, she made no particular mark; all the same she was being prepared for a stage career. What alternative was there for her? The girls had to be self-supporting; they had no money beyond what they earned, and they knew ho way of earning money but the theatre. A young woman who had been on the stage was not likely to find a place as a governess or teacher in a school -- respectable work but hard, lonely and, for girls who had been free, intolerably constricting. Their mother would not have allowed them to sink into the near-slavery of becoming a servant, seamstress or milliner. Through all her vicissitudes she seems to have clung to an ideal view of the theatre as a noble and civilizing profession...
A strong, blithe actress like Vestris might face such an atmosphere, use it and subdue it; a nervous girl could hardly hope to. And Nelly had no father and no brothers to take the mystery out of the male sex. Living in a house of women, it was easy for her to divide men into two distinct categories, on the one hand the brutes and ogres, on the other idealized distant figures, her lost father among them. In the audience and in the streets she faced ogres every night, while the ideal replacement for her father had yet to materialize.Dickens himself battled with hypocrisy -- he was a close friend of novelist Wilkie Collins, a bit of a
Wilkie Collins was a new favourite from a younger generation. Collins appeared on the scene in 1850. He was a bachelor and regarded himself as a connoisseur where pleasure was concerned; and he seems to have acted as Mephistopheles to Dickens's Faust, organizing sybaritic nights out and accompanying him on trips to Paris for a taste of its sophisticated "diableries".To his credit, Dickens seemed drawn to young women and girls in a truly charitable capacity, helping the victims of the Victorian hypocrisy under which he himself struggled, but he never brought this side of his life into his fiction. For the most part, his heroines are one-dimensional characters.
Dickens expended an enormous amount of time and energy working with the delinquents -- or more properly the victims -- of the Victorian sexual system, and he went out of his way to be understanding and helpful to them. The interest began early. As a young man serving on the jury at a coroner's inquest, he helped to get the sentence on an unmarried girl accused of killing her baby lightened. He sent comforts round to the prison during the trial and insisted that medical evidence suggesting the child could have died naturally should be properly attended to; and he appears to have followed up the fate of the girl. He was still concerning himself with this sort of problem in the last years of his life: on his visit to America in 1867 he gave money to a chambermaid in his New York hotel to enable her to leave for the West with her illegitimate child. Between those two cases there were many more.Likewise, he was very generous to the Ternan family in many regards -- helping them find lucrative theatre roles and, later, sending Mrs. Ternan with Fanny to Italy so Fanny might study singing. Although he was obviously pursuing Ellen, his pattern of kindness suggests his motives were not entirely impure.
I was horrified, however, at the cruelty with which Dickens dispensed with his wife, the mother of his nine children, in the film. Could that have been accurate? It seemed so at odds with my image of him as a loving family man. The book confirmed it: Dickens handled Catherine, his wife, with abject callousness after he'd met and fallen in love with Nelly. Tomalin marvels that this treatment did little to tarnish his public reputation.
Amazing as it now seems, the break-up of his family left it unaffected; Dickens preserved his renown as the jovial keeper of hearth, home, children and dogs at Gad's Hill even as he was ridding himself of wife and children...
He found relief in more prosaic gestures. One was to order the blocking of the door between his dressing room and what had been the marital bedroom at Tavistock House, and now became Catherine's alone. This is the action of a romantic, not a worldly man, who would see no harm in continuing to sleep alongside his wife, however many mistresses he might pursue or take. It was also exquisitely hurtful to Catherine, being done without prior consultation or discreet agreement with her, so that she was humiliated in front of her servants. The cruelty is also romantic, suggesting a man in the grip of a force he can't and doesn't want to control.Traits that shine through again and again, though, are the man's sheer, stubborn determination and his charm. He was no predator, but an 18 year-old girl would have found it all but impossible to resist his advances. Even Queen Victoria conceded to his wishes.
The Queen herself asked to see The Frozen Deep and was persuaded to come to the Gallery of Illustrations by Dickens, who said he preferred not to take his ladies to the palace "in the quality of actresses". She came accompanied by Prince Leopold of Belgium and Prince Frederick of Prussia, and they all expressed themselves delighted. Dickens, summoned for a private word, refused the Queen not once but twice, on the grounds that he did not want to appear before her in his costume: a further triumph of his will over hers, for which she graciously and, under the circumstances, very sensibly forgave him. When Dickens chose to be unbudgeable, not even a queen could move him.Just as he felt that his wife didn't share his intellectual passions, Dickens was often disappointed in his children.
Dickens was puzzled by his boys' shortcomings and pleased by any effort to put them right. He went to considerable lengths to cure Frank of a stammer by reading Shakespeare with him every morning. He also taught Henry, the brightest, shorthand. Yet as one son after another failed to measure up to his own strength of character, he grew more irritable with them. The girls were pretty well exempt from criticism, being girls, and only two in number, and Katey certainly intelligent. Charley, the eldest boy, was also bolstered against his father by being put through Eton at the insistence of his godmother, Angela Coutts; he did not do well enough to go to a university, but in 1857, when he was twenty, he was at least keeping afloat at Baring's Bank. Dickens was fond of him; but a grown-up son at home was also a perpetual reminder that time was passing and that his own youth was irretrievable; and behind this thought another nagged, of how his huge family had failed him, of the "one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made".Ellen Lawless Ternan -- Nelly -- became that elusive one "friend and companion". She was his mistress, living in various houses that he provided for her, for the next ten years until his death. Writing about her life during this time is a biographer's nightmare -- the record consists of expense receipts, a few letters and recollections of Dickens' friends and daughters. She had indeed vanished from view.
For Dickens, Nelly may have been the flawless embodiment of his fantasies, so much so that her image had emerged from the Doncaster episode not only undamaged but enhanced. But fantasy does not convey much about the hard centre of truth, the real person inside the image; whether she was a mercenary minx or a doll-like victim, installed in her doll's house in Mornington Crescent. Is it possible to tell what she was really like? No surviving accounts from this period contain anything more than the bare professional and physical description -- a young actress, small, pretty and well developed (a phrase which meant, then as now, that she had noticeable breasts); moderately competent as a performer but not outstanding. She had been admired as a sweet child performer, though without the formidable talents of her sister Fanny; and it's safe to say she enjoyed acting for its own sake, or she would not have returned to it as she did, as an enthusiastic amateur, later in her life. But no friend or observer has ever stepped forward from these early years to speak on her behalf and say, I remember her well, a nice girl; or I hated her, we acted together at the Haymarket; nor does a single scrap of writing in her hand survive from this period.Dickens, unlike his friend Wilkie Collins, did not openly flaunt social convention. He made a press statement early in their relationship insisting upon Nelly's innocence, and later they assumed various pseudonyms, such as Mr. and Mrs. Tringham. He alone mixed with Collins and his mistresses; his life with Nelly was separate and secret.
As far as we know Dickens did not introduce Nelly to Wilkie's women, let alone take her along to participate in those unbuttoned evenings chez Caroline. Later he wrote that his "magic circle" consisted of one member only. She was one whose dignity increasingly demanded the protection of isolation and silence.For a period of four years, there is no record of Nelly at all, and Tomalin and others propose that she may have borne Dickens a child, or perhaps more, although none would have survived infancy, and quite possibly in France. The chapter, aptly titled "Vanishing into Space", covers the years 1862-1865.
Nelly now disappears from view completely, conjured into thin air. For four years she remains invisible. Her name does not figure in any surviving letters. She and her mother are not even at Maria's London wedding in June 1863: a striking absence in a small, mutually devoted family. She has become a perfect blank. ...
At a guess, she has been living in France. It is only a guess. This is to be a chapter of guesses and conjectures, and those who don't like them are warned. No one has come up with any proof of her residence in or near Boulogne, or Paris, or anywhere else on the Continent. Arrivals and departures were not recorded by the boat companies or at the Channel ports. She herself never referred to this period of her life but abolished it altogether; though the fact that she chose to go to Paris, where she appears to have had friends, in the aftermath of Dickens's death, could indicate that she had lived there earlier.Dickens, one of England's best-known personalities of the time, also disappeared from public view.
After finishing Great Expectations in the summer of 1861, he remained singularly idle and unproductive, giving very few readings or public speeches and writing very little until he started on a new novel in the autumn of 1863. Something was happening during those carefully blotted out years; and it was happening somewhere discreetly distanced from prying eyes.Following these years, we know that Nelly returned to England, because she and her mother were in Dickens's rail carriage with him when the train derailed. (He publicly denied knowing them, but the evidence and Nelly's resulting arm injuries suggest that they were in fact with him on the train.) After this, he appears to have rented a house for her in Slough, where he came to see her 2-3 times every week. Tomalin writes poignantly of the life of a hidden mistress. It was not an easy nor an enviable existence, even if your lover happens to be Charles Dickens.
It's unlikely that it was all ease and pleasure for the man of fifty-four and the girl of twenty-seven. Long after his death she said she loathed the memory of his attentions; it's not possible to know whether she found them loathsome at the time. There was always the fear of pregnancy. There was also the matter of how she saw herself mirrored in his eyes. In a society which divided women into the good and the bad, even the most cherished mistress could only be bad; it was her very badness that made her desirable to the man. Good women, it was widely agreed, were not sexually enthusiastic; coldness could thus become an assertion of virtue, a demand to be loved for something other, and better, than sex. If Nelly wished to see herself elevated into a platonic muse, and Dickens longed for the release of her embraces, it was a recipe for some miserable days and nights for them both. Yet whatever she felt about her position, her life was now bound to his in a permanent arrangement from which she could scarcely escape -- for where was she to go, and what was she to do but wait on him?After Dickens's death in 1870, Nelly met and married George Wharton Robinson, an Oxford graduate 12 years her junior (though she concealed that fact, as well as everything else about her past, from him). They established a school for boys in Margate, and in her late 30s, Nelly bore two children: Geoffrey and Gladys. As Geoffrey reached adulthood, his parents' school had failed and they had left Margate. To my astonishment, British army officers at that time were expected to be self-funded!
Her pride in Geoffrey increased from year to year. He grew tall; he did well in his preparation for the army; and in 1898 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was given a colonial posting and went straight off to Malta with an infantry regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers. It was the best they could afford, with no pretensions to smartness, but money still had to be found. In those days young men did not beome officers in the expectation of earning a living; they were paid a purely nominal amount and relied on private income to settle their mess bills and pay a servant, keep a polo pony, and have their many elaborate uniforms made. In Geoffrey's case this income had to come from parents already hard pressed themselves.It was many years after Nelly's death before the topic of her affair with Dickens started coming to light. For one thing, few wanted to despoil the beloved author's reputation with such a scandal.
No writer since Shakespeare had conquered the public so absolutely. Its view of Dickens was firmly established in the form expressed by his daughter Katey in her private dissenting cry to Bernard Shaw: "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me." But this is how the public obstinately saw Dickens, as a Father Christmas figure, master of pathos and laughter, and celebrant of cheery and innocent domesticity.In her later years, following her husband's death, Ellen shared a home in Southsea with her sister Fanny, the widow of Thomas Trollope (brother of Anthony, the novelist). They certainly had no interest in entertaining those who wanted to dig up the past, so they too colluded in obscuring a decade of Ellen's life.
The gap between what the Dickens people wanted to believe in, the tender-hearted icon of the Victorian age, and the actual man who had intervened so forcibly in the lives of three young working women was too wide to be bridged. If anyone did try to talk to the Southsea ladies, they were no doubt repulsed; Mrs Trollope and Mrs Wharton Robinson had come to accept long since the impossibility of their version. Their self-suppression, their fear of the damage they might cause themselves and others if they spoke or wrote of their experiences and knowledge, is one of the saddest parts of the whole story.Actually, the fact that self-righteous Victorians were so ready to pass moral judgement on others and relegate them to lives of penury, invisibility, or both is the saddest part of this story. I'm glad Claire Tomalin and other Dickensian scholars have brought Ellen Ternan's story into the light -- a dim and flickering light, it's true, but better that than her life and love be erased from history altogether.