The Invisible Woman is the interesting story of the relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, the true nature of which is still being debated. Although Dickens’ reputation was jealously guarded by himself during his life and by his friends and family after his death, Claire Tomalin shows convincing evidence that the two had an affair during the last 13 years of his life.
They met when Nelly was just 18 and he was at the height of his fame at 45. She and her mother and two sisters were struggling, hard working but respectable actresses, or as respectable as actresses could be during the Victorian era. It is possible that Dickens at first thought he had latched onto a bird of a different feather as he befriended the family.
Although Nelly was excited by the attention of such a famous man, it seems clear that she succumbed to him only reluctantly. He offered her a chance at a life free from the worries of poverty but one in which she could not be a member of society.
This is a fascinating story, particularly because of the lengths Dickens went to protect his own image even while shedding his wife Catherine in a cruelly public way and telling lies about it. The actions of his sister-in-law at this time toward her own sister seem almost inexplicable. Also interesting is how Nelly managed to reinvent herself after Dickens’ death.
This book is an engrossing, well written, carefully researched account of events in Dickens’ life that were hidden for years. Only a few years ago I read another biography of Dickens that glossed over this friendship, alternately suggesting that it was perfectly innocent and that Nelly was a gold digger while never actually committing itself about the nature of the relationship. Although there were rumors even at the time of the affair, the cover-up was so pervasive that details are still being uncovered.