Day 550: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan

Cover for The Invisible WomanThe 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.

12 thoughts on “Day 550: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan

  1. Carolyn O July 8, 2014 / 2:53 pm

    Fascinating! Did you see the movie?

    • whatmeread July 8, 2014 / 2:55 pm

      Yes, the movie was very good. I already had the book but hadn’t read it before I saw the movie. I think the movie is a pretty good reflection of the book. I love Dickens’ books, but he was a jerk. One of those charismatic guys who gets away with everything.

      • Carolyn O July 8, 2014 / 2:56 pm

        One does get that sense.

      • whatmeread July 8, 2014 / 2:58 pm

        Tomalin has apparently written a highly regarded biography of Dickens that I have not yet read. The last bio of him spent at least 300 pages of a very long volume raving about what a genius Dickens was and hiding most of his character flaws.

      • Carolyn O July 8, 2014 / 2:59 pm

        I thought I recognized the name! Doesn’t she have a biography of Jane Austen as well?

      • whatmeread July 8, 2014 / 3:00 pm

        Yes, that’s the other book by her that I read. That one was very good. She did a lot with little to go on.

  2. Naomi July 8, 2014 / 3:57 pm

    It’s interesting that this affair is so well covered up. Does the author talk about it as a fact or only as a possibility? I would love to see the movie!

    • whatmeread July 9, 2014 / 11:52 am

      She shows that it was a fact. It was simply hidden, or denied for years. She thinks there are indications that Nelly even got pregnant but the baby died.

  3. Alina (literaryvittles) July 8, 2014 / 9:07 pm

    I wasn’t excited by the description of the movie as printed in Vogue, but your review of the book does have me intrigued…

    • whatmeread July 9, 2014 / 11:56 am

      I actually thought it was very good, and my husband watched the whole thing, which is very unusual for a costume piece with no car chases.

  4. Cecilia July 9, 2014 / 4:43 pm

    I really wanted to see the movie but missed my chance while it was playing at our local theater. I didn’t realize the book is also engrossing! Good to know. (Just got back and will slowly catch up…)

    • whatmeread July 10, 2014 / 7:30 am

      I missed it at the theater too, but my husband and I got it through Netflix.

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