The Invisible Woman

Biographer Claire Tomalin—previous subjects include Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley and his circle, and Katherine Mansfield—has turned her attention to the elusive but absorbing story of Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, the love of Charles Dickens’ life from their first meeting, in 1857, when she was eighteen years old and he was forty-five. Their relationship, maintained in secrecy until his death thirteen years later and suppressed thereafter, did not become public knowledge until the 1930’s.

Dickens in 1857 was at the height of his fame, yet in his personal life he suffered from restlessness and a sense of unfulfillment. The death of his father several years before had heightened his sense of his own mortality. Relations with his wife Catherine were increasingly strained. When a theatrical production brought him into contact with a family of actresses, the Ternans—a widowed mother and her three daughters—Dickens, as was characteristic of him, took an immediate interest in their difficult circumstances. In the case of the youngest daughter, Nelly, that interest almost immediately became infatuation.

While this encounter and its aftermath are at the heart of Tomalin’s narrative, they do not constitute the whole story. Tomalin leads up to the meeting with Dickens with a detailed account of the Ternan family and a chapter on the place of actresses in Victorian society. Tomalin also gives substantial attention to Nelly’s life after Dickens’ death: She married a schoolmaster, by whom she had two children, and lived into her seventies.

For all Tomalin’s detective work, Nelly remains a somewhat blurred figure. Dickens himself, by contrast, is sharply brought to life; Tomalin’s sympathetic yet not uncritical portrait shows him deeply implicated in the larger hypocrisy of Victorian public morality. The real interest of THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, though, lies in its quirky, implausible true story—the plot for a novel that Charles Dickens never wrote.