Now I don’t normally review non-fiction – but I do spend a lot of time talking about Dickens on my Booktube channel, and in my efforts to read more non-fiction, I figured I ought to put a Dickensian spin on it somewhere.
The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin, is a biography of Ellen Ternan, a woman who literally erased herself from history. Nelly Ternan was Charles Dickens’s mistress. They met in 1857, when Nelly was eighteen and Charles Dickens forty-five. By 1870, at the time of Dickens’s death, they had been in some way together for over ten years. She lived in various houses paid for by Dickens, and he divided his time between her houses and his family home in Gad’s Hill. She read and helped edit his novels. They may or may not have had a child together. And yet Nelly Ternan remained a secret. After his death, she erased ten years of her life. She pretended to be ten years younger than she was, cutting out those years she’d spent with Dickens. On her death certificate, even on her grave, her children incorrectly recorded her age.
While his adoring public knew that Charles Dickens had separated from his wife, it would have devastated his persona as a man of domesticity if it were discovered that he also had a mistress. He protected his own reputation – and Nelly’s – by ensuring their relationship remained a secret, and by the time of his death, only a few close friends and some of his children knew of his and Nelly’s association. A few more thought they had an innocent friendship – that of godfather and goddaughter, not a romantic or sexual relationship – and there are still a few critics who stand by this, insisting that we don’t have enough evidence to prove that Nelly Ternan was actually Charles Dickens’s mistress.
Certainly the evidence is scant, and The Invisible Woman is as much an investigation and a work of theory as it is a history. It is a deep look into the ambiguities and unknowns of Nelly’s life. Tomalin works with what little evidence we have to explore the possibilities and probabilities of the life Nelly and Dickens shared. From family anecdotes, one lost dairy of Dickens’s, and early Victorian theatre cast lists, Tomalin manages to weave a fascinating and mostly convincing narrative.
One of the things I loved about this book was the way the evidence is examined. Tomalin clearly has her own views and theories, but she does her best to present what evidence we have, to show the gaps in Nelly’s story as well as what she is trying to fill in. I appreciated that, especially because I didn’t always agree with Tomalin’s conclusions. Having so much evidence presented really helps you get a sense of what Nelly Ternan’s life might have been like.
Tomalin has an engaging and elegant style throughout. As with her biography of Jane Austen, which I read last year, I found The Invisible Woman very easy to read. It is certainly one of the most engaging non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Moreover, the content is so interesting that you are compelling to read on; Nelly Ternan had truly fascinating life.
Indeed, The Invisible Woman is not merely a biography of Dickens’s mistress – it is also a history of Victorian theatre, of the Victorian family, of social class, of everyday life, of travel, of the women hidden in the corners of Victorian society. The first section of the book was my favourite, focusing on Nelly’s early life growing up in a Victorian theatrical family, the daughter of an actress and theatre manager, sister of actresses, herself on the stage from a very young age. It was brilliant to learn so much about an aspect of Victorian society I knew very little about. Nelly’s life was an extraordinary one, even if we discard her association with Dickens, and this alone makes The Invisible Woman an incredibly intriguing read.
Yet while I did really enjoy it, I do have a few criticisms, a few details which made me scowl while reading and, at one point, made me nearly throw the book across the train. Usually when people claim to have thrown books across rooms, I stand by my opinion that they are severely exaggerating – and yet when Claire Tomalin dismissed Lizzie Hexham, one of my favourite literary individuals of all time, as having ‘no real character’, I did get rather cross. I did my undergraduate dissertation on the presentation of gender in Charles Dickens’s works, and I spent a good 3,000-odd words on Lizzie Hexham. I have read so many brilliant essays and critical book chapters dealing with the complexities of her character. She is someone to be dismissed in half a sentence.
Now this may only be half a sentence, but it stands for something larger. In fact, throughout the book, I took issue with many of Claire Tomalin’s comments on Dickens’s novels themselves. I felt the same with her biography of Jane Austen; Tomalin is without a doubt a brilliant historian, but I feel much less certain about her skills as a literary critic. Obviously the chief aim of this book is comment on Nelly Ternan’s life and her relationship with Charles Dickens, not to comment on his works. Nonetheless, because Tomalin uses Dickens’s depiction of women in his novels as evidence to how his relationship with Nelly might have been, I do feel it is a relevant issue. For all that Dickens is my favourite author of all time, I am the first to admit that his presentation of women (indeed, of gender in general) is very problematic, especially in his early novels. Yet Tomalin completely ignores the massive shift in the presentation of women that takes place over time in the course of his career, the way his presentation of women in his later novels differs from his presentation of women in his earlier novels. She also only mentions his central female heroines, ignoring his secondary female characters, many of whom offer much more complex presentations of Victorian feminity than his central more angelic heroines. For me, Tomalin’s discussions of Dickens’s literary attitude towards women in very dismissive and very over-simplified.
I also struggled with her presentation of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’s relationship. There are two main ways you can view their relationship. On the one hand, you can see Nelly and Dickens as a couple who fell in love and managed to be together in the only way Victorian society would allow. On the other hand, you can view their story as that of an older man taking advantage of a younger vulnerable woman, one who relied on him financially. Tomalin takes pains to show that Nelly wasn’t simply mercenary, but to also to thoroughly unromanticise their story, to show all the hardships and complexities that such a relationship would have had.
Yet sometimes for me she leans too far in her efforts to unromanticise their relationship. She focuses again and again on their age difference, repeatedly suggesting that with such an age difference there must have been something faintly oedipal about their relationship. Certainly there was over twenty-five years between Nelly and Dickens; but this is also the age difference between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre – clearly not an age difference the Victorians thought entirely devoid of romance. Moreover, Tomalin seems to stress again and again that Charles Dickens’s romantic attachment to Nelly’s was far greater than hers to him. Tomalin gives the impression of obsession on one hand, met by pain and at best indifference on the other. Yet there seems no evidence for this. We have next to no evidence at all about Nelly’s feelings, and Tomalin seems to base these assertions of two things: firstly, that Nelly’s life as invisible mistress must have undoubtedly been a hard one; and secondly, that a vicar she later confided in claims she told him she regretted her relationship with Dickens. However, regretting is not the same as not feeling at the time. Moreover, judging from the independence and innovation she showed after Dickens’s death, Nelly Ternan doesn’t seem to me like the sort of person who would spend ten years with a man she felt nothing for. The spin Tomalin puts on their story at times doesn’t quite add up.
Still, I think my reactions to The Invisible Woman are probably in part a symptom of the book’s strength – it tells a complex and divisive story, and I am so glad I picked it up. Even where I disagreed or took issue with Tomalin, the book never failed to enthral, fascinate and educate me. It was a journey and a joy to finally learn more about the hidden life of Nelly Ternan.
Greatest strength: The content, and the fascinating nature of the story Tomalin is telling.
Greatest weakness: As I said, the literary criticism for me left a lot to be desired.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air. Her name, dates, family and experience very nearly disappeared from the record for good. What’s more, she connived at her own obliteration.’
I’ll be back in two weeks with another book review.