Ellen Ternan, the third of four children of the actors Thomas Lawless Ternan and his wife, Frances (Fanny) Jarman, was born on 3rd March 1839 at 11 Upper Clarence Place, Maidstone Road, Rochester.
Ellen (usually known as Nelly) had two elder sisters, Frances Eleanor and Maria Susanna, and a younger brother who died in infancy. The three girls were put on the stage very young, Ellen for example, was only three-years-old when she made her first appearance in Sheffield.
In 1844 her father had a mental breakdown and entered the asylum at Bethnal Green. As Claire Tomalin has pointed out: "It was a grim place, and treatment of those with General Paralysis of the Insane - this was the diagnosis of Ternan's condition - was necessarily dreadful and humiliating. Since there was no cure, restraint was the only course available; some patients were kept chained in the early stages, when they might be violent or suicidal, though as the disease took its course this became unnecessary. In the last stage they became emaciated, incontinent, unable to feed themselves, with contracted limbs and bedsores; and so died, either of a fit, pneumonia, diarrhoea or exhaustion." Ternan died in 1846 when Ellen was only seven-years-old.
Fanny Jarman Ternan and her three daughters continued to tour. In the early 1850s Fanny worked with Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells and in 1853 took part in a royal command performance at Windsor. By 1855 the family settled in London and worked for Charles Kean at the Princess's Theatre. Ellen's sister, Fanny, was considered to be the best actress and was described on posters as "The Wonderful Dramatic Prodigy". Ellen was described as "strikingly pretty" and also had little difficulty obtaining work.
William Macready , who acted with Frances Jarman, took an interest in the family and gave some assistance. Ellen's first adult engagement was in a burlesque at the Haymarket Theatre in 1857. The author of The Invisible Woman (1990) has argued: "Nelly was now eighteen, though, to judge from photographs, she looked younger. She was not a classic beauty - none of the sisters had their mother's looks - but there was something delectable in her puppy fat, her wide blue eyes with their slightly puzzled expression, and her golden curls, beautifully arranged by her mother. Everything about her signalled innocence and vulnerability. In her neat little dresses and ringlets, she could have stepped out of a children's fairy story."
1857 Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens wrote The Frozen Deep. The inspiration for the play came from the expedition led by Rear-Admiral John Franklin in 1845 to find the North-West Passage. Dickens offered to arrange its first production in his own home, Tavistock House. Dickens also wanted to play the part of the hero, Richard Wardour, who after struggling against jealousy and murderous impulses, sacrifices his life to rescue his rival in love.
Dickens, who grew a beard for the role, also gave parts to three of his children, Charles Culliford Dickens, Kate Dickens, Mamie Dickens and his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. Dickens later recalled that taking part in the play was "like writing a book in company... a satisfaction of a most singular kind, which had no exact parallel in my life". Dickens invited the theatre critic from The Times to attend the first production on 6th January, 1857 in the converted schoolroom. He was very impressed and praised Kate for her "fascinating simplicity", Mamie for her "dramatic instinct" and Georgina for her "refined vivacity".
The star of the play was Charles Dickens, who showed he could have had a career as a professional actor. One critic, John Oxenford, said that "his appeal to the imagination of the audience, which conveyed the sense of Wardour's complex and powerful inner life, suggests the support of some strong irrational force". The Athenaeum declared that Dickens's acting "might open a new era for the stage". William Makepeace Thackeray , who also saw the production, remarked: "If that man (Dickens) would go upon the stage he would make £20,000 a year."
The temporary theatre held a maximum audience of twenty-five, four performances were given. A private command performance, with the same cast, was also given for Queen Victoria and her family on 4th July and three public benefit performances were given in London in order to raise money for the widow of Dickens's friend, Douglas Jerrold.
Dickens approached his friend, the actor and playwright, Alfred Wigan, about putting on a production of The Frozen Deep in Manchester. This time Dickens wanted the women to be played by professional actresses. Wigan suggested the names of Frances Jarman and her three daughters. The play was given three performances in the Free Trade Hall with Ellen playing the part that was originally performed by Kate Dickens. During the production Dickens fell in love with the eighteen-year-old Ellen Ternan.
The author of The Invisible Woman (1990) has argued: "A bright, penniless girl of eighteen who found herself admired by a rich older man had good reason to be excited. The role laid down by her society were suddenly reversed: having been always powerless, she now began to be in command. In Nelly's case the man she might command was also brilliant and famous, a charming and entertaining companion, and in a position to transform her life, which in any case held few counter-attractions." Dickens wrote to Wilkie Collins claiming that "there never was a man so seized and rended by one spirit".
Anne Isba has argued in Dickens's Women: His Life and Loves (2011): "Dickens was forty-five years old to Nelly's eighteen. He was a self-made man, the greatest novelist of his age, a tireless journalist, social reformer, commentator, editor, theatrical patron, doer of good works, apparent pillar of society and father of nine. Middle-aged he might be, but he was still upright, stylish, flamboyant even - in dress and manner - with his eccentric coiffure and exotic waistcoats. He was impetuous and interested in everybody and everything. He was often charming and equally often moody and irritable, particularly when he was writing. Nelly was a shapely, blonde, blue-eyed slip of a girl, pretty and spirited, but with no great acting talent. Fatherless and penniless, she was poor but she was honest. Above all, she was young. And Dickens had a dread of growing old. In Nelly, he saw the perfect opportunity to keep himself connected to youth, to reinvent himself on a new stage."
Two months after falling in love Charles Dickens moved out of the master bedroom and now slept alone in a single bed. At the same time he wrote to Emile De La Rue in Genoa, saying that Catherine was insanely jealous of his friendships and that she was unable to get on with her children. He wrote to other friends complaining of Catherine's "weaknesses and jealousies" and that she was suffering from a "confused mind".
Lillian Nayder, the author of The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth (2011), has argued: "To Catherine over the next few months, her husband's attraction to the young actress was painfully clear. Besides the new bedroom arrangements at Tavistock House, there were Dickens's extended absences from home, his refusal to write to her when he was away, his efforts on behalf of Ellen and the Ternans, and the arrival of some jewelry for the young woman, a gift from Dickens mistakenly delivered to his home. Catherine was unconvinced by her husband's insistence that he had often given such gifts to fellow performers, and she objected to his behaviour as she had to his intimacy with Madame de la Rue in the mid-1840s... There were tearful arguments to which Katey, and perhaps others, were privy and which ended with Catherine's doing as her husband willed - calling on the Ternans, as to sanction and make proper his relations with them."
Rumours began to circulate at the Garrick Club that Dickens was having an affair with Georgina Hogarth. As Dickens, biographer, Peter Ackroyd, points out: "There were rumours... that he was having an affair with his own sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. That she had given birth to his children. More astonishing still, it seems likely that these rumours about Georgina were in fact started or at least not repudiated by the Hogarths themselves." George Hogarth wrote a letter to his solicitor in which he assured him: "The report that I or my wife or daughter have at any time stated or insinuated that any impropriety of conduct had taken place between my daughter Georgina and her brother-in-law Charles Dickens is totally and entirely unfounded."
The author of The Invisible Woman (1990) argues: "The idea of a member of the Garrick Club so distinguished for his celebration of the domestic virtues being caught out in a love affair with a young sister-in-law was certainly scandalous enough to cause a stir of excitement." William Makepeace Thackeray , who was a close friend of Dickens, claimed that he was not having an affair with Georgina but "with an actress".
In May 1858, Catherine Dickens accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ellen. Her daughter, Kate Dickens, says her mother was distraught by the incident. Charles Dickens responded by a meeting with his solicitors. By the end of the month he negotiated a settlement where Catherine should have £400 a year and a carriage and the children would live with Dickens. Later, the children insisted they had been forced to live with their father.
Charles Culliford Dickens refused and decided that he would live with his mother. He told his father in a letter: "Don't suppose that in making my choice, I was actuated by any feeling of preference for my mother to you. God knows I love you dearly, and it will be a hard day for me when I have to part from you and the girls. But in doing as I have done, I hope I am doing my duty, and that you will understand it so."
Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts about his marriage to Catherine: "We have been virtually separated for a long time. We must put a wider space between us now, than can be found in one house... If the children loved her, or ever had loved her, this severance would have been a far easier thing than it is. But she has never attached one of them to herself, never played with them in their infancy, never attracted their confidence as they have grown older, never presented herself before them in the aspect of a mother."
Dickens claimed that Catherine's mother and her daughter Helen Hogarth had spread rumours about his relationship with Georgina Hogarth . Dickens insisted that Mrs Hogarth sign a statement withdrawing her claim that he had been involved in a sexual relationship with Georgina. In return, he would raise Catherine's annual income to £600. On 29th May, 1858, Mrs Hogarth and Helen Hogarth reluctantly put their names to a document which said in part: "Certain statements have been circulated that such differences are occasioned by circumstances deeply affecting the moral character of Mr. Dickens and compromising the reputation and good name of others, we solemnly declare that we now disbelieve such statements." They also promised not to take any legal action against Dickens.
On the signing of the settlement, Catherine moved to a house in Gloucester Place, Brighton, with her son Charles Culliford Dickens. Charles Dickens now moved back to Tavistock House with Georgina and the rest of the children. She was put in command of the servants and household management.
In June, 1858, Dickens decided to issue a statement to the press about the rumours involving him and two unnamed women (Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth): "By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart... I most solemnly declare, then - and this I do both in my own name and in my wife's name - that all the lately whispered rumours touching the trouble, at which I have glanced, are abominably false. And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth."
Dickens also made reference to his problems with Catherine Dickens: " Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it."
The statement was published in The Times and Household Words. However, Punch Magazine, edited by his great friend, Mark Lemon, refused, bringing an end to their long friendship. William Makepeace Thackeray also took the side of Catherine and he was also banned from the house. Dickens was so upset that he insisted that his daughters, Mamie Dickens and Kate Dickens, brought an end to their friendship with the children of Lemon and Thackeray.
Dickens also wrote to Charles Culliford Dickens insisting that none of the children should "utter one word to their grandmother" or to Catherine's sister, Helen Hogarth, who had also been accused of talking falsely about his relationship with Ternan: "If they are ever brought into the presence of either of these two, I charge them immediately to leave their mother's house and come back to me." Kate Dickens later recalled: "My father was like a madman... This affair brought out all that was worst - all that was weakest in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home."
On 16th August, The New York Tribune, published a letter from Dickens that stated that the marriage had been unhappy for many years and that Georgina Hogarth was responsible for long preventing a separation by her care for the children: "She has remonstrated, reasoned, suffered and toiled, again and again to prevent a separation between Mrs Dickens and me."
In the letter Dickens suggested that Catherine had suggested the separation: "Her always increasing estrangement made a mental disorder under which she sometimes labours - more, that she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife and that she would be better far away." The letter goes on to boast of his financial generosity to his wife. He then went onto praise Georgina as having a higher claim on his affection, respect and gratitude than anybody in the world."
Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): " Yet the bare facts of the matter can hardly suggest the maelstrom of fury and bitterness into which the family, now divided against itself, had descended. And what of Dickens himself? From the beginning he had tried to keep everything as neat and as ordered as everything else in his life, but it had spiralled out of control. The case for an informal separation had degenerated into a series of formal negotiations which in turn threatened to lead to public exposure of his domestic life; he, the apostle of family harmony, had even been accused of incest with his own wife's sister. He reacted badly to stress and now, during the most anxious days of his life, he ceased to behave in a wholly rational manner."
Dickens raised the issue of Mrs Hogarth and her daughter Helen and the comments they had supposed to have made about Ellen : "Two wicked persons who should have spoken very differently of me... have... coupled with this separation the name of a young lady for whom I have a great attachment and regard. I will not repeat her name - I honour it too much. Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady. I know her to be as innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters."
Elizabeth Gaskell and William Makepeace Thackeray believed that publicizing his domestic problems was as bad as the separation itself. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was appalled by his behaviour: "What a crime, for a man to use his genius as a cudgel against his near kin, even against the woman he promised to protect tenderly with life and heart - taking advantage of his hold with the public to turn public opinion against her. I call it dreadful." Kate Dickens later recalled that her father stopped speaking to her for two years when he discovered she had visited her mother. Catherine wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts: "I have now - God help me - only one course to pursue. One day though not now I may be able to tell you how hardly I have been used."
In August 1858, Ellen returned to London and the following month she started a season at the Haymarket Theatre. Ellen and her sister Maria found lodgings in Berners Street, just north of Oxford Street. Her mother and other sister, Fanny, with the help of Charles Dickens, were able to travel to Italy with her daughter, Frances Eleanor Ternan, who wanted to become an opera singer.
Later that year Ellen and Maria were stopped one night by a policeman and questioned about the possibility that they were prostitutes. Dickens was furious when he discovered what had happened and asked his friend, William Henry Wills, to take the matter up with Scotland Yard explaining that the two sisters were "in all things most irreproachable in themselves and most respectably connected in all ways".
During this period Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities. It was claimed that the heroine, Lucie Manette, was physically modelled on Ellen: "a short, slight, pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a pair of blue eyes that met his own with an inquiring look, and a forehead with a singular capacity, of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, or merely of a bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions."
It has been suggested by Edmund Wilson that Estella in Great Expectations is based on Ellen and that Fanny Jarman is Miss Havisham. Claire Tomalin disagrees, arguing: "Mrs Ternan makes an unconvincing Miss Havisham, but that's not the only reason for questioning this version. From what we know of the Ternans, of Nelly herself and the whole situation, it is at least as likely that she was nervous, confused and uncertain as that she was indifferent or frigid."
Dickens provided a house at 2 Houghton Place, Ampthill Square, for the Ternan family. This was transferred to Ellen when she reached the age of twenty-one. Kate Dickens later told her friend, Gladys Storey: "She (Ellen) had brains, which she used to educate herself, to bring her mind more on a level with his own. Who could blame her... He had the world at his feet. She was a young girl of eighteen, elated and proud to be noticed by him."
Between 1862 and 1865 there is no evidence that Ellen Ternan lived in England. She did not even attend her sister's wedding. We do know that Charles Dickens spent a lot of time during this period travelling between London and Paris. Dickens wrote to a friend, William de Cerjat: "Being on the Dover line, and my being very fond of France, occasion me to cross the channel perpetually.... away I go by the mail-train, and turn up in Paris or anywhere else that suits my humour, next morning. So I come back as fresh as a daisy."
The author of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991) has suggested that the reason for this was that Paris was the temporary home of Ternan. Another researcher, Robert R. Garnett, the author of Charles Dickens in Love (2012), believes Ternan gave birth to Dickens's child in late January to early February 1863. Garnett suggests the baby died a few weeks later. This story is supported by the testimony of two of his children, Kate Dickens Perugini and Henry Fielding Dickens. This information appeared in Dickens and Daughter (1939), a book written by Gladys Storey. Supporters of Dickens attacked the book as being unreliable, especially the passages about Ternan and the birth of a child. However, George Bernard Shaw, wrote to The Times Literary Supplement to say that Kate had told him everything in the book forty years before."
Henry Fielding Dickens, claimed that Ellen was taken to France when she became pregnant and had "a boy but it died". This is supported by Kate Dickens who said that Ellen had a son "who died in infancy". It is impossible to check this story as the birth records for the 1860s were destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1871.
The author of The Invisible Woman (1990) has pointed out: "He was fifty, a grandfather, but pursuing a youthful love; a rich, eminent and powerful man in a position to bribe, fascinate and seduce an innocent girl. Whatever he offered her in the way of money and protection, she must lose her reputation in the process... If there was indeed a child... Nelly's disappearance from England would help to keep it secret... To give birth, to cherish for a few months perhaps, and then to lose a baby, is a terrible thing. It becomes more terrible if the child is not to be acknowledged and can be remembered only as a dreamlike guilty secret: first shame, then love, then grief."
Ellen Ternan next appears in the official record on 9th June 1865, when she was with her mother and on a train that crashed at Staplehurst. The accident was caused by men doing maintenance on the line who forget to inform the nearest station master. Ellen was in the front coach, which was the only one that did not leave the tracks. The rest of the coaches rolled down the bank and ten people were killed and 40 injured.
Dickens told an old friend Thomas Mitton what happened: "Two ladies were my fellow-passengers, an old one (Fanny Jarman Ternan) and a young one (Ellen Ternan). This is exactly what passed. You may judge it from the precise length of the suspense. Suddenly we were off the rail, and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might. The old lady cried out and the young one screamed. I caught hold of them both." Dickens added that he told them: "Our danger must be over. Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?"
The following day Dickens wrote to the station master at Charing Cross: "A lady who was in the carriage with me in the terrible accident on Friday, lost, in the struggle of being got out of the carriage, a gold watch-chain with a smaller gold watch-chain attached, a bundle of charms, a gold watch-key, and a gold seal engraved Ellen. I promised the lady to make her loss known at headquarters, in case these trinkets should be found."
According to his friends, Dickens aged rapidly during his fifties. Blanchard Jerrold remarked: "I met Dickens... at Charing Cross, and had remarked that he had aged very much in appearance. The thought-lines of his face had deepened, and the hair had whitened. Indeed, as he approached me, I thought for a moment I was mistaken, and that it could not be Dickens; for that was not the vigorous, rapid walk, with the stick lightly held in the alert hand, which had always belonged to him. It was he, however; but with a certain solemnity of expression in the face, and a deeper earnestness in the dark eyes." He also wore elastic stockings against the pain in his swollen foot and took laudanum to get a good night's sleep.
Charles Dickens died on 8th June, 1870. The traditional version of his death was given by his official biographer, John Forster. He claimed that he was having dinner with Georgina Hogarth at Gad's Hill Place when he fell to the floor: "Her effort then was to get him on the sofa, but after a slight struggle he sank heavily on his left side... It was now a little over ten minutes past six o'clock. His two daughters came that night with Mr. Frank Beard, who had also been telegraphed for, and whom they met at the station. His eldest son arrived early next morning, and was joined in the evening (too late) by his youngest son from Cambridge. All possible medical aid had been summoned. The surgeon of the neighbourhood (Stephen Steele) was there from the first, and a physician from London (Russell Reynolds) was in attendance as well as Mr. Beard. But human help was unavailing. There was effusion on the brain."
The Times reported on 11th June, 1870: " During the whole of Wednesday Mr Dickens had manifested signs of illness, saying that he felt dull, and that the work on which he was engaged was burdensome to him. He came to the dinner-table at six o'clock and his sister-in-law, Miss Hogarth, observed that his eyes were full of tears. She did not like to mention this to him, but watched him anxiously, until, alarmed by the expression of his face, she proposed sending for medical assistance.... Miss Hogarth went to him, and took his arm, intending to lead him from the room. After one or two steps he suddenly fell heavily on his left side, and remained unconscious and speechless until his death, which came at ten minutes past six on Thursday, just twenty-four hours after the attack."
After the publication of her book, The Invisible Woman (1990), Claire Tomalin received a letter from J. C. Leeson, telling her a story that had been passed down in the family, originating with his highly respectable great-grandfather, a Nonconformist minister, J. Chetwode Postans, who became pastor of Lindon Grove Congregational Church in 1872. He was told later by the caretaker that Charles Dickens collapsed at Gad's Hill Place, but at another house "in compromising circumstances". Tomalin took a keen interest in this story as at the time, Ellen Ternan was living at nearby Windsor Lodge. After investigating all the evidence Tomalin has speculated that Dickens was taken ill while visiting the home he rented for Ternan. She then arranged for a horse-drawn vehicle to take Dickens to Gad's Hill.
Dickens's last will and testament, dated 12th May 1869 was published on 22nd July. As Michael Slater has commented: "Like Dickens's novels, his last will has an attention-grabbing opening" as it referred to his mistress, Ellen Ternan. It stated: "I give the sum of £1,000 free of legacy duty to Miss Ellen Lawless Ternan, late of Houghton Place, Ampthill Square, in the county of Middlesex." It is assumed that he made other, more secret, financial arrangements for his mistress. For example, it is known that she received £60 a year from the house he owned in Houghton Place. According to her biographer, she was now a "woman approaching middle age, in delicate health, solitary and inured to dependence on a man who could give her neither an honourable position nor even steady companionship."
In 1871 Ellen met George Wharton Robinson, a man twelve years her junior. At the time he was engaged to another woman but this came to an end soon after becoming involved with Ellen. They married in 1876. The couple had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys, and ran a boys' school in Margate. Ellen gave her age in the 1881 Census as twenty-eight. It was a reduction of fourteen years on the truth and made her two years younger than her husband.
Georgina Hogarth kept in contact with Ellen. Georgina's biographer, Arthur A. Adrian, has argued in Georgina Hogarth and the Dickens Circle (1957): "It was Ellen Ternan whom Georgina evidently held in the warmest affection, perhaps more for what Nelly had meant to Dickens than for what he had meant to her. The friendship continued even after Ellen's marriage - Dickens had then been dead six years - to George W. Robinson, a clergyman who later became headmaster of a school in Margate. Here Georgina and Mamie occasionally visited her."
Ellen became friends with William Benham, the Vicar of St John's the Baptist Church. He was a disciple of Christian Socialist leader, Frederick Denison Maurice, and took a keen interest in literary matters. She told him that she had been Dickens's mistress and that he had set her up in a house in Ampthill Square, where he visited her two or three times a week. She added that she came to feel remorse about the relationship and that she now "loathed the very thought of this intimacy".
In March 1886 George Wharton Robinson had a mental breakdown. It has been speculated that this was brought about by financial difficulties. Robinson was forced to sell the school and the family moved to modest lodgings in Artesian Road, Bayswater. In 1890 he sought work as a School Inspector but despite a good testimonial from his sister-in-law, Fanny Trollope, he was rejected.
In 1893 a well-known biographer, Thomas Wright, announced his attention of writing a new book on Charles Dickens and made a public request for letters from people who had received letters from the writer. George Augustus Sala wrote an article where he warned Wright that there were "circumstances connected with the later years of the illustrious novelist which should not and must not be revealed for fifty years to come at the very least". Eliza Lynn Linton joined in the debate by referring in her memoirs that Dickens had a mistress who "deceived, tricked and betrayed" him. Linton did not name the woman but it did cause a great deal of gossip about Dickens's love-life.
Georgina Hogarth became very concerned about the potential damage to Dickens' reputation and wrote to Wright asking him to abandon his plan. Wright agreed to do this but he still continued to collect information on Dickens. W. R. Hughes contacted Wright and said that he had letters from Dickens to a woman named Ellen Ternan. This was the first time he had heard the name and advised Hughes to burn them as they had probably been acquired dishonestly. One man who did respond to Wright was William Benham who told him about Ellen's confession. Although he accepted that Benham's story was true, he decided against publishing his book about Dickens.
Ellen's son, Geoffrey joined the British Army and in 1898 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was sent to Malta with an infantry regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers. During this period officers were only paid a nominal amount and had to rely on a private income. George Wharton Robinson, who was now running an unprofitable market garden at Calcot, near Reading, was unable to finance his army career and Ellen was forced to sell the house in Ampthill Square that had been given to her by Dickens.
In 1900 Helen Wickham met Ellen Ternan for the first time. She later recalled that Ellen had become very conservative and seemed obsessed with the dangers of socialism. Helen said she showed no interest in the domestic arrangements but liked talking about politics, books, music and the theatre. Helen also recalled Ellen saying that she was not as pretty as her sisters and as a young woman had "a complexion like a copper saucepan and a figure like a oak tree."
After the market garden eventually failed Ellen and her husband moved to Southsea to be close to her widowed sister Fanny Trollope. Very short of money, Ellen took in French boarders who wanted to learn English. Her husband and daughter worked as part-time teachers. Geoffrey Robinson continued to make progress in the army and had now reached the rank of major.
In 1907 Ellen Ternan was operated on for cancer of the breast and made a full recovery. Soon afterwards her husband died. Ellen, unable to afford living on her own, now moved in with her sister. Over the next few years the two sisters wrote several unperformed plays.
In 1911 Ellen joined the Anti-Suffrage League. A fellow member was Georgina Hogarth . However, Kate Dickens Perugini disagreed with them and argued that her father would have supported the cause of women's rights as he "had the strongest possible sympathy with women writers, women painters, and indeed, with all women who work in order to gain a livelihood for themselves and those dependent upon their exertions".
Fanny Trollope died of cancer in September 1913. Ellen was with her at the time. She wrote to a friend about her sister's death. "Of course I was with her and held the dear delicate little hand in mine to the last but she was quite unconscious... My one comfort is that she wished to go. She told me so many times. Forgive me if I have written incoherently or have said too much. These things cannot be written with a quiet hand or dry eyes."
Ellen Ternan died of cancer in Southsea on 25th April 1914.
To Catherine over the next few months, her husband's attraction to the young actress was painfully clear. There were tearful arguments to which Katey, and perhaps others, were privy and which ended with Catherine's doing as her husband willed - calling on the Ternans, as to sanction and make proper his relations with them.
Dickens was forty-five years old to Nelly's eighteen. He was often charming and equally often moody and irritable, particularly when he was writing.
Nelly was a shapely, blonde, blue-eyed slip of a girl, pretty and spirited, but with no great acting talent. In Nelly, he saw the perfect opportunity to keep himself connected to youth, to reinvent himself on a new stage.
"His passionate love of fresh air and sunshine," she (Kate Dickens) said, "had changed his once pale skin to a florid complexion; his hair, formerly chestnut brown and flowing, became almost daily darker and was worn shorter; the beard and moustache he had allowed to grow, which was a mistake for not only did it cover his very mobile sensitive mouth but it seemed in a curious way to detract from the beauty of the upper part of his face and make his features look often grave, though never self-conscious."
Thus he appeared at the age of forty-six when Miss Ellen Lawless Ternan, " the small fair-haired rather pretty actress " (as Mrs. Perugini described her), of no special attraction save her youth, came like a breath of spring into the hard-working life of Charles Dickens and enslaved him. She flattered him - he was ever appreciative of praise - and though" she was not a good actress she had brains, which she used to educate herself, to bring her mind more on a level with his own. Who could blame her? " said Mrs. Perugini in her generous make-excuses way. " He had the world at his feet. She was a young girl of eighteen, elated and proud to be noticed by him." Happy at first, perhaps, to love and be loved by him, who subsequently brought to her relief from a hitherto hard and precarious life.
As for Dickens, a flush of youth was rekindled within him; he found in Ellen Ternan the fulfilment of that something which had been awakened by the appearance in his thoughts of Maria Beadnell - vanquished at the sight of her as Mrs. Winter.
He pursued the realization of it with the same energy and thoroughness he applied to everything he set his heart on doing. His observation regarding his wife at this time, that it was a pity he "ever fell in her way" was subsequently to become the retributory thought of this girl regarding herself and Dickens when (after his death) she married a clergyman and became the mother of his children. More tragic and far-reaching in its effects was the association of Charles Dickens and Ellen Teman and their resultant son (who died in infancy), than that of Nelson and Lady Hamilton and their daughter.
"My father was like a madman when my mother left home," said Mrs. Perugini, "this affair brought out all that was worst - all that was weakest in him. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home."
Everybody and everything became subservient to the furtherance of the object he had irrevocably set out to accomplish, which sad business took eight months to complete.
He (Charles Dickens) was fifty, a grandfather, but pursuing a youthful love; a rich, eminent and powerful man in a position to bribe, fascinate and seduce an innocent girl. It becomes more terrible if the child is not to be acknowledged and can be remembered only as a dreamlike guilty secret: first shame, then love, then grief.
Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it... By some means, arising out of wickedness, or out of folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance, or out of all three, this trouble has been the occasion of misrepresentations, mostly grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart... And whosoever repeats one of them after this denial, will lie as wilfully and as foully as it is possible for any false witness to lie, before heaven and earth.
During the whole of Wednesday Mr Dickens had manifested signs of illness, saying that he felt dull, and that the work on which he was engaged was burdensome to him. She did not like to mention this to him, but watched him anxiously, until, alarmed by the expression of his face, she proposed sending for medical assistance. He said "No" but said it with imperfect articulation. The next moment he complained of toothache, put his hand to the side of his head, and desired that the window might be shut. It was shut immediately, and Miss Hogarth went to him, and took his arm, intending to lead him from the room. After one or two steps he suddenly fell heavily on his left side, and remained unconscious and speechless until his death, which came at ten minutes past six on Thursday, just twenty-four hours after the attack. As soon as he fell a telegram was dispatched to his old friend and constant medical attendant, Mr Frank Carr Beard of Welbeck Street, who went to Gad's Hill immediately, but found the condition of his patient to be past hope. Mr Steele, of Strood, was already in attendance; and Dr Russell Reynolds went down on Thursday, Mr Beard himself remaining until the last.
It was Ellen Ternan whom Georgina evidently held in the warmest affection, perhaps more for what Nelly had meant to Dickens than for what he had meant to her. Here Georgina and Mamie occasionally visited her.
In turn Ellen called at Georgina's home and in the 1880's sometimes brought her daughter with her. The daughter still remembers Georgina as "the sweet, kind old lady", one of her mother's special friends, who gave them some photographs of herself. Ellen Ternan Robinson died in 1914. Though Georgina frequently rallied to defend "the beloved memory" from one charge or another whenever by her own knowledge or belief she could honestly correct a misrepresentation, she apparently never made any statement as to what the Dickens-Ternan relationship had - or had not - been.
The attachment she displayed for women of whom Dickens had been fond - romantically or otherwise - suggests that her own devotion, though fervent to the point of obsession, partook of no jealous female possessiveness. Evidently she had always welcomed whatever service or solace any other woman offered her idol, feeling no compulsion to reserve for herself all rights to minister to him. Regardless of sex, age, or condition, "the many friends who loved him" were for ever assured of her grateful remembrance.
We might consider that at least as a hypothesis, therefore - all the evidence about dickens's character, and all the evidence we possess about Ellen Ternan herself, suggest that the relationship between them acted for Dickens as the realisation of one of his most enduring fictional fantasies. That of sexless marriage with a young, idealised virgin.
It has generally been assumed, however, that their relationship was indeed consummated, and that Ellen Ternan became his mistress. The rumours were only given wide currency in the 1930s when a certain Thomas Wright passed on the remarks of a Canon Benham - to whom, it seems, Ellen "disburdened her mind" in later life in an apparently very generalised way.
10 Strange Stories That Will Change The Way You See Charles Dickens
In his writing, Charles Dickens was a voice for what was right. He spoke against greed and cruelty and for the rights of the disenfranchised and the poor. He wrote stories that inspired millions, and he has become an eternal part of the canon of English literature.
In his private life, though, Charles Dickens was a bit different. He held troubling relationships with women and science alike, and his life was even stranger than the stories he wrote.
Last Will and Testament
In his will (reproduced in Forster’s biography), Dickens had left instructions that he should be:
Buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.
Forster added that Dickens’s preferred place of burial – his Plan A – was “in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne”, which were all near his country home. However, Forster added: “All these were found to be closed”, by which he meant unavailable.
John Forster (1812-76). Leon Litvack
Plan B was then put into action. Dickens was set to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, at the direction of the Dean and Chapter (the ecclesiastical governing body). They had even dug a grave for the great man. But this plan too was scuppered, in favour of interment in Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey – the resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, and other literary greats.
Forster claims in the biography that the media led the way in agitating for burial in the abbey. He singles out The Times, which, in an article of January 13 1870, “took the lead in suggesting that the only fit resting place for the remains of a man so dear to England was the abbey in which the most illustrious Englishmen are laid”. He added that when the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, asked Forster and members of the Dickens family to initiate what was now Plan C, and bury him in the abbey, it became their “grateful duty to accept that offer”.
The private funeral occurred early in the morning of Tuesday June 14 1870, and was attended by 14 mourners. The grave was then left open for three days so that the public could pay their respects to one of the most famous figures of the age. Details of the authorised version of Dickens’s death and burial were carried by all the major and minor newspapers in the English-speaking world and beyond. Dickens’s estranged wife Catherine received a message of condolence from Queen Victoria, expressing “her deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death”.
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The effect that Dickens’s death had on ordinary people may be appreciated from the reaction of a barrow girl who sold fruits and vegetables in Covent Garden Market. When she heard the news, she is reported to have said: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
Ellen Lawless Ternan
Ellen Lawless Ternan (3 March 1839 – 25 April 1914), also known as Nelly Ternan or Nelly Robinson, was an English actress who is mainly known as the mistress of Charles Dickens.
Ellen Lawless Ternan was born in Rochester, Kent. She was the third of four children, including a brother who died in infancy and a sister named Frances (later the second wife of Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the brother of Anthony Trollope). Her parents, Thomas Lawless Ternan and Frances Eleanor Ternan (nພ Jarman), were both actors of some distinction. Ternan made her stage debut in Sheffield at the age of three, and she and her two sisters were presented as "infant phenomena". Ellen was considered the least theatrically gifted of the three sisters, but she worked extensively in the provinces, particularly after her father died in 1846.
In 1857, she was spotted by Dickens performing at London's Haymarket Theatre. He cast her, along with her mother and one of her sisters, in a performance of The Frozen Deep in Manchester.
Dickens was forty-five when he met Ellen Ternan and she was eighteen, slightly older than his daughter Katey. Dickens began an affair with Ternan, but the relationship was kept secret from the general public. Dickens had become disillusioned with his wife, who lacked his energy and intellect. Ternan, in contrast, was clever and charming, forceful of character, undomesticated, and interested in literature, the theatre, and politics. Dickens referred to Ternan as his "magic circle of one". Matters came to a head in 1858 when Catherine Dickens opened a packet delivered by a London jeweller which contained a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband. The Dickenses separated that May, after 22 years of marriage.
Ternan left the stage in 1860, and was supported by Dickens from then on. She sometimes travelled with him, and Dickens was travelling with Ternan and her mother back from a visit to France when they were both involved in the Staplehurst rail crash on 9 June 1865. He abandoned a plan to take her on his visit to America in 1867 for fear that their relationship would be publicised by the American press. She lived in houses he took under false names at Slough and later at Nunhead, and may have had a son by Dickens who died in infancy (neither Dickens, Ternan, nor Ternan's sisters left any account of the relationship, and most correspondence relevant to the relationship was destroyed).
Dickens is thought by many scholars and commentators to have based several of his female characters on Ternan, including Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend and Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and others may have been inspired by her, particularly Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens left a legacy of ,000 to Ternan in his will on his death in 1870, and sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again.
In 1876, six years after Dickens' death, Ternan married George Wharton Robinson, an Oxford graduate, who was twelve years her junior. She presented herself as 14 years younger (23 years old rather than 37). The couple had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys, and ran a boys' school in Margate. Ternan's husband died in 1910, and she spent her last years in Southsea with her sister Frances. She died of cancer in Fulham, London.
The Dickens Fellowship and the surviving close family members of Charles Dickens maintained a facade of silence and denial about the affair from the time of Charles Dickens' death in 1870 until the death in December 1933 of his last surviving child, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens. Several Dickens researchers wrote about various aspects of the relationship between Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens in the ensuing years, including Gladys Story in 1939, Ada Nisbet in 1952, Sir Felix Aylmer in 1959 and Katherine M Longley in 1985. Ellen Ternan was the subject of a best selling biography by Claire Tomalin in 1990, which brought the relationship to a broader general audience. A summary of the story of the discovery of the relationship was published in 2012 by Professor Michael Slater.
Some records relating to Ellen Ternan and her family are held by Senate House Library, University of London.
In theatre and television
Simon Gray's play about her life, Little Nell had its world premiere in 2007 at the Theatre Royal, Bath. It was directed by Sir Peter Hall and starred Loo Brealey as Ternan. The affair was featured in the docudramas Dickens (BBC, 2002) and Dickens' Secret Lovers (2008, Channel 4 – it was the main subject of this programme, presented by Charles Dance and with Ternan played by Amy Shiels and Dickens by David Haig). Ternan is also featured in the novel Drood by Dan Simmons.
The Invisible Woman is a 2013 feature film about Ternan's relationship with Dickens. Ternan is played by Felicity Jones and Dickens by Ralph Fiennes, with the twenty-one year age difference between them, similar to the real-life twenty-seven-year difference.
The Staplehurst Railway Accident
On June 9th of 1865, Charles Dickens had a brush with death. While he survived, others weren’t as lucky. Ten people died and forty were injured in the Staplehurst railway accident.
The day began innocently enough. Dickens was returning from a trip to Paris. In the coach with him were Ellen Ternan and her mother.
The train track was being repaired near Staplehurst. Workmen did not signal to oncoming trains that there was a gap, 42 feet long, in the tracks over a bridge. The train’s engineer spotted the problem at the last minute, but it was too late. Momentum carried the engine and the first part of the train across the breach. However the coaches in the center and the rear of the train fell into the river bed below. All but one of the first-class coaches went into the ravine. That was the coach that carried Dickens, Ellen Ternan and Mrs. Ternan.
While their carriage did not fall into gap, it was hanging off the bridge at a steep angle. Dickens and Mrs. Ternan were uninjured. Ellen had only minor injuries. Others weren’t as lucky. Ten people were killed and about fifty were injured.
Once Dickens helped the Ternans from the coach he went about the work of assisting his fellow passengers. He retrieved a flask of brandy from the train as well as his top hat. He filled the hat with water and then did what he could to aid and comfort the injured. Later he said that the scene was unimaginable.
One poor man was visible to the rescuers, but there was no way to help him escape. The man later died, still pinned under the train. At one point Dickens gave an injured lady who was resting under a tree a sip of brandy. The next time he passed her she was dead. For three long hours Dickens did what he could to lessen people’s pain and suffering.
When help finally arrived and the accident scene was being evacuated Dickens remembered something. There was still something in his train compartment that he needed. He made his way back into the wrecked train one last time to retrieve the latest installment of Our Mutual Friend, the novel he was writing at the time.
For years afterward Dickens would sometimes suffer from sudden feelings of anxiety when he was traveling by rail.
In the postscript for Our Mutual Friend Dickens wrote:
On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr. and Mrs. Lammle at breakfast) were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage–nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn–to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. The same happy result attended Miss Bella Wilfer on her wedding day, and Mr. Riderhood inspecting Bradley Headstone’s red neckerchief as he lay asleep. I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book:–THE END.
However, it wasn’t quite the end. It’s interesting to note that five years to the day of the Staplehurst railway accident, on June 9 of 1870, Charles Dickens passed away.
Life After Dickens: The Mistress Who Hid Her Previous Life
Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors. He so easily describes a version of the Nineteenth Century that has become cemented as fact. Despite his genius in novel writing, like us, he was still only human and was as complicated as the next person. As Claire Tomalin so nicely describes, “everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens… the angry son, the good friend, the bad husband the quarreller, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father, the brilliance in the room.” For me, this sums Dickens up as really, he was all of these things. He was two parts of the same self: the charitable, kind and imaginative man but also the hardworking manic who lived a double life after causing a lot of pain to his family during the separation from his wife, Catherine. I do not think any person with a heart could deny the way he separated her was unfair and deeply horrible. Dickens openly blamed Catherine for his behaviour in a public justification for the marriage breakup in his own magazine, Household Words. Sadly, other than the oldest son, Charley, none of the children were allowed to see their mother, although Katey did see her mother regularly. Katey later wrote that her father caused a lot of pain by not allowing them to visit, but also honestly realised that Dickens would have done the same, no matter who it was he had been married to at the time. The real reason for this was not just marital unhappiness, but Dickens had met Ellen Ternan, a much younger actress, and wished for her to become his mistress.
Bryant, H. C., Charles Dickens (c. 1870), Credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services
Ellen, also known as Nelly, Ternan had only been 18 when she first met Dickens as part of a play called The Frozen Deep, of which Dickens was a co-author and actor in. She was the youngest of three sisters, all actors, who were associated with the production, under the supervision of their mother, who also an actress. Two years after this meeting, Dickens would separate from Catherine, surrounded by rumours that he was having an affair with a younger woman. Whilst this part was true emotionally, it is uncertain as to when their relationship officially became physical. During this time, the rumours falsely involved Georgiana Hogarth, Dickens’ sister-in-law, who acted as housekeeper and nanny. Despite the break up of the family home, Georgiana carried her role as housekeeper until Dickens death in 1870, and continued a friendship with Ellen, hoping this would help preserve the author’s posthumous legacy from scandal.
The relationship with Ellen was described by Dickens at the time as being purely paternal. However, his love of small and young women was known, and can be seen in some of his characters. He often referred to these types of women as a “little mother”, possibly to rekindle a lost sense nostalgia from his traumatic childhood working in the blacking factory. However, he viewed his wife in the last years of their marriage is totally against this angelic image of his ideal woman, viewing her as idle and uncompromising. Holbrook argues that this shows the two-sided part of himself, where he could easily change his attitudes towards women, compartmentalising them into different stereotypes depending on how useful they were to him.
Maclise, D., Catherine Dickens (1847), Credit: Charles Dickens Museum, London
Whatever Dickens reasons were for choosing Nelly over Catherine, there is no denying the fact she did profit from his attention. When the affair was first made public in a newspaper article written by Thomas Wright in 1934, Ternan was branded as a cold-hearted gold digger. Personally I do find this assessment unfair as there is no direct evidence about the personal feelings of Ellen towards Dickens. However, as the Ternans were given houses by Dickens and Ellen herself was left £1,000 (£62,600 in today’s money) in Dickens will, the evidence that survives does unfortunately provided a very one-sided view. Three novels written by Ellen’s sister, Frances, were also published in Dickens’ periodical, All Year Round, again showing that Dickens was willing to advance not just Ellen, but her family too.
Despite a thirteen-year relationship, Dickens was to die in June 1870, surrounded by his family following a stroke after a hard writing session in his Swiss chalet at Gads Hill Place in Kent. This death followed all the Victorian ideas of the perfect death. I myself had never questioned this version, until I recently read A. N. Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which was recently published to celebrate the 150 th anniversary of Dickens death. In it he puts forward a rather convincing case of what really caused the stroke that killed the author. Instead of writing causing the stroke, Wilson argues it was actually one of Dickens’ illicit visits to Nelly in her home in Peckham. She used this house for these visits as it would have been too noticeable to have him visit the family home in Camden. Peckham was also easily reachable by train from Kent in just under an hour. He had had to be helped onto a train and safely delivered to Gads Hill so he could receive his acceptable death surrounded by his children. Whether this is true or not, life would certainly change for the Ternans following Dickens death.
Photograph of Ellen Ternan, Wikimedia Commons
They moved to Oxford and that is where Ellen met her future husband, George Wharton Robinson, who was studying theology at the university. When the pair met, George was 18 and Ellen was 30, pretending to be 20. They finally married in 1876. By the 1881 census, Ellen was claiming to be 28 but was in fact 42. Their married life revolved around their two children, Geffrey and Gladys, and the school they ran in Margate. Ellen was heavily involved in the social side of it, teaching French and even doing public readings of the works of Charles Dickens. It’s unknown whether George really knew the type of relationship Ellen had had with her favourite author, but her son, Geffrey, apparently found out following her death from breast cancer in 1914, apparently burning any incriminating papers. He stayed remarkably quiet on the matter following the accusations in the newspapers. Gladys however, commented on her disbelief. She denied the association and suggested if it had existed “it could only be because her love for him was so strong it swept aside all other considerations”.
Dickens giving the last reading of his Works. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Whilst we may never know Ellen’s thoughts in her own words, it is the opinions of others that have followed that remains the dominant narrative. There are those that do believe they had a full-blown affair, which is now considered fact. Still, some historians and biographers do not consider this an option, as they continue to argue that it was an entirely platonic relationship or only invested in on Dickens’ part. Nelly’s legacy will always be connected to Dickens in whatever form that relationship took. Sadly there is little know about the real woman behind the mistress, but she was said to have enjoyed politics, books, music and theatre for much of her life. The gold digger version of her does still persist, but after her husband died in 1910, she could no longer afford to life alone. If she did have that nature, surely, she would have known how to maintain her money.
 Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices: Dickens and the Failure of Atonement’, South Atlantic Review, 68.2 (2003), p. 60 Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, p. 660.
 Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices’, pp. 59-60.
 Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 213.
 Bowen, J., ‘The Life of Dickens 2: After Ellen Ternan’ in Ledger, S. and Furneaux, H. (eds), Charles Dickens in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 12.
 Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, pp. 12-13.
 Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 13.
 Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 22.
 Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, pp. 211-212.
'The Invisible Woman' review: Who the Dickens was Nelly Ternan? Only a literary titan's secret love
"The Invisible Woman" of the title presumably refers to Ellen Lawless Ternan, the much younger lover of Charles Dickens whose role in the great author's life was expunged from history before being exhumed by recent scholarship, notably the 1991 book from which the film was adapted. (Note to superhero fans: This movie has nothing to do with The Fantastic Four.)
We meet Nelly (Felicity Jones), as she's known, in a framing scene set some 13 years after Dickens' death, in 1883. From there, the film flashes back to their meeting decades earlier, when she was a teen would-be actress and he was 45 years old -- and the most famous author in the world. But director Ralph Fiennes, who also co-stars as Dickens, isn't only about exposing the creator of "A Christmas Carol" as another Victorian hypocrite. Instead, the movie is a moderately compelling examination of the ways 19th-century British society forced both men and women into compromised, no-win situations.
It helps that the story is told almost entirely from Nelly's point of view. Less talented than her theatrically minded, widowed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two sisters, Nelly's employment prospects are bleak. Becoming the wealthy Dickens' mistress, then, once he displays his infatuation with her, would be a practical move even if they didn't share a genuine emotional and intellectual bond.
Saints and Savages
In 1854 Lady Jane Franklin, the widow of the polar explorer Sir John Franklin, visited Charles Dickens to ask for a favor. Dickens had just completed his novel “Hard Times” and was about to begin “Little Dorrit” he was the most celebrated writer in England, at the zenith of his fame and popularity. Lady Jane wanted him to refute a recent article about her husband’s disappearance in the Arctic some nine years earlier, which implied that Franklin’s crew had resorted to cannibalism to survive. Dickens — outraged at the slur on this hero of the British Empire — published a furious counterattack in his own magazine, Household Words, and it is possibly the strangest and most intemperate piece of journalism he ever wrote: a near-racist tract claiming that it was physically and morally impossible for stalwart, civilized white men to descend to the level of “savages.”
For Dickens biographers, this episode usually merits a paragraph or a page. But for the novelist Richard Flanagan, the brief contact between Dickens and Lady Jane has provided the catalyst for his fifth work of fiction, “Wanting” — a literary-historical game of six degrees of separation, exploring the shadowy affinities among the various parties involved and the ripple effects of the encounter through real lives and generations.
Flanagan was born in Tasmania, where he still lives — and where, as it happens, Sir John Franklin served as governor from 1837 to 1843 (when it was still known as Van Diemen’s Land). The meeting between Lady Jane and Dickens thus offers Flanagan a double opportunity: to investigate the brutal history of his homeland and to explore a turning point in the emotional life of one of history’s great novelists.
He attends to both through the old trick of a cross-cutting narrative. One strand of the story follows Dickens’s life between 1854 and 1858. The other follows a young aboriginal girl named Mathinna, who survives the British genocide on Van Diemen’s Land and is adopted during Franklin’s tenure by the governor and Lady Jane.
Mathinna’s short unhappy life becomes emblematic of the suffering of Tasmania’s aboriginal people and of the nature of 19th-century British colonization, underpinned as it was by a self-serving assortment of sociocultural ideas and moral values. She is taken from Flinders Island, where the few remaining Van Diemen Aborigines were held, and for a brief while becomes the darling of the governor’s provincial court. Franklin, in Flanagan’s telling, becomes so obsessed with the girl that, one night, finding himself alone with the sleeping child, he rapes her. When Franklin is eventually relieved of his posting and called back to England, he and his wife leave Mathinna behind in a grim Hobart orphanage. Deprivation, misery, drunkenness and the basest prostitution mark her subsequent rapid downfall.
Meanwhile, back in London in the 1850s, Dickens is undergoing what we would now recognize as a kind of neurotic midlife crisis. In his mid-40s, unhappy and restless despite his manifest renown and wealth, working unceasingly, realizing that his marriage is to all intents and purposes dead, Dickens embarks on a theatrical project with his friend Wilkie Collins. Together, inspired by Franklin’s fate, they write a play about polar exploration called “The Frozen Deep,” with Dickens in the starring role. Such is its success that Dickens (who drew amazing gratification and energy from performing) tours the production with professional actors. And actresses — including the 18-year-old Ellen Ternan. Dickens was, shortly thereafter, to abandon his wife for Ternan and, until his death in 1870, to live a secret domestic life with her as his mistress.
So brief a summary does little justice to the complexities and nuances of this dense and fascinating novel. In tracing the tangents where these contrasting and various lives intersect and influence one another in analyzing how a random encounter, placed under the microscope, can reveal a multitude of unexpected links and adjacencies, Flanagan explores both human history and human nature. The authorial tone of voice is controlling and omniscient, as in a Victorian novel. We enter the minds of his key characters at will and learn their most intimate thoughts ironies and unforeseen historical consequences are alluded to with full wisdom of hindsight.
“Wanting” is, in its way, as interesting a fictional exercise as Flanagan’s celebrated and unclassifiable third novel, “Gould’s Book of Fish” (2001). Flanagan takes a literary form — in “Gould’s,” metafiction and unreliable narration in “Wanting,” Victorian-style omniscience — and bends it forcefully to the essential themes that his fiction subsists on: the secret “silences” of Tasmania, as he terms them, and the essential needs that inform all human lives across history and culture and race.
There are moments of great power and lyricism in “Wanting,” not only in wild Tasmania but also in noisome London. Here Dickens is about to meet Ellen Ternan for the first time: “The working entrance to the Haymarket Theater was a furtive door protruding into a side alley, from which the summer morning heat was raising a chutney of odors. With the toe of a boot, Dickens flicked aside the oyster shells splattered with bird droppings that were piled over the entrance steps.”
Mid-19th-century London comes alive, as indeed does Dickens himself. Flanagan’s portrait of the great author rings true, perfectly catching his demons and his tremendous energies.
As its title suggests (and as Flanagan confirms in an author’s note), “Wanting” is among other things a meditation on desire. Dickens’s and Mathinna’s desires — and their denial, self-imposed or enforced — influence their lives in unimaginable ways, for good and for bad. Yet considering its vast ambitions, “Wanting” is also a modestly sized novel, and sometimes one wishes Flanagan had the ease and space of a Victorian three-decker to incorporate the complex narrative and thematic machinery he imposes on himself. He has to compress and summarize in order to fulfill the historical exposition required, and the strain of fitting a quart into a pint pot is occasionally evident: “Something was guttering within him, no matter how he fed the flame. He chose to embody merriment in company he preferred solitude. He spoke here, he spoke there, he spoke everywhere he felt less and less connection with any of it.”
However, the novel illustrates once again — with terrific brio and aplomb — how fictionalizing history and real people can pay great dividends. Unlike the biographer or historian, the novelist is not constrained by documented facts or their frustrating absence, and is free to roam — always keeping authenticity and plausibility in mind — through character and motive, supposition and possibility. In confident, expert hands, fiction can liberate the past and our perception of major (or minor) historical figures in ways that the scholar or journalist must deeply envy. Richard Flanagan is an exemplary case in point. Through his fiction, flat, conformist portraits of individuals become rich and three-dimensional, new witnesses provide fresh testimony about the past, and Tasmania’s silences resound with voices.
Telluride: Dickens’ Secret Sex Life Exposed in Ralph Fiennes’ World Premiere ‘The Invisible Woman’
Audiences react decorously to the drama about the Victorian novelist's two-timing love life, also staring Felicity Jones.
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Telluride, Colo. — Ralph Fiennes‘ The Invisible Woman, about Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), the failed actress and secret mistress that Victorian novelist Charles Dickens hid from the public for seven years, got a very proper reception at its world premiere Saturday at the Telluride Film Festival. The film, which Sony Pictures Classics will launch with a limited opening Dec. 25, received 25 seconds of sustained applause, followed by a Q&A with Fiennes and 2011 National Book Critics Circle Criticism Award winner Geoff Dyer, for which virtually every audience member stayed in their seats.
Dyer compared the film to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (which had Meryl Streep as a Victorian Other Woman), but in its historical authenticity, intellectual ambition and rendering of a repressed era, it’s also a bit like David Cronenberg‘s 2011 Telluride film A Dangerous Method, which earned a Golden Globe nomination for Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud.
Fiennes, who directed and stars as Dickens, plays a role that’s way more fun than Mortensen’s Freud. He’s an exuberant creator of doorstop novels, rollicking public readings, and lively theatrical productions, and an admirable crusader to save downfallen women — but also a selfish bastard who treated the women in his life like characters in his fictions, which he could manipulate at will. While both the film and Fiennes’ performance as Dickens could be awards magnets, his Dickens could be a tricky role to sell to Oscar voters — while a character of irresistible appeal, he is also capable of being quite cruel to his wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan of The Thick of It).
“He was cruel,” Fiennes admitted, “but when people are unhappy in marriage, they are often cruel, I think.” The film also dramatizes Dickens’ guilt, his struggle to care for his mistress, his family and his immense reputation.
The showier, more awards-friendly role is likely to be that of Felicity Jones’ as Ternan. Her tears — which always appeal to awards voters — seem unusually well-earned, partly because Ternan seems so determined not to give into them. Her outrage at Dickens and his marriage-disdaining writer pal Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), who both defy Victorian convention at women’s expense, plays well to a modern audience, especially the bookish one Telluride attracts. Kristin Scott Thomas also has a juicy part as Ternan’s mother, torn between protecting her teen daughter from the great man’s advances and protecting her from the looming specter of poverty.
Dyer told Fiennes he felt as if the characters in the movie, weighed down by clothing as cumbersome as Victorian propriety itself, yearned to rip them off. (In the sensitive sex scenes, clothing is more decorously disposed of.) “You feel, I’m going to burst out of those clothes,” said Dyer. Fiennes protested that they may not have felt this way — that Dyer may be projecting a modern viewpoint on people who found their clothes perfectly normal. Said Fieenes, “That was a time of corsets and restraint.”
&ldquo. . . after stating that there were fourteen mourners at Dickens&rsquos funeral, The Times named only thirteen.
Who was the mysterious fourteenth, silently omitted?
Surely none other than his mistress Ellen Ternan&mdashthe privacy dictated by Dickens&rsquos will allowed her to attend his funeral inconspicuously. In his death, as in his life, she was an essential but shadowy presence.
Yet how attentively did she listen at the graveside as &ldquothe service was most impressively read by the Dean&rdquo? Thirty-one years old, she had been virtually widowed. Looking back on her dozen years with Dickens, reflecting on her suddenly altered situation, musing on the next chapter of her life&mdashshe had much to occupy her thoughts.Ellen Ternan, Charles Dickens's mistress
Eventually Ellen married, and had a son and daughter. Many years later, her daughter-in-law testified that she was &ldquoa most devoted wife and mother and a charming personality.&rdquo She survived Dickens by more than four decades, dying on the eve of the First World War. While his bones lie beneath Westminster Abbey pavement, sifting into dust as sightseers shuffle by overhead, Ellen&rsquos ashes lie far off the tourist rounds, in Highland Road Cemetery in Southsea, near Portsmouth. Close in life, the Ternan sisters are close in death: Ellen&rsquos beloved sisters Mia and Fanny share a grave just a few yards from hers. At the end of their lives, Ellen and Fanny had lived together in Southsea. Ellen&rsquos grave is scarcely two miles from the terrace house in Portsmouth where Dickens had been born a century before her death in the house, now a museum, is the couch on which he died at Gad&rsquos Hill.
By a curious coincidence or mysterious providence, Maria Beadnell had also moved to Southsea with her clergyman husband, and died there in 1886. She too is buried in Highland Road Cemetery so that the first and last women Dickens loved, who never met and probably never heard of each other, now lie only a few yards apart. In a quiet provincial cemetery, the beginning and end of his amorous pilgrimage have come together.
Rejecting &ldquoany monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever,&rdquo Dickens stated in his will that &ldquoI rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works.&rdquo But his novels are memorials, too, to the three women he loved well, if not always wisely&mdashhis muses and teachers in the school of love. No one taught him more no one stirred his feelings more powerfully, or enriched his imagination more generously.
A Professor of English at Gettysburg College, Robert Garnett (Col ྈ) teaches courses on Charles Dickens, British and American writers of the early twentieth century, and the literature of the American South. A past trustee of the international Dickens Society, he has published extensively in scholarly journals on Charles Dickens&rsquos life and novels.