The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin
A Graph Review 55 with high point 70
my copy: published Penguin ppr 2012 printing
I read a biography of Charles Dickens a while ago and it included Nelly Ternan as an integral part of Dicken’s life but felt it was somewhat limp about his influence on her and hers on him. Her presence was included but her character was somewhat elusive, maybe due to lack of evidence or because she was not the centre of the biography. Yes, she was treated as an almost-secret companion but well-known to Dicken’s circle of friends but he tried to protect, nay, conceal her from the public eye almost at any cost. For his safety or hers? His image or hers?
For me, the fact that Dickens rented a ‘cottage’ in my old home town of Slough was a needle that kept my attention. See page 157 and notes that it was known as Elizabeth Cottage in the High Street (long since burned down, one day I will search out where it was more exactly). One story I read was that he also rented two terraced cottages in a different street with two front doors for propriety but an adjoining internal door. Some townsfolk new, affirmed in the notes that their arrangement was known by assorted townspeople at least. It was a sleepy market town that had the convenience of a railway station to London and able to connect with major cities at comparative high speed for Dicken’s almost perpetual travelling.
First line of the book: “This is the story of someone who -almost- wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air”. buy via Amazon
Followed by a ‘preamble’ as Claire Tomalin calls it, that sets the period-scene, the Dickens’ and contemporaries’ world in context. Also a brief positioning of Nelly (Ellen) Ternan and her theatrical family in the mid Nineteenth century with description of the theatre and players and the ‘literary circles’ they too inhabited.
Diving into ‘The Family Saga’ we start with being told of Nelly’s grandmother and her early acting and married life. From this we get the foundations of the family and theatre. This is a significant section, covering early family ‘survival’ onwards. Establishing ( or rather understanding the likely psychology) of Nelly’s nature and the significance of theatrical life and its consequences and liberties; to the introduction to Dickens and her personal ‘style’.
This book brings Nelly brilliantly to life considering the depth of secrecy and destruction of many personal papers and notes regarding her. Secrecy agreed with by Nelly and upheld by the vast majority of friends and family during life and after Dickens death. The theatre looms large throughout the book, as it did for Dickens himself. I like to think of Dickens and Nelly visiting the theatre in nearby Windsor, there was one, a precursor to the current Theatre Royal ( I believe the one they might have visited burnt down too, a danger of the day) but no records for the book to report.
There is too much detail to highlight on her life with Dickens and her almost ever-present sister. His (ex) sister-in-law is also ever in the background, Georgina, who was a prime mover in maintaining his ‘Dickens’ household and protecting his ‘image’ in life and after.
Dickens seems to have been hyperactive, a workaholic, a theatre lover, an insomniac, an entertainer who travelled in great bursts to read and act before the audience he loved so much. In his heart he was an actor and seemed to need the quiet support and closeness of actors, of Nelly and her family. Tellingly he would hone his skills in front of Nelly and her sister. She would attend his readings and watch and advise. From a young girl to a full woman she would be accepted as a secret, denied as a companion to the world. Her nature during this long period and the longer aftermath of secrecy is to be pondered over and for me the ‘reason why’ can only ever be speculation.
Following his death Nelly continues for many years and the author must have followed traces and clues from the smallest items.Claire Tomalin’s acknowledgements are lengthy, no surprise, and research seems to have been meticulous. Bravely she has also come to offer steps and happenings that cannot always be proven by hard fact but with the facts that are available and an understanding of life and times she gives logical explanations of the most likely events and conclusions. This helps to keep the narrative alive and offers hope that she will be proved right.
We read of Nelly’s marriage, her children, continued enthusiasm for the theatre albeit restrained and localised. And that her past remained a secret to all around, kept by that loyal few from her earlier life. Of nelly and her sister Fanny living in Southsea and her decline. The stories she never told and the few she did to Helen Wickham, the daughter of a friend in Southsea. Mention of the reverend Benham who heard some of her life from talking with her. About her son Geoffrey and daughter Gladys and of their discovering their mother’s secret. Nelly died AT Southsea in 1914, the same year that a Dickens Birthplace museum was established in the town.
A long, eventful life discovered, revealed, of a woman whose actions may seem mystifying today but Claire’s writing illuminates so much of the period that Nelly Ternan appears fully fleshed, leaving the question that only she might really have answered. I may not express clearly when I ask myself, or her, how much she loved him or was she overawed initially and locked in a form of secret dependency afterwards?
All biographies are massive undertakings with depth of research, cross referencing, timelines and an understanding of time and place. Plus the skill required to weave a flowing story. This one started with the disadvantage that a great deal of effort by many people was put into concealing as much as possible. Claire Tomalin truly deserved the wide praise she received for rediscovering a life. With this she also created a moving tale of women, families and the lure of the theatre and its traps.
This edition has a ‘postscript: the death of Dickens’ which, with notes, offers a variation on Dickens’ location and death. Although not entirely proven seems more realistic than the events laid down and accepted at the time. Considered in depth by the author this could be the correct answer to some of the questions. Of my question, at least on that last day, that she was a caring person and loved the ma who loved and in many ways relied on her.
5 pages of bibliography, 30 pages of notes and 10 pages of double column index complete a hugely complex, investigative and readable biography.
Claire Tomalin has also written a biography of Charles Dickens. It sits there, waiting for me to pick up. I will, I will.