There is nothing like a little scandal to arouse readers’ interest. When you’ve got a story about a middle-aged, world-famous author, married with a herd of children, who walks out on his wife and takes up in secret with a beautiful young actress half his age, you’ve got the makings of the kind of story worthy of headlines on TMZ. Make that author the great purveyor of family values in a society where those values are all powerful even if not always honored, and you’ve got the kind of scandal that can ruin the best of reputations. Claire Tomalin’s 1990 study, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, now available in a Vintage paperback, is the history of just such a scandal. A scandal which should have wrecked the man’s reputation, but oddly enough never did.
Dickens was at the height of his popularity in 1857 when he met Nelly Ternan. She was 18. He was 45. He had been married over 20 years and fathered 10 children when he locked his wife out of his bedroom and eventually separated from her completely. Divorce was unthinkable for a man in Dickens’ position so he began a clandestine relationship with the young actress which was to last until he died. Although it seems clear that many of his friends knew what was going on, he had a faithful cadre of supporters including his sister-in-law who made sure his new arrangements never became public knowledge. Indeed his early biographers managed to keep any information about the affair out of their books even after his death. It was only in the next century that word began to get out.
Tomalin’s book is divided into three parts. The first section deals with Nelly and her family background. It contains a good bit of information about life in the theater in the 19th century as well. Nelly, the youngest of three sisters, was born into a theatrical family. Her father was a mediocre actor and manager; her mother was more successful, but never a real star. The girls took to the stage as children, but no one in the family ever rose to the highest levels of theatrical prominence. No doubt when the prominent wealthy Dickens came along, Nelly and her family would have welcomed if not encouraged his attentions.
The second part of the book details the years the two enjoyed together—the secret assignations, the phony names and the coded messages. It speculates about the possibility that she may have had a child who died at birth sometime in the early 1860s when Nelly seems to have been in France and there is little information about what was going on. Of all the suggestions in The Invisible Woman,this would seem to be the most speculative. Generally the details of the relationship are well documented.
The book’s last section describes Ternan’s life and that of the rest of her family after Dickens’ death. Nelly, perhaps regretting her years with the novelist, eventually married a younger man and had two children. She never revealed the relationship to any of them; it was nothing she was proud of. Her sister Maria, who had married in the ’60s, left her husband and eventually became a successful journalist living in Italy. Fanny, her eldest sister, who had been writing serial fiction for Dickens married Thomas Trollope, a widower and settled in Italy. The family never really prospered as a result of the youngest sister’s love affair.
The Invisible Woman is well documented and readable, and while it gives readers a telling insight into Dickens’ character, it has little to say about what if any effect the relationship had on the man’s work as a novelist. She points out that attempts to find traces of Nelly Ternan in any of the later Dickens’ female characters have not borne much fruit. It is also clear that his own libertine behavior didn’t change his emphasis on the values of marriage and family in his novels. Females guilty of sinful behavior are not accorded any more sympathetic treatment in his later work. And while Lucie in A Tale of Two Cities may have been modeled on Nelly, at least as far as her physical appearance is concerned, that seems to be the extent of her influence on his work.
Dickens, it turns out, was no saint: a great writer, but no saint. For some his affair with Nelly Ternan will raise significant questions about the relationship between art and morality. There will be those who echo a Victorian critic like John Ruskin who posited that great art can’t be created by immoral people. There will be those who make it clear that art is art and morality is morality and never the twain need meet. In the end, if the message is strong, the fact that the flesh is weak need not detract from that message.