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.