31 May, 2015

The Invisible Woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomalin. Book review

Penguin 1991. ISBN 978-0-140-12136-0. 283 pages

The Invisible Woman is a historical biography of Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, a not-very-famous actress in Victorian London who had a close relationship with the writer Charles Dickens for thirteen years from 1857 to his death in 1870. It is also the story of Nelly’s mother and two older sisters, all professional actresses; of Nelly’s husband and children in the second life she built after Dickens’ death; and of the detective work required for the author to rediscover the story after the valiant attempts made by Nelly, Dickens and their families and associates to obliterate all evidence of their association.

I enjoyed this book very much more than I expected to. Although Nelly Ternan’s relationship – whatever it was – with Dickens is what she is now famous for and the reason The Invisible Woman was written, it turns out to be one of the least interesting things in a full and varied life. Nelly Ternan went from an impoverished child actress earning a precarious living touring provincial theatres with her two sisters and redoubtable widowed mother, to a well-off if not entirely respectable lady, to the popular wife of a provincial schoolmaster. Her two sisters, Frances (Fanny) and Maria, lived even more unorthodox lives. Fanny was by turns an actress, singer, teacher, novelist and biographer, and successfully made the Jane Eyre transition from governess to respected married lady. Maria left her businessman husband to earn her own living in Italy as an artist, journalist and foreign correspondent, travelling to Egypt and North Africa. All this in an age when women were expected to be entirely passive, dependent and confined to the domestic sphere (as exemplified by most of Dickens’ heroines).

The writing style in The Invisible Woman is clear, unfussy, lively and sympathetic without being sentimental. Nelly’s life is painstakingly pieced together from mere scraps of evidence – playbills, rates and rent records, obscure passing references, a diary so abbreviated it could almost be written in code – because Nelly, Dickens and their respective families went to considerable lengths to destroy all the letters and papers in their possession. Nelly herself deliberately created something close to a new identity for herself after Dickens’ death, taking twelve years off her age and hiding both her theatrical past and her association with Dickens from her husband and children. The result is a sort of cross between a biography and a scholarly detective story, as the author tracks Nelly from one fleeting appearance to the next, cross-referencing clues to build up a plausible picture. Numerous footnotes and references back up the statements in the text, and the author takes care to distinguish between evidence, inference and speculation.

The introductory chapters describing Nelly’s family background and her early life as a child performer, long before Dickens appeared in her life, are some of the most interesting in the book. This section forms a social history of the world of the professional theatre in Regency and Victorian England, a self-contained sub-culture with its own set of values and social norms. Women in the theatre were both expected and able to earn their own living independently of a man, and indeed the women in Nelly’s immediate family were frequently the primary breadwinners, even when there was a man in the family. This independent earning capacity conferred some resilience, so Nelly’s mother was able to support herself and her three small daughters when her husband died of syphilis. Some successful actresses managed to attain a degree of personal freedom otherwise unheard-of in respectable Victorian society, such as being able to leave an unsatisfactory husband, live with a man outside of marriage, and bring up children on their own. But it carried a price in terms of financial insecurity – even very successful actresses often died in poverty after they became too old to work – and in exclusion from and the disapproval of polite society. Two young actresses living in the theatre district could all too easily be mistaken for a different kind of working girl and subjected to police harassment with the threat of arrest and ruin, and for a lovely young actress touring in Ireland the risk of abduction and rape by an unscrupulous aristocrat was considered an occupational hazard. All three of the Ternan sisters ruthlessly suppressed their theatrical past when marriage allowed them entry into polite society. This was a fascinating glimpse into a world I knew almost nothing about, and The Invisible Woman was well worth reading for this alone.

There is an extensive bibliography for anyone who wants to follow up source material for themselves, and a detailed index for reference.

Clear, lively, sympathetic and scholarly biography of the unorthodox lives of Nelly Ternan and her sisters, combined with an illuminating social history of the Victorian theatrical world.