Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens. Who haven’t, at least, heard of his name? He is probably the second British writer, after Shakespeare, whose works are most well known in the world. But, like Shakespeare, we are more familiar with his stories and his famous characters than with himself as a person. It is common knowledge that we can get to know an author from his writings. But particularly in Dickens—although it happens in many other authors too—only half of his writings did reflect his true personalities. Only after reading The Invisible Woman, did I realize how hard it is to become a famous person. It becomes even harder when the famous person is a Charles Dickens, who, in his era, was perhaps only slightly less worshipped than the Queen (or even God?). The Invisible Woman is actually the story of Ellen Ternan, but it also reveals so many layers of the extravagant Charles Dickens!

The Ternans is a family of theater workers. Ellen—or Nelly, as the family used to call her—was the youngest of three sisters, and she was born and brought up in the influence of theater industry. Nelly was born in 3 March 1839, a time when women were divided into two distinguished categories: a woman and a lady. No matter how virtuously a woman has been brought up, if she worked in theater, she would automatically be labeled a bad woman; and in the same level as prostitute. In this condition had Nelly—now an eighteen years actress—found herself, when the most prominent writer at that time plunged himself in the theater world, got acquainted with her family, then was attracted to her: Charles Dickens.

Now Dickens has been consistently criticizing social hypocrisy in his contemporary society, and has been modeled as virtuous family man. So, when he found himself loathed his worn-off wife Catherine—who has born his ten children—and attracted by the fresh and innocent young actress Nelly, Dickens was torn between two passions; his passion for a woman who can understand him, and the passion of fame and public honor. Dickens knew he could never marry an actress, and so, was forced to take Nelly only as a mistress. These two ends would be pulling Dickens to each other’s side for years, leaving him restless and in interminable fear of creating scandal for the rest of his life.

First Dickens ruthlessly banished Catherine from Gad’s Hill by cooperating with Georgina Hogarth—Catherine’s sister who was more loyal to her brother-in-law—to accuse Catherine of neglecting their children and being a bad wife. Succeeded in doing that, and as a widower, Dickens started to lead a double live; one publicly, one secretly. At the same time Nelly Ternan’s theatrical career was suddenly terminated, and she disappeared from public life. Dickens installed her at a house, and so, Dickens often went to and fro two homes, as well as travelling a lot for his public readings. This happened in his entire life, until he died in 9 June 1870.

After Dickens’ death, Nelly was freed from threats of scandal and humiliation, which she must endure when she became Dickens’ mistress. She was believed to get pregnant from Dickens twice, but both ended in miscarriage. The seclusion, the fear of scandal, and the uncertain future (as it was impossible for Dickens to marry her) mush have shaped Nelly Ternan to a new stronger woman after Dickens death, when she was only 31 years old. As she has probably learned a lot from Dickens on how to manipulate things, she reappeared in the society by shedding ten years from her age (to prevent any questions about her missing years with Dickens), married a school master, had a happy family, and consistently hid her past from her children until her death in 25 April 1914.

About Dickens – After reading this biography, now I can see why Dickens’ novel characters are mostly comical, unbelievable, and—that’s why—memorable. It is because Dickens himself was a boyish man, both in appearance (his dandy style, even in his later years, his sudden outburst, his energy), as well as in his personalities. I pictured Dickens as a man with great fantasies (that’s where those great stories came from, anyway!), and he believed he must and could make it come true. All that he wanted to happen must happen! His marriage to Catherine prevented him from being with Nelly, so he ruthlessly arranged everything he could to banish her. He did not want to ruin his honor in public, but he also did not want to lose Nelly, so he created false names, false identity, arranged false schedules, produced codes and wrote letters here and there; in short, making every possible way to possess all he wanted. So, while he criticized the hypocrisy in his society, he doubly led a hypocrite life by leading a life he publicly disapproved.

I kept asking myself, why Dickens was determined to take Nelly Ternan as mistress while risking his honor; for sexual satisfaction only? I don’t think so. Apart from Nelly’s charming beauty, I believe he needed a partner who understood him, with whom he could discuss his working life and writings. Plus, Nelly was closely related to a world that was so fascinated Dickens: theater.

About Nelly – It is so ironic, that a woman, who once had a great influence towards a great man, must be kept hidden for centuries, scrapped from histories. Even until now, no one knows the exact life of Ellen Ternan. Historians and biographers could only do detective works and deductions, but could never (at least ‘till this day) reveal the whole mystery. Nobody was sure of Nelly’s feeling and aim when she decided to accept Dickens in her life. I think both Nelly and her mother were fascinated and flattered at first, that a man of such importance paid attention to her. They must have thought it’d be a better future for her, for she could never expect a better husband, not with her theatre background. But Nelly was used to adventurous life in theater, and so living secretly and anonymously might have distressed her. Poor Nelly, I only hope that whatever happened in her last years, she have had once happy moments with Dickens.

Claire Tomalin has done a good job in this biography. She must have been through tons of researches and even ‘detective’ works to reveal the life of Ellen Ternan. Her writing is engaging, and although this is the first time I have read biography, I could quite enjoy it. Four stars for The Invisible Woman! Now I only wish the movie would get to Indonesia very soon!


I read Penguin paperback

I read this for:


  1. Scandalous! It's difficult to hear this when I revere Mr. Dickens so. But I think I have also read on numerous occasions how some of the great artists (musicians, painters, writers) of the past were so tormented by their own demons (created or not). To the world they appear so well-grounded and level-headed, but in private, their heart and head are in shambles.

    1. In the end...'no men are perfect', and that's why they could write so great novels.


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