The invisible woman
I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s book on Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. For those of you who are as ignorant as I was about this side of the Dickens story, in 1858 the author left his wife Catherine, taking nine of his ten children, including quite young ones. (His household was managed by Catherine’s sister Georgina.)
Tomalin traces out the extraordinary story of Dickens’ involvement with a woman 25 years younger than he, Nelly Ternan.
Nelly came from an acting family, and Dickens had produced and taken part in some theatrical events with her, her sisters and her mother. But he did not set up with her – although several of his contemporaries didn’t hesitate to instal mistresses, Dickens apparently would have found this too much at odds with his public image. For the rest of his life he zoomed round the country with frenetic energy, moving so continuously that often almost no one would know where he was. This, and his sizeable income, enabled him to maintain Nelly in a separate household, and to visit her regularly without it becomiing common knowledge.
It’s a fascinating story in itself, carefully researched and very well told. Why refer to it here? First, Tomalin tells very vividly the story of Nelly and her sisters, as young girls, on the road with their mother earning their living on stage. School does not figure in their lives at all. Later, all four have to do what they can to avoid sinking into poverty. One of Nelly’s sisters converts into a very enterprising foreign correspondent. Marriage is the obvious route; but such were the social stipulations of the time that having been on the stage was a huge social stigma in many circles. Indeed when Nelly’s son discovers, after her death, that this is how she spent the first years of her life, he goes almost crazy at the idea that his mother had been an actress, and destroys all papers that relate to that period. How statuses change.
The most salient point, though, is Dickens’ ambivalence about women’s dependence and independence. His daughter Kate said that her father ‘had the strongest possible sympathy with women writers, women painters, and indeed, with all women who work in order to gain a livelihood for themselves and those dependent on their exertions.’ As Tomalin points out, this sits very uneasily with his seclusion of Nelly, who was a virtual prisoner, comfortable enough but spending her time waiting for his next visit and entirely dependent on him.
I had no inkling of all this. Dickens comes out of it both impressively, for his incredible energy and drive, but also as a man who could blind himself to his own behaviour and its consequences for others. I haven’t, sadly, been able to extract any good illustrations of the PP from his books.