Skip to main content

Ellen Ternan was not a gold-digging trollop

Do you think the Victorians were so overrun with sentimentality that nothing really meant anything?

"My dearest darling, for so you have been thought of by me from the dark reaches of the past and shall be to the ever distant future — may my heartfelt greetings light upon your soul soft as the brush of the wings of those that serve Him on high."

"Oh, Mavis says hello."

I finished The Invisible Woman, which is Claire Tomalin's 1990 biography of Nell Ternan, Dickens's mistress. I've been working on it since January. It is not a long book.

Claire Tomalin's so respectable. I don't even know if that's true, but she writes like she is. The reason Ellen Ternan is the Invisible Woman is GOOD LORD THERE'S SO LITTLE INFO ABOUT HER. This is mainly because back in the day, what did you do if you wanted to erase someone? You just -- burned their letters. Poof. Gone. We have no letters from Dickens to Nell, and only a few references, mostly coded. Using prior research plus her own, Tomalin does an excellent job of setting up a basic and probable picture of their relationship.

A lot has to be guesswork, though (I know -- this can drive you insane). Example: there's a two year period where there's nothing about Nell. Nothing. She's completely effaced from the historical record. Which is especially amazing if you consider that she was involved in an intimate relationship with one of THE most famous men in England at the time. The evidence seems to indicate she went to France. Whyyyyy? Well, some people think she had a baby. And then it died. Dickens was prolific in pretty much all areas of his life, so this seems not out of the realm of possibility.

Look, Dickens was an asshole. In some ways. Which is true of all of us, but since he was Dickens, his asshole gestures were WAY grander than most of ours. For decades -- mostly because he wanted it this way and his biographers obliged -- people thought his wife was an insane harridan and he had to separate from her to keep his children safe. OOPS, turns out he was just a dick. 

He did, according to some, suffer because of the position he'd put Nell in. If I got anything out of this book, it's seeing Nelly as far less of a scheming younger woman and Dickens as more of a predator. I don't think he necessarily went into the acquaintance with her with that design, but he obviously didn't have to push it further. He'd acted with her in the play he wrote with Wilkie Collins -- The Frozen Deep -- and became friends with her and her sisters and mother.

They're this rather impoverished group of women who then have the full beneficence of England's most famous living author turned on them, so no, they're probably not going to stand up in their dignity and moral rectitude and say "Sir, your presence in our home shall incite scandal -- get you to your wife!"

The basics of Nell's life are: Actress in a family of actors, not a very successful one, meets Dickens, is in a relationship with him from age 18 until he dies (when she was 31), then marries a nice young man who isn't very good at doing anything, they have two children (neither of whom have children of their own), and she dies in financially straitened circumstances soon after the last of her sisters.

It's a pretty straightforward book, but one of my few double-takes was when reading part of a speech Dickens gave a month before he died, where he said that women "even in their present oppressed condition can attain to quite as great distinction as men." WHAT? Have you READ any of your heroines? 

And he's talking about in the arts and sciences, not like "Their unblemished character can give them renown in the household sphere." If you read his later books, after having met Nell, some of his heroines start acquiring something of a genuine personality. Estella, Bella Wilfer, and I would even argue for Rosa Bud, even though Claire Tomalin seems to disagree with me. Rosa Bud has a temper, and a sense of humor. Compare that to the ridiculousness that is Little Nell or Ada Clare.

Rosa Bud

Nell Ternan's life was something of a disappointment in later years, at least intellectually, but she seems to be have been thrilled to have children, and she did get to experience things like this:

[W]inter in Rome was almost unmixed delight. You could ride out for hours into the sunny, empty Campagna or fill your days visiting museums, antiquities and churches, where gorgeous rituals were enacted by cardinals and congregations endowed with a natural sense of the theatrical. You could attend concerts in the evening and visit the Colosseum by moonlight. There were salons; there were picnics, parties and dinners at which Americans, English, French, Italians and Germans mingled freely.

I'm glad I don't really dislike her anymore. All of that can just be heaped on Dickens for how he treated his wife. I'll read a biography of him someday (Claire Tomalin's written one of those, too), but before that, I'm rather interested in his daughter Kate Dickens. Tomalin seems to have regarded her as one of the few intelligent children he had, and she was absolutely one of the few who was willing to say what her father was really like, and that he was not "a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch." 



Popular posts from this blog

Harry Potter 2013 Readalong Signup Post of Amazingness and Jollity

Okay, people. Here it is. Where you sign up to read the entire Harry Potter series (or to reminisce fondly), starting January 2013, assuming we all survive the Mayan apocalypse. I don't think I'm even going to get to Tina and Bette's reunion on The L Word until after Christmas, so here's hopin'. You guys know how this works. Sign up if you want to. If you're new to the blog, know that we are mostly not going to take this seriously. And when we do take it seriously, it's going to be all Monty Python quotes when we disagree on something like the other person's opinion on Draco Malfoy. So be prepared for your parents being likened to hamsters. If you want to write lengthy, heartfelt essays, that is SWELL. But this is maybe not the readalong for you. It's gonna be more posts with this sort of thing: We're starting Sorceror's/Philosopher's Stone January 4th. Posts will be on Fridays. The first post will be some sort of hilar

Minithon: The Mini Readathon, January 11th, 2020

The minithon is upon us once more! Minithons are for the lazy. Minithons are for the uncommitted. Minithons are for us. The minithon lasts 6 hours (10 AM to 4 PM CST), therefore making it a mini readathon, as opposed to the lovely Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon and 24in48, both of which you should participate in, but both of which are a longer commitment than this, the Busy Watching Netflix person's readathon. By 'read for six hours' what's really meant in the minithon is "read a little bit and eat a lot of snacks and post pictures of your books and your snacks, but mostly your snacks." We like to keep it a mini theme here, which mainly means justifying your books and your snacks to fit that theme. Does your book have children in it? Mini people! Does it have a dog! Mini wolf! Does it have pencils? Mini versions of graphite mines! or however you get graphite, I don't really know. I just picture toiling miners. The point is, justify it or don't

How to Build a Girl Introductory Post, which is full of wonderful things you probably want to read

Acclaimed (in England mostly) lady Caitlin Moran has a novel coming out. A NOVEL. Where before she has primarily stuck to essays. Curious as we obviously were about this, I and a group of bloggers are having a READALONG of said novel, probably rife with spoilers (maybe they don't really matter for this book, though, so you should totally still read my posts). This is all hosted/cared for/lovingly nursed to health by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads) because she has a lovely fancy job at an actual bookshop ( Odyssey Books , where you can in fact pre-order this book and then feel delightful about yourself for helping an independent store). Emily and I have negotiated the wonders of Sri Lankan cuisine and wandered the Javits Center together. Would that I could drink with her more often than I have. I feel like we could get to this point, Emily INTRODUCTION-wise (I might've tipped back a little something this evening, thus the constant asides), I am Alice. I enjoy