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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." 


Dickens!

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