The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 25, 2012

The Invisible Woman

Nelly now disappears from view completely, conjured into thin air. For four years she remains invisible. Her name does not figure in any surviving letters. She and her mother are not even at [her sister] Maria's London wedding in June 1863, a striking absence in a small, mutually devoted family. She has become a perfect blank.
      When she reappears in the summer of 1865, she is travelling in a private first-class in a 'tidal train', part of the rapid service between Paris and London. She is beautifully dressed, wearing a gold watch and trinkets, and is sitting next to Dickens and opposite an elderly lady, almost certainly her mother. They are accompanied by luggage, including several hatboxes. She is by now an excellent French speaker; her hair is darker and no longer arranged in curls; she is thinner, more elegant, a little hollow-cheeked. She is coming from abroad; but how long she has been abroad and where exactly remain conjectural.
      At a guess, she has been living in France. It is only a guess.This is to be chapter of guesses and conjectures, and those who don't like them are warned. ...
-- from The Invisible Woman:  The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomalin

I've already guessed that Claire Tomalin's recent biography of Charles Dickens will probably be one of my favorite books for this year. I still think so, but I might have to set this earlier book right next to it. I'm sure that one of you recommended it to me, or that I read about it on one of your blogs. Although I'm  trying to keep track, so I can say thank you when I need to, I'm not sure who it was...but thank you.  It was fascinating!

What [a recently discovered diary] reveals with perfect clarity is a man intent on a split life; a man almost demented in his determined pursuit of it, despite the exhaustion and illness we know of from his letters and the reports of friends. It shows how he used the growing railway system as an essential component of that split life, putting up with as much pressure and discomfort as any commercial traveller in pursuance of his divided days and weeks, hurrying between Gad's Hill and Wellington Street, between Weillington Street and Slough; how Paddington, Waterloo, Windsor, Slough and Datchet stations were almost as familiar to him as his office and his home. He would go straight back to Slough from giving a reading in Bath before setting off to give another in Birmingham, and fit in four secret days there between readings in Cheltenham and his departure for Ireland. One at least two occasions he sent notes to Georgina making excuses about not coming to Gad's Hill, putting it down to pressure of work or ill health, when in fact he was planning to spend the time with Nelly. .. During the ten months covered by the diary, he spent one third of his time with, or near, Nelly; one third at Gad's Hill; and one third serving his other love, the public. His perfect punctuality and grasp of timetables stood him in brilliant stead, and when he wrote to a friend that 'I am here, there, everywhere, nowhere', it was almost the literal truth. ...

This book was written about 20 years before the recent biography, and it tells the story of Dickens' relationship with Ellen ('Nelly') Ternan, a beautiful, not very accomplished, much younger actress, who became his mistress, and may have had a child with him.  They met when she was 18 and he was 45. There are two threads to the story, or maybe three. There's the complete and deliberate veil of secrecy that was allowed to fall around their relationship, and even around Nelly's existence, until the 1930s -- making her biographically, and almost literally, invisible.  {The descriptions of how the relationship became known is fascinating in itself.} Then there are the strong bonds linking Nelly, her two sisters and their mother, who all tried to earn (had to earn) their living as actresses, even though they were not good ones. Her sister Frances (Fanny) married Tom Trollope, Anthony's brother, and wrote forgettable novels; the third sister, Maria, left her boring husband and became a journalist. And the last theme, the second life that Nelly successfully created after Dickens' death.  She took years off her age, married a much younger man, became respectable Mrs. Robinson instead of Miss Ternan, and 'rose like a phoenix,' at least at first. 

In the summer of 1900 {this is 30 years after Dickens' death} the three sisters were all at Calcot when a young visitor came who kept a vivid memory of [the sisters'] force of character and the range and liveliness of their conversation. This was Helen Wickham, the daughter of Nelly's widowed friend Rosalind. She found Aunt Fanny enormously impressive; everything she did was done with panache, and she brimmed with vitality.  Aunt Maria seemed gentler, though Helen considered her the most eccentric of the sisters. ... Possibly she had not adopted the respect for conventional behaviour and opinions increasingly shown by her sisters. ...
      To Helen, one of the most striking aspects of life at The Filberts was Nelly's total lack of interest in the domestic arrangements. What she enjoyed was sitting talking with her sisters, about politics, books, music and the theatre,,, Helen remembered Nelly saying that Fanny had been a lovely girl, and Maria had been handsome, but she herself had never made any claim to prettiness, with 'a'complexion like a copper saucepan and a figure like an oak tree'; mock modesty, perhaps, but the turn of phrase is arresting enough to make you believe in Nelly's power to amuse and hold her own in conversation.
      Helen was critical of her hostess's moods, her tyranny over husband and daughter, ... her bouts of furious temper and 'nerve storms'; but she loved and admired her nevertheless, and considered her a woman of exceptional charm, gifted, cultured and generous. Her own mother had warmed her 'not to bother Aunt Nelly about Dickens. She doesn't wish to remember those days -- it makes her so sad.' Helen was obedient to her instructions, and indeed there was nosign of anything to do with Dickens about the house, nor was his name ever mentioned in general conversations. Not a single one of his books was in evidence, and when Aunt Nelly read aloud to Helen and [Nelly's daughter] Gladys, it was usually from her sister's novels; never from Thackeray, whom she was known to detest, and certainly never from Dickens.
      Yet there was a day when Nelly privately showed Helen a picture of Gad's Hill and murmured the information that she had been there 'many times'. She also told Helen on more than once occasion that she was going out to visit Miss Hogarth, without volunteering any further explanation or making any reference to the visits when she returned.  The impression is again of a woman painfully divided, as though she needed to hold on to some thread, to keep alive some connection with her lost self, yet at the same time to banish the past altogether from her current life with George and ensure that their children would never uncover it.

Later, one of the most moving parts of the book is the description of her son, after her death, reading the letters and papers that were most of his inheritance and coming to realize that his mother was not who he had thought she was.

Reading this book just reinforced my sense that Claire Tomalin is a wonderful writer. I think I especially relish the way she lets us see the biographer at work, wondering and conjecturing and detecting and sussing things out.   I also discovered, while I was looking for a picture of Nelly, that this book is the inspiration for a new movie, starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly.  I hope it will be shown here.


JoAnn said...

This has been on my wish list for far too long - must read it before the movie makes its way to us! Have you read Tomalin's bio of Jane Austen? That's very well done, too.

Audrey said...

Hi, J - I did, years ago, but now I want to read it again!

Thank you for visiting!

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