The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin - review by John Bayley

John Bayley

Boz’s Little Bit

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


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Suppose some great married celebrity nowadays – he would have to be in the pop world? – were to fall in love with a young girl and make her what used to be called his mistress? They would appear as just good friends: everyone would know, and everyone would be bored. How much better they did things in the 1850s and ‘60s. Better – more interestingly – for us, I mean: whether it was better for the transgressor and his mistress is another matter.

His meeting with the young actress Ellen Ternan, and his characteristically total infatuation for her, put Dickens in an impossible position. He could, and did, separate from his wife, piously explaining why in his periodical Household Words, without estranging more than a few readers and a friend or two. But if he had proceeded to live openly in sin with Ellen he would have brought his whole extraordinary magic showman’s world crashing about his ears. Workmen would not have come up to him in the street with a ‘God bless you, Mr Dickens’. Crowds would not have waited on the wharves of New York to find out what had happened to his latest heroine. Even greater crowds would not have poured into halls all over Europe and the New World to hear him act the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes. The magic would have gone: they would have dropped him cold. So at least he was convinced, and his instinct in such matters was usually right.

At the same time he had to have her – his imperious will demanded it. Quire what form that ‘having’ actually took is still not clear, and never will be. But whatever it was he must get his way. Writing to Baroness Burdett-Coutts about ‘Urania Cottage’, his scheme for a

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