The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

★★★★★ (5/5)

The restlessness which is the penalty of an imaginative life and constitution– we all hold whatever we possess, on the strict tenure that it must and shall be used– so besets me just now, that I feel as if the scaling of all the Mountains in Switzerland, or the doing of any wild thing until I dropped, would be but a slight relief.

This was an absolutely enthralling book! What a story! What discreet histories! What confinement in the deepest recesses of past, only to be dug out years later, be threaded together coherently and form a narrative so bewitching. Having revisited David Copperfield earlier this year, a lens into Dickens’ private life had its own allure and I wasn’t disappointed. My very first thought upon reading the first few pages was a stark realization that Anthony Trollope’s brother’s wife was the sister of Charles Dickens’ mistress. How shocking!

It is indeed a powerful read, bringing to life the people and their predecessors (for the story also details the life of Nelly Ternan’s grandmother) who were deliberately, for many years, held captive by the ever-mounting dark past and unerring efforts of others to make their names invisible, especially in connection to one of the greatest English novelist who ever lived. When the entirety of past is rewritten in form of scandals and forgotten truths, reality can appear enigmatic, not only for those who lived through the worst, but even for those who come across it in the future.

The narrative, in its delving of secrecies and hypothetical scenarios, does command attention and empathy alike. For Nelly’s reticence, for Dickens’ conundrum, for Geoffrey and Gladys’ (son and daughter of Nelly and her husband George Wharton Robinson) feelings of being betrayed, for Fanny and Maria’s (Nelly’s sisters) silence – one cannot help but commiserate with their despairs and joys.

As soon as war was declared against Germany, Geoffrey returned to the army. Within weeks he was fighting in Flanders. His mother and aunts became as distant as everything that had once made the normal world; they were sealed into a safe, immeasurably remote past.

However I did feel that perhaps at times the author unnecessarily made a complete villain of Dickens’, who yes in the course of the narrative of this book did deceive many (even if it was out of sheer love), but also undoubtedly left an indelible mark on collective human conscience. There must be some redeeming virtues that enabled him to identify and immortalize human nature in his unforgettable characters.

For all his geniality, Dickens was a man who did not wish to be known and summed up by anyone. He needed a private existence in which he could cease to be either the convivial friend or the well-organized father and become nothing but a watching eye, a listening ear, a dreaming mind.

I am also left wondering if and how an artist’s personal deception weighs on their artistic creations. Picasso, Dr. Suess and many other masters of their craft were seemingly horrible people in their private lives. And in this era of woeful political correctness, can truths be half-shaded, re-interpreted, reimagined? Can art escape the dismal efforts of critics and dissenters to be vilified?

The one thing I did disagree with wholeheartedly was the writer’s assertion that female characters in Dickens’ works were vacuous, almost pyrrhic and mythical creations, flimsy portrayals of the ideal female molded only for the sake of supporting male characters. I can never forget Ms. Havisham’s forbearance, Ms. Pegotty’s charm, the frailty of Dora Spenlow, the grand pathos of Agnes, the despairing and deliberate malice of Estella.

One of the most beautiful passages of the book is based on a conjecture of Dickens’ final moments:

Nelly holds Dickens as best as she can, the carriage jolting and rushing onwards. This is the very route Dickens gave David Copperfield when he left London to walk to his Aunt Betsey in Dover; and the same, in reverse, he made Pip walk after Estella rejected his love.

I recall David Copperfield, a young child, utterly heartbroken and terrified, traveling onwards, exhausted and alone, seeking out Aunt Betsey in Dover. His clothes were in tatters, hair ruffled, a face smudged with dirt and shame. What if his Aunt doesn’t recognize him? What if she shuns him away from the door? These fears stalled in me when I read the passages earlier this year

Maybe Charles Dickens too was breathing his last on the same route he had made his most beloved character walk. This revelation gives poignancy to when just before his last breath, a lone tear streaked his cheek…and life was snuffed out of one of English languages most revered novelists.

The poignant reality of theatre life, its hardships and delights, the tight-lipped life of the Ternan sisters, the alternative and clandestine affairs of Charles Dickens and their subsequent effects all make this a worthy read, doing full justice to the memory of Nelly Ternan.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Dickens – His Shortcomings, Writings and Virtues

  • Dickens wished to be, and was, generally worshipped– the word is not too strong for a person who evoked comparison with Christ at the time of his death– as a man of unblemished character, the incarnation of broad Christian virtue and at the same time of domestic harmony and conviviality.
  • But just because Dickens chronicled and charted so much of the life of his generation and protested against so many of its wrongs, his failures and omissions seem all the more striking.
  • The orphan was a common figure in Victorian life and a popular one in literature. The juxtaposition of innocence and vulnerability has always caught the imagination of writers; it exercised a particular fascination for Dickens, who could hardly present a child without depriving it of one or both parents.
  • He would sometimes stumble on one of these adaptations and was observed rolling on the floor of his box in mock agony at what had been made of his work. Yet he bore curiously little malice; his pleasure in the theatre made him view even its gross failings with tolerance.
  • He met new acquaintances with a remarkably keen gaze, usually credited to the intensity of a great writer, in fact more attributable to short sight.
  • Dickens had made himself virtually out of nothing. Friends like Lord Jeffrey or Macready noted that his dinners could be over sumptuous, the sign of a parvenu, perhaps, but more simply an aspect of his immense geniality.
  • He was a kind man, with little malice; justifiably proud of his achievements, boyish in his enthusiasms, always eager to help others.
  • Once again Dickens appears in a double light: as the disinterested benefactor, eager to fulfil the ambition of a deserving young woman, and as the bearer of dangerous gifts.
  • Dickens’s childhood misery was like a sacred totem, a secret source of power from which he drew, and Forster was one of the very few who knew of it, and who could therefore understand the strength of what was being said now. Those early sufferings were caused by his parents’– and particularly his mother’s– failure to cherish him and see his true worth during a time of trial; they were the spur to the enormous act of will that made him great.
  • He believed strongly in his own ability to wrench the world into the shape he wanted, the stage manager of real events and lives as well as imaginary ones. ‘I know my plan is a good one– because it is mine!’ he wrote
  • What it 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.
  • The bewildered and tearful 16-year-old was given a letter at parting in which his father told him he loved him and was sorry to part with him, ‘but this life is half made up of partings, and these pains must be borne’.
  • Dickens was a public idol and a national institution. His books were not only loved, they were declared to be ennobling. He stood for the individual against the system, for merriment against gloom and, on the whole, for the poor against the rich; for generous indignation against everything mean, joyless, cruel, corrupt and hypocritical in British life.
  • He could only love her, worry about her, keep her hidden, show her his writing, and arrange little treats and holidays, which were not enough to satisfy someone brought up to be busy and gregarious and always on the move.

Life in the Theatre

  • Thackeray loved the theatre and was fascinated by it for exactly the reasons which made the Ternan sisters escape from and deny it: it existed outside the world of Victorian middle-class values of careful self-respect and dignified self-improvement.
  • As stage children, their education was different from that of most girls of the period, less domestic and almost entirely concerned with professional achievement. In many ways this was an advantage, in that they were being educated to do something rather than simply to be something;
  • In a country company the players might expect to rehearse for four hours in the morning and then be in the theatre for five more in the evening; there were forfeits for being late for rehearsals or failing to comply with an order from the manager. Pay day was usually Saturday, and the children were sent off to church on Sunday, though the adult members of the company were often too tired. If you were sick, you were not paid. All of them had to contrive and stitch their costumes for both on-stage and off, do their hair and copy out their parts; mother and grandmother would help the children if they had time. Lodgings were usually over shops– chemists, tailors, chandlers– and not always clean; beds had to be shared. They might contrive a few meals for themselves, but on the whole they took what the landlady sent up, carried sandwiches and cake on their travels or had the standard cold meat, bread and ale supplied at railway junctions.
  • At the sensitive point where the theatre met the outside world, hypocrisy became not only excusable but absolutely necessary.
  • If they chose to go on with the grind of the provincial tours, the second-rate companies, the small parts and perpetual uncertainty about the next job, they would never earn more than a pittance, wearing their neat black silk dresses into shabbiness and losing the freshness of youth, all in the service of an increasingly precarious future.
  • All the evidence suggests that there really were two sets of standards that came into conflict where the theatrical world met the world outside. Women in the theatre could, as we have seen, live less like Victorian and more like modern women; they could be managers and arrange their own salaries and finances; they often initiated separation and divorce; they bore and reared children outside marriage and lived openly with men other than their husbands; marriage between older women and younger men was not uncommon.

On Women

  • No conceivable process by which the girl might grow into the middle-aged woman ever seems to have presented itself to Dickens’s imagination. His heroines are… perennially young and pure. The fear of ageing, an ever-present horror in a society that demanded girlish women, never seems to trouble their heads at all. Furthermore, though spinsters are acknowledged to be laughing stocks, the Dickensian heroine must display no eagerness to get hold of a husband. Ideally she should be perfectly unaware of the facts of life, and will imagine that the man who is forcing his attentions upon her is really applying to become her brother or father.– John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’s Imagination, 1973
  • If she was poor, she was considered feckless. If she married a rich man, she was an adventuress. If she bargained with managers, was careful with her money and tried to put some aside, she was accused of avarice.
  • In her mind Nelly might determine to be a lady, but the body was a piece of secret machinery, sending out and receiving disquieting and shameful messages. They could be considered only privately; and there was no guidance available on how to decipher and deal with them.
  • Once stigmatized, a young woman without protection might find that things could quickly become very nasty in London in the 1850s, when the age of consent was twelve and the word of a policeman would carry more weight than any protest by a pretty young unchaperoned actress.
  • In a society which divided women into the good and the bad, even the most cherished mistress could only be bad; it was her very badness that made her desirable to the man. Good women, it was widely agreed, were not sexually enthusiastic; coldness could thus become an assertion of virtue, a demand to be loved for something other, and better, than sex.

On the Ternans

  • The ability to negotiate a salary with the manager, to extract a decent wage and a benefit night, were basic skills for all players, which Mrs Ternan naturally exercised on behalf of her daughters; but drumming up business for their benefit nights was something they had to do for themselves.
  • Through all her vicissitudes she seems to have clung to an ideal view of the theatre as a noble and civilizing profession– the theatre of Macready and Phelps– in which her daughters might follow in her footsteps. If in practice they did not find themselves playing Juliet or Lady Teazle, at least in the theatre they were known and among friends; they had a measure of independence and– in the London theatre especially– some degree of contact with the world of ideas and art.
  • Where he was eager for release from the conventions and hypocrisies of British middle-class society, she wanted to leave behind the equivocal world of the theatre in which she had been reared and become respectable.
  • Whether Fanny was in love with the 56-year-old Trollope or not, she got on with him well enough to see that this was a sensible solution to her problems as well as his. Books, history, music, languages, travel, were passions with both of them. She was thirty-one; the age gap was only a little less than that between Dickens and Nelly.
  • In contemporary English fiction the victims of seduction habitually begged their families to consider them as dead; Nelly, with the complicity and help of her mother and her sisters, kept alive an innocent personality in one section of society and a quite separate one with Dickens.
  • Quite possibly Jane did not know, although she must have been aware of Mrs Ternan’s stage career in its last phase; equally it may have been a matter of quietly effacing the less reputable aspects of the past, a typical piece of mid-Victorian bowdlerization in which maid and mistresses colluded discreetly.
  • Frances Ternan, née Jarman on the Yorkshire circuit at the beginning of the century, had lived a more adventurous life than most women of her generation, worked harder and risked more; but the highest prizes had not come to her.
  • The Nelly of 1881 bore almost no relation to the Nelly of ten or twenty years earlier; in Margate she achieved what can almost be called an apotheosis.
  • The gap between what the Dickens people wanted to believe in, the tender-hearted icon of the Victorian age, and the actual man who had intervened so forcibly in the lives of three young working women was too wide to be bridged. If anyone did try to talk to the Southsea ladies, they were no doubt repulsed; Mrs Trollope and Mrs Wharton Robinson had come to accept long since the impossibility of their version. Their self-suppression, their fear of the damage they might cause themselves and others if they spoke or wrote of their experiences and knowledge, is one of the saddest parts of the whole story.

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