Nelly gets her due

John Sutherland

  • The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 317 pp, £16.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 670 82787 8
  • The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant edited by Elisabeth Jay
    Oxford, 184 pp, £16.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 19 818615 0

‘I don’t handle divorce business.’ In general, scholarly investigators should follow Philip Marlowe’s rule. One feels degraded when Dickens’s private letters are subjected to infra-red photographic analysis (as they were in the 1950s). Beneath the crossings-out are references to Ellen Ternan, his mistress – or perhaps not his mistress. It is only by chance that any incriminating letters survive: Dickens’s son Henry and Ellen Ternan’s son Geoffrey Robinson destroyed all such correspondence. Dickens himself burned any personal letters that he could come by. He also destroyed his diaries at the end of every year. One diary – that for 1867 – was lost or, more likely, stolen in America. It resurfaced in 1943. ‘Since then,’ as Claire Tomalin puts it, ‘scholars have been squeezing it like a tiny sponge for every drop of information it can yield.’ Scholars justify their curiosity on the grounds that anything which throws light on Dickens’s art is justified, however faint that light may be. But it looks very like keyhole-peeping. One of Tomalin’s achievements is that she investigates the private recesses of Dickens’s life without prurience and without making the reader feel prurient. One comes away with a sense that justice has at last been done.

Everyone who knew the full story of Dickens and Ternan took their knowledge, or almost all of it, to the grave. What we can gather about the relationship falls into three categories: incontrovertible facts, controversial facts, and hypotheses drawn from the facts. Incontrovertible is that Dickens first met Ellen (‘Nelly’) Ternan as a professional actress hired for his production of The Frozen Deep, in August 1857. She was 18, he was 45. His marriage – which had produced ten children and lasted 22 years – was on the rocks. It seems that a bracelet intended for Nelly was misdirected to Mrs Dickens, precipitating a row. In 1858, Dickens separated from Catherine, treating her with what looks like great cruelty. It was widely suspected that another woman was involved. Some assumed it was Dickens’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. This lady suffered the indignity of a virginity test, to disprove what would have been incest as well as adultery. Those closer to Dickens knew better. ‘No such thing – it’s with an actress,’ Thackeray told his mother, adding: ‘It’s a fatal story for our trade.’ Dickens continued to see the Ternans after the break-up of his marriage. Apparently Mrs Ternan acquiesced. Dickens gave Ellen’s older sister Frances money to study singing in Italy (Tomalin suggests this may have been intended to free Nelly from her mother’s chaperonage). Nelly’s not very wonderful career on the stage came to an end at this period, but her fortunes rose. By the age of 21 she owned a fine four-storey house near Mornington Crescent. Tomalin thinks it must have been bought by Dickens. ‘In eighteen months, the situation of the Ternan family had been transformed from uncertainty to something approaching luxury.’ No source of luxury other than a besotted Dickens is evident.

By 1866, Nelly had let her London house and moved to a pleasant cottage in Slough. A year or so later, she moved to Peckham. In both places the rates were paid by Dickens under the false name ‘Tringham’. In 1865, Nelly and her mother were accompanying Dickens in a train that crashed at Staplehurst in Kent, with loss of life. Dickens went to some lengths to conceal the identity of his young companion and to recover jewellery she had lost. She was injured, and thereafter he referred to her in letters by the code name ‘the Patient’. In 1867 the diary reveals that Dickens was spending about a third of his free time with Nelly, and lying about his movements. In the late 1860s, his bank account shows regular payments to someone called ‘Miss Thomas’ – Nelly, it’s assumed. He made arrangements for her to accompany him on his last American trip. They fell through. His will left her £1000.

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