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

Among the controversial facts is that Dickens and Ellen may have had one or more children, who died soon after birth. Ellen allegedly confessed one birth to a clergyman late in life, when she was a respectable married woman. Ellen also allegedly told the Rev. William Benham that Dickens’s embraces had disgusted her. There is no trace of her residence in England in the early 1860s, and Dickens may have installed her in France to bear a child or children unseen. A servant, however, testified in later life that the relationship between the couple had been entirely innocent.

The constructions which have been put on the evidence vary. Katharine Longley – on whose research Claire Tomalin draws – concludes that Dickens visited Nelly for elocution lessons. Peter Ackroyd has put an only slightly less pure interpretation on the connection: Dickens and Nelly enjoyed (or suffered) a ‘sexless’ marriage, in which she played out the part of the idealised virgin bride. An opposite line which traces itself back to Nelly’s own confession supposes that she accepted Dickens’s financial support but resisted him sexually until 1862-3, and that her surrender was reluctant. Fred Kaplan has suggested that the relationship was sexual even before the Dickenses separated, and that there was no reluctance.

Whichever side one takes, there are enigmas. Why did Dickens leave Ellen anything at all in his will? A thousand pounds was not a sufficient bequest if she were his dependent mistress. And since their names had been scandalously linked, any mention of her must inflame speculation. It has been taken as evidence of Dickens’s naivety or as a ruse to fool posterity. If the relationship were innocent, why did Nelly’s son and Dickens’s son destroy the correspondence? Why was Mrs Ternan travelling with them at the Staplehurst accident?

Given the uncertainties and the latent sordidness, Tomalin’s approach is exemplary. Her narrative ranges from the early 19th to the mid-20th century, but always holds Nelly at the sympathetic centre. It is not easily done with an ‘invisible woman’ who slipped out of the public gaze whenever she could. Where she does not have direct testimony Tomalin uses circumstantial evidence skilfully. Virtually nothing survives of Nelly’s childhood, but her background is reconstructed in terms of the theatrical world into which she was born. This pedigree explains her later resourcefulness and her ability to survive by playing the required part, whether that of the kept woman or the respectable matron.

The 19th-century stage was one of the few arenas in which women could take charge of their lives. Nelly’s mother, Frances Ternan, was a successful actress and the child of actors. But she was neither lucky nor a star. Her husband went mad in 1844 when Eleanor, the youngest daughter, was five. He died two years later. The Ternans’ only son died in childhood. Mrs Ternan thereafter devoted herself to her three gifted daughters. After precocious debuts on the stage each made the great step upwards into middle-class respectability. Fanny studied singing in Italy, became a governess, married her employer, Thomas Adolphus Trollope (Anthony’s brother), and wrote novels. Maria Ternan married a rich brewer, had no children, separated, and eventually became a New Woman and a journalist. Less talented than Fanny, less clever than Maria, but prettier than either, Ellen was supported by Dickens for 13 dubious years. In 1870 she ‘reinvented herself’. She cut the incriminating 13 years off her age – aided by her theatrical skills and a girlish appearance. She travelled extensively abroad. In 1876 she married a probably unwitting schoolmaster and had legitimate children. Her husband’s school failed, he died prematurely, but she kept the family afloat and decent, aided by the property which Dickens had (probably) given her. In late life she drew strength from the companionship of her sisters. With help from the guardians of Dickens’s reputation, who had their own reasons for keeping her invisible, Nelly succeeded in deleting her sinful years from the record – at least during her own lifetime. One of the most poignant episodes in The Invisible Woman is Tomalin’s description of how emotionally catastrophic the discovery of his mother’s secret was to her son Geoffrey.

The Invisible Woman reads as grippingly as a detective story. All the familiar material is brought in, together with much that is new and clinching. Tomalin writes on murky doings with great clarity, untangling a mass of confusion. Evidence is expertly handled, but without ever neglecting Nelly, who was at the centre of it all. Having restored her subject to visibility, Tomalin is both judicious and unmoralistic. She concludes that the relationship was adulterous (at least after 1861) and that there was probably a child who died in France around summer 1863. Dickens probably provided for Nelly with a secret bequest after his death

The image of Nelly Ternan that one is left with is persuasive and must, I think, be accepted as authentic, however distasteful some of its aspects may be to some Dickensians. She may not have been especially talented, but she was intelligent, sensible, morally practical, and had a pretty face. Her mother’s training in the theatre encouraged her to plot her own life, using her wit, looks and pluck. She survived the years with Dickens as a kept woman; then, ‘when she was rendered invisible by a consensus of the respectable, she turned herself into something quite different.’ She was no Jezebel. Even less was she Estella, the shallow, vindictive tormentor of men that Edmund Wilson popularised. She was the object of a domineering lover and lived in a moralistic age, but refused to be destroyed by either.

Mrs Oliphant was also a survivor but in a more literal and wretched sense than Nelly Ternan. Oliphant outlived everyone who mattered to her. After 69 years of life and 125 books, her last autobiographical words were

And now here I am all alone
I cannot write any more.

Oliphant was not sanguine about her visibility to posterity. ‘I shall not leave anything behind me that will live,’ she declared: neither work of her hand nor child of her loins. ‘I am in very little danger of having my life written,’ she prophesied, ‘I acknowledge frankly that there is nothing in me – a fat, little, commonplace woman.’ She was wrong. The Autobiography went into three editions when it appeared post-humously in 1899, and has been twice republished in the 20th century. It was strongly recommended by Q.D. Leavis, who also thought highly of Oliphant’s novel Miss Marjoribanks. Leavis sponsored the reissue of both works, creating a revival of interest in Oliphant, coinciding as it did in 1966 with R.A. and Vineta Colby’s study, The Equivocal Virtue – the virtue in question being industriousness. A ‘critical biography’ by Merryn Williams came out in 1986, confounding Oliphant’s prediction.

Elisabeth Jay’s edition substantially alters our sense of the Autobiography and its author. The earlier version was assembled by members of Oliphant’s family from ‘autobiographical bits’. Jay reproduces with genetic fidelity the original unvarnished scraps as they appear in the author’s notebooks. This needs no defence, since much that was previously suppressed (on the grounds that it was too painful) is now made available. But Jay further argues that the fragmentary quality of the Ur-Autobiography reflects Oliphant’s ‘perception of life’s apparent plotlessness’, and her secret disbelief in the existence of God. These bits are her criticism of life.

As reproduced by Jay, the Autobiography can be read for what it primarily is, an agonised meditation on death and maternal guilt. Oliphant’s ineffectual father failed and faded out of life early. Her two beloved brothers became one a drunkard, the other a palsied bankrupt, and both of them dependents on their writing sister. In 1852, the 24-year-old Margaret Wilson married her cousin Frank Oliphant, an artist in stained glass. Over the next seven years, her mother, three of her children and her husband died. He knew that he had advanced tuberculosis, but did not think Margaret strong enough to be told. The widow was left penniless in Rome, with two small children and one on the way.

It was in the wake of this catastrophe that Oliphant began to write her autobiography, apparently intending it for her children in later life. In the three years after Frank’s death she set to and wrote the first of the Chronicles of Carlingford, establishing herself as a popular and well-paid writer. She does not tell us, but presumably the pretty young widow ruled out remarriage in favour of independence. She achieved it. Then, four years later, came another shocking blow. On a return visit to ‘rotting Rome’, her only living daughter, Margaret, caught a fever and died. It was ‘the hardest moment in my sad life’, Oliphant recalls. But she still had her two boys, Cyril and Francis, and her work. They went to Eton and looked set to succeed. But both fell into obscurely disgraceful ways and sponged off their indefatigable mother. Both died in her care, in their early thirties. ‘Life,’ she observed, ‘is full of dreadful repetitions.’ After Francis’s death, Oliphant lived on three years, cursing her indestructible good health and ‘industry’ (she hated to be complimented for it). The last, artificially buoyant sections of the Autobiography were written with the aim of securing money for the unmarried niece who looked after her.

Two questions haunt Oliphant. The first is whether the dead are happy in their afterlife. Oliphant imagines her daughter waking from her deathbed and finding herself ‘suddenly in the company of angels ... Did she not stop short there and say “Where is Mamma?” ’ At the age of 60, Oliphant herself dreamed constantly at night of being a little girl, at home with her own beloved mother. Would one be mother or daughter in heaven? The notion that the dead may be hopelessly confused forms the subject of several of Oliphant’s ‘Stories of the Seen and the Unseen’. She excitedly records in the Autobiography dreaming of her dead son and asking him, ‘What kind of life are you living?’, but no clear answer comes.

The saddest aspect of the Autobiography is Oliphant’s fear that her smothering love had destroyed her boys. While she grieved for her last son, a ‘cruel man told me I had ruined my family by my indulgence and extravagance’. She indignantly denies it, ‘before God’, but the guilt lingers. She does, in fact, seem to have been remarkably indulgent: particularly in the light of her own austere upbringing under the hand of one of ‘the old type of Scotch mothers, not demonstrative, not caressing’. When her sons went to Eton, she moved to Windsor to be near them. All his life, Francis slept in a bedroom adjoining hers, and called her ‘Mamma’. There seems to have been much caressing. Oliphant records a painful conversation on his deathbed with her other son. He asked her to tell him ‘the secret reason of his condition’, and she replied he was ill. Cyril insisted there was ‘another reason underneath ... You are afraid of the time when the doctor will say I may go out again.’ ‘God knows what he meant,’ Oliphant comments. But she must have suspected his meaning. He believed that his mother wanted him to be ill, dead even, so that she might have him all to herself.

At every disaster, Oliphant returned ‘to my poor work, my writing of novels ... the shadow life into which I dare not put all my experiences, nor disclose my heart.’ ‘I write letters and cry,’ she wrote immediately after the death of Cyril, ‘unless when I have proofs to do or some other work.’ She wrote so hard that she wore a hole in her finger to match that in her heart. She despised her fiction with a harshness which will surprise anyone who actually reads it. Elisabeth Jay suggests that the happy endings demanded of the Victorian novel affronted Oliphant’s sense of the real. But she allowed herself to be proud of the money she earned and the independence she achieved by her pen. ‘I have done very well,’ she says, ‘for a woman.’

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