Charles Dickens' 'Invisible Woman' Has Long Been Visible, but Also Problematic

A new film looks at Dickens' affair with a much younger woman, long a troublesome spot in his legacy.

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Moviegoers whose knowledge of Charles Dickens ends with vague memories of reading "Great Expectations" in high school may be shocked by the secret affair the author had with a much younger woman, as depicted in the film "The Invisible Woman." But the relationship between Dickens and Ellen "Nelly" Ternan – the two were 45 and 18, respectively, when the affair began – first came to light some 80 years ago. Nevertheless, it still was a shock, and one that Dickens scholars grappled with for generations, with Claire Tomalin's 1990 book of the same name serving as inspiration for the movie and being the most comprehensive take on the affair.

In the film, a middle-aged Charles (Ralph Fiennes), well-established in his career and bored by his wife (Joanna Scanlan) of two decades, meets Nelly (Felicity Jones), a young, pretty actress from a family active in the theatrical community. Dickens is smitten with Nelly, and after an extended courtship with her resisting his advances at first, he convinces her to become his mistress.

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It seems unthinkable that a figure so public as Dickens – who at the time was nothing short of a worldwide literary celebrity – could keep the affair secret throughout his life and for decades after his death. But many of the scenes that occur in the film have been proven or at least suggested by historical fact. Dickens did send his wife a bracelet meant for and addressed to Ternan (a scene in the film that leads to a painful confrontation). He and Ternan were indeed passengers together in the 1965 Staplehurst train crash. And they did use the pseudonym "Tringham" when making reservations.

The shakiest piece of their romance – and the one Tomalin's book treated with the most skepticism – is that Ternan became pregnant with Dickens' child. However, while the statement Dickens printed publicly announcing his separation from his wife was widely read, his career as a highly-regarded, literary arbiter of family values continued.

"He had so much backed-up esteem on the part of people that he could squander a lot of it," says John Pfordresher, a Georgetown University professor who teaches a class about Dickens.

So beloved, Dickens even was able to quiet London gossip that he had taken up with another woman. The affair went on, with Dickens housing Ternan and her mother in a London townhouse and a cottage in the countryside. After Dickens' 1870 death, Ternan married a much younger man, and together they ran a school in Margate, England.

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Dickens' affair was revealed by a 1934 Daily Express article titled "98 Years Ago Today, Charles Dickens Began His Honeymoon" and written by Dickens biographer Thomas Wright. Wright said he had been waiting until the death of Dickens' last living child – Henry, in a 1933 accident – to come forward with the allegation (a stipulation early skeptics held against Wright).

The notion that Dickens, whose books were pointed critiques of moral shortcomings in society, had seduced a young, vulnerable actress while being married and the father of 10 children shocked the literary community. It only added to the degradation of his legacy as a writer that was already underway as part as a backlash Victorian writers were facing from the burgeoning modernism movement.

Other historians were able to find evidence of the affair in independent sources – from relying on words of family friends (Gladys Storey's book "Dickens and Daughter") to using infrared technology to examine Dickens' letters (as Ada Nisbet did for "Dickens and Ellen Ternan") – though that didn't make the idea go down any easier for some. Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, for instance, surmised that the Dickens-Ternan relationship was a "sexless marriage with a young, idealized virgin."

By the 1950s and '60s, the literary community had come back around to praise the value of Dickens' works and likewise could accept that his personal practices at times contradicted what he was preaching. Rather than being just a salacious story on the side, Ternan could occupy an episode in the grand narratives of Dickens' life being pushed out in biographies like Edgar Johnson's 1952 "Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and His Triumph." But Tomalin was the first to give Ternan her own standalone biographical treatment, looking not only at the affair, but Ternan's life before and after it.