Book Review:  The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

Invisible Woman - Book Review 001Do we fully appreciate our freedom to choose—and to change—our marital status? I suspect not. Claire Tomalin’s biography of Nelly Ternan, a mid-Victorian actress who had a love affair with Charles Dickens, illustrates the life altering impact of inflexible social conventions on a not-so-distant past generation.

Claire Tomalin normally tackles literary greats but her subject here is a little-known woman who lived for over a decade within the shadows of Dickens’s life. Like Dickens, Ternan’s childhood was rooted within the hard scrabble of the working class. She and her extended family were actors, a tribe with its own social morays. In her world, extra-marital relationships were accepted. It was also a sphere that offered women the otherwise rare opportunity to build and follow a career, albeit one that was viewed askance by the social elite.

The Challenge of a Silent Period in a Biography

Ternan left no personal records so Tomalin’s challenge was to piece her story together through a variety of sources as she and her extended family roamed Great Britain and America on tour. There were easy stretches when everyone had a part in a box office hit and times of deep poverty. It was the latter that probably made the doting admiration of a man like Charles Dickens a temptation for Nelly Ternan. He was a married man with a large family but he offered both Ternan and her immediate family protection. In fact, his connections and interest proved more beneficial for her sisters than it did for Ternan, who dropped into obscurity for the remainder of Dickens’s life. Though it appears his family knew about Ternan, she was the deep secret of his shadow life, mentioned only in code in his journals.

Tomalin’s account lags when it switches to speculation about Dickens’s personal life, for lack of information about Ternan. On Dickens’s death, however, Ternan emerged again—having recast herself as a genteel middleclass woman. She married a younger man, changed her age and social status to suit his and shared none of her past experiences with her beloved children.

Nelly Ternan was not a heroine at the cutting edge of female emancipation, but she was a determined and adaptive survivor who with the few options available to her to the advantage of those she loved. Her life story doesn’t give us a heroine for all time, but is a portrait of the reality so many of our English-speaking ancestors faced.

Perhaps the 2014 movie adaptation of this biography, hearkening back from Ternan’s later life, adds yet more multi-dimensionality to our understanding of the fascinating people sketched here? Has anyone seen the film and can share their take on it?