The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens
Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens ‘Angelfish’ Correspondence, 1905–1910
Dickens and the 1830s
Nicholas Nickleby was adapted for the stage, almost immediately after it was written, by the kind of theatrical troupe that figures in Dickens’s novel as the Crummleses. One actual family of the time, with a pronounced Crummles aspect, was led by Thomas Ternan, who married an actress he had worked with on the road, Fanny Jarman. They had three daughters, each of whom worked her way up in the profession, from “infant phenomenon” to pants roles to ingénue, learning how to sing, dance, articulate, ingratiate, and scrape by. The Ternans were on a bill with Nickleby before the novel’s serialization had been completed. They had a fascination with Dickens arising from the fact that their most prestigious moments in the theater had been some engagements with the great Shakespearean actor William Macready, who was one of Dickens’s closest friends.
After the death of Thomas Ternan, Fanny worked to raise her daughters decently in their raffish profession’s middling range of parts. Actresses in general were still socially suspect—an attitude Dickens had long protested, since his own desire for a theatrical career, only partially satisfied until he created the art form of his public readings, made him idealize hard-pressed professionals who keep their self-respect in squalid surroundings. So both parties were pleased when the theater brought them together, the Ternans with their embattled female proprieties, and Dickens with his popular novelist’s power to shape the theatrical world that fed his imagination.
They met in 1857, when Dickens needed professional actresses to replace his daughters, who had been performing as amateurs in The Frozen Deep, a play Wilkie Collins and Dickens collaborated on for some charity performances. Dickens played the lead male role, a man who sacrifices himself for a rival who wins the heroine—it was a role he adapted for Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Fanny Ternan played a Scottish family nurse, and her daughter Maria was the heroine for whom Dickens performed his sacrifice. But the forty-five-year-old Dickens was captivated by the youngest daughter of the family, the eighteen-year-old Ellen, called Nelly, who accompanied her mother and sister, though she had no part in the drama.
In a short time she became the drama, as Dickens publicly separated himself in a cruel and accusing way from his wife, who had borne him ten children, and privately set up an intimate life with Ellen, his new “little Nell,” that was furtively maintained until his death, twelve years later. Ellen Ternan was a secret kept from the Dickens public, one that his friends and family kept out of the biographies and published letters. Only in this century did her story emerge, stoutly resisted for a long time by sentimental Dickensians. As recently as the 1940s a key document turned up—the only diary Dickens was unable to destroy, since he had lost it—that chronicles the extent of his double life, partly carried on in the public spotlight, partly with Nelly in her …
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Dickens’s Girls June 13, 1991