The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens
Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens ‘Angelfish’ Correspondence, 19051910
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 various establishments in England or abroad.
Ellen Ternan is “the invisible woman” of Claire Tomalin’s fascinating book. Though she emerged, after the death of her imprisoning benefactor, to a second life as wife and mother, little is known of her years with Dickens. Tomalin tries to create a plausible reading of her attitude, during that time, from what is known of her life before and after the long silent period with Dickens. This book shows how much we have learned from feminist criticism about the constraints women lived under in the nineteenth century. Fanny Ternan’s struggle to keep her daughters together as a family, to educate them in unorthodox ways but toward socially conformist goals, is traced in the lives of all three daughters. Maria, the oldest daughter, achieved a conventional marriage, but walked out on it—with Tomalin’s cheerleading approval—to become an independent woman journalist in Italy. She was helped there by her sister Fanny, who had lived a sentimental romance by becoming, first, the governess of Thomas Trollope’s daughter at Adolphus Trollope’s Italian villa, and then the wife of Adolphus. (Thomas and Adolphus Trollope were brothers to the novelist, Anthony—and all of them were friends or acquaintances of Dickens, in that hub of patronage for the whole Ternan family that grew up around the secret affair with Nelly.)
Nelly herself had been ill at various points in her life with Dickens—from pregnancies, miscarriages, or the loss of infants, according to Tomalin’s guesswork—but she emerged from that period looking young enough to remove her “lost” years from the calendar. She married an Oxford divinity student twelve years her junior, and presided over the boys’ school she helped him run. She gave school and community readings from Dickens’s work, but kept the secret of her relationship with the great man from both her children—only after her death, going through her papers, did her son begin to have suspicions and start asking for more information.
In lives of Dickens, Ellen Ternan is a peripheral figure, considered only for what she tells us about his creative life. Tomalin wants to reverse this priority, and in doing so she gives us a good picture of the theatrical profession and its equivocal relationship with the social, literary, and “bohemian” aspects of Victorian England. But the mystery of the twelve years’ silence still depends in great part on understanding Dickens. Nelly’s reaction to his attentions can only be speculated on if those attentions are understood, at least partially.
Here Tomalin’s book is very weak. She describes Dickens’s fascination with “fallen women” and innocent adolescents, but neglects Nelly’s most important predecessor, Mary Hogarth. She never recognizes how closely Dickens’s treatment of the Ternan family resembled his earlier treatment of the Hogarths. In each case, he dazzled and protected a woman with three daughters. In the earlier situation, he married one of the daughters (Catherine), but idolized the younger sister, Mary, who came to live with them. Mary’s early death prostrated Dickens, who made a cult of her memory and meant to be buried with her. Then an even younger Hogarth daughter, Georgina, took over the Dickens household, and continued to preside over it after Catherine was sent into exile. So close was Dickens’s relationship with Georgina that he had been suspected of incest even before the Ternan scandal arose. A good deal of his comic indignation over the invasion of his privacy was fueled by the defense of Georgina’s reputation.
Tomalin misses the dynamics of the situation because she thinks Dickens was referring to the publicly nonexistent Nelly Ternan when he published an ugly letter about his breakup with his wife:
Two wicked persons who should have spoken very differently of me, in consideration of earned respect and gratitude, have (as I am told, and indeed to my personal knowledge) coupled with this separation the name of a young lady for whom I have a great attachment and regard. I will not repeat her name—I honour it too much. Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than this young lady. I know her to be innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters.
The young lady referred to is Georgina, and the two “wicked people” are her mother and sister. Georgina sided with Dickens at the breakup of his marriage. His hapless wife had every reason to resent the love he had lavished on her sisters, and to suspect more than he was conceding. Georgina went so far, at this point, as to be examined by a doctor who would testify that she was virgo intacta
Would Ellen Ternan have come out of such an examination with the same verdict, at Dickens’s death? Claire Tomalin is having none of that; but Peter Ackroyd thinks so, and some of the attendant circumstances point in that direction. Georgina, who continued to preside over Dickens’s public household, showed no resentment of Nelly’s secret status, and neither did Dickens’s most independent and protective daughter, Katey. They seemed to understand Dickens’s odd cult of young innocent girls, like Georgina’s dead sister (and Katey’s aunt), Mary.
Dickens liked to be the object of female devotion. He exercised his mesmeric power over female “subjects” in ways that deservedly bothered his wife. He had two “harems” of eight fascinated female subjects in the Hogarth and Ternan families. In both cases, Dickens was a patron of all the females, advancing their interests and in both cases the less devoted fell away or were partly disillusioned, making Dickens feel “betrayed.” Only Georgina and Nelly, from each ménage, stayed true to the end. This is not the picture of an independent woman Claire Tomalin would like to find in the “invisible” Ellen Ternan, but it is hard to imagine Dickens maintaining the relation unless she had been at least as submissive as Georgina. Hillis Miller notes that Dickens regularly associated death with young girls and the country. He moved his young idol, Nelly, to the country and stayed with her even when, unlike his fictional Nell and his idealized Mary, she lived into womanhood.
Ackroyd argues, rather weakly, that Dickens kept this ideal relationship sexually unconsummated because consummation would have been the normal course and Dickens was too odd and original to do what we expect. But we come closer to understanding Dickens here not from his exceptional nature but from his conformity to a pattern in Victorian behavior. The cult of virginal innocence, the fear of or repulsion from mature sexuality, is evident in many men’s lives, as well as women’s. Grown men wept over Dickens’s Little Nell because so many people shared an obsession with young female purity. Ruskin’s fascination with Rose La Touche, and Lewis Carroll’s with Alice, are part of a large cultural tendency. Mark Twain developed a network of young pre-adolescent admirers called his “angelfish”—an obsession that made him write babytalk letters, form a club called the Aquarium, name his new Connecticut residence (after them) “Innocence at Home,” take vacations to be near them, and show jealousy when they grew up and thought of marriage.
Twain’s large correspondence with “the angelfish” during his last years (1905–1910) is collected, along with photographs of the girls (whom he liked to see clad in white, his own later signature color), in John Cooley’s useful book. Cooley speculates little on the relationship, except to say there was no sign of actual physical “molestation”; but his is a useful key, not only to aspects of Twain’s work (like his reverential Saint Joan) but to Victorian culture as a whole. Addressing literary works to young girls was something Victorian men seem to have had a special penchant for. Henry Adams wrote Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres for a circle of “nieces,” who are addressed in cloying language.1 Ruskin wrote Ethics of the Dust for the class he taught at Winnington Hall, a girls’ school he treated as his Aquarium, writing hundreds of letters to its students. Dickens’s own Life of Our Lord, though formally written for all children, is, by the tone of it, actually addressed to little girls.
Dickens was, like Twain, personally fastidious and almost compulsively clean. He had a need to control his environment—every morning before he sat down to write he went through the entire house to see that nothing was out of place. One of the things he grew to resent about Catherine, his harried mother of ten, was her relaxed attitude about housekeeping. The need for control extended to his business arrangements—as Kathryn Chittick documents very well in her study of Dickens’s publishing arrangements, he tended to take over any house he did business with, or to withdraw in anger if he was resisted in any of his many demands. In the amateur theatrical shows on which Dickens lavished so much of his energy, he became stage manager as well as star, doing everything himself or deciding how it would be done—lighting, makeup, ticket sales, everything. He started so many magazines because he wanted to control everything that surrounded his own articles or the installments of his serial fiction.
To many this attitude seemed an aggression, as if he were absorbing all the people around him, sponging up their energies into his own. But it was at least as much a distancing effort, arranging everybody in his or her place. Hillis Miller, in a shrewd study of Dickens’s humor, shows how his treatment of America developed, from his letters home through the Notes on America to Martin Chuzzlewit. The exasperation with an experience that was often challenging and somewhat degrading is exorcised as the objects of his discomfort become trophies of his skill. Humor is used to disarm the foe and triumph over him. (“Meet it is I set it down…. So, Uncle, there you are!”) The possibilities of such control were sensed by Chesterton, who once told a young nurse depressed by the squalid lives of her patients that she should think of them as so many characters in Dickens. This is not simply a way of diminishing others. If you try the Chesterton method the next time you are feeding the homeless in a soup line, you will not find that it makes the people you deal with less human—quite the opposite. This is the obverse of the shrewd note in Dickens’s sentimentality: if you think of other people as the children they once were, you are getting access to their inner life, because everyone thinks of his or her own self in terms of that childhood.
Carlyle and Ruskin felt that Dickens trivialized his social protest by making its targets funny as well as evil; but one way to keep up one’s courage in fighting evil is to see its ridiculous aspect—a thing as true of medieval depictions of the devil as of Chaplin’s Hitler imitation. Evil is not only funny, but it is ludicrous in its pretensions, especially as these are experienced in oneself. Giotto’s picture of Envy on the walls of the Arena Chapel is a good sketch for Uriah Heep. Some devils are handled best with tongs.
Peter Ackroyd, in his unbuckled book, presents Dickens’s struggle for control as an increasingly desperate and doomed one. He is very good at describing the way literature, the theater, and “real life” circulated through each other in Dickens’s work as he dreamed, staged, wrote, edited, and suppressed versions of himself and others. For long periods Ackroyd’s breathless and accumulative approach works surprisingly well. One almost shares Dickens’s reined-in panic as he moves from deadline to deadline, driven to work and trying to escape from it, loving and resenting the attentions he courted and feared. The circumstances of each novel’s creation are described from within, so far as possible, as Dickens would have experienced them.
This leads to psychological guesswork that is as convincing in most of its contours as it is exasperating in its formulations. For this is a wiser book (on matters like the Ternan relationship) than it deserves to be. It is sloppy, repetitive, coy, self-conscious, and poorly written. Things are heaped up too indiscriminately to be given any shape. Modifiers dangle: “Once proposed to Dickens, of course, he plunged….” Pronouns yearn vaguely toward antecedents: “she read all of her daughter’s letters until she was twenty-five.” The psychological speculation is offered in endless strings of rhetorical questions. Transitions are made with perfunctory formulas: “But what of…?” Sententious asides, flip moralizing, unearned generalizations are offered at every turn. “In reality matters were more complicated than that. Matters always are.” After describing the meaning of food in Dickens’s fiction, Ackroyd erases his own effort with the conclusion: “The fact is that in the end it might be said to stand for anything or everything.” Speaking of Paris, he says “Cities do not change over the centuries.” But London, 450 pages later, is “no longer the city which he [Dickens] had known as a child and young man.” Hyperbole is unrestrained: “Never was a writer so exact, so thorough, so careful in his plans” (so much for you, Flaubert, Beerbohm, Antiphon, etc.).
One must keep battling one’s way through the bloat and verbiage to see what a good little book lurks somewhere in the folds of this baggy monster. Since Ackroyd was too lazy to disengage that book from its cerements, I do not see why others should be put to the labor—especially when Fred Kaplan’s fine biography of 1988 is still available.2 Those who want to go beyond Kaplan should turn to the excellent specialized studies of Dickens, of the sort J. Hillis Miller and Kathryn Chittick have just published.
Hillis Miller collects in his new book a series of essays that largely antedate his acrobatic later critical theorizing—a lack he tries to make up for in an unconvincing preface. Most of the Dickens essays date from the 1960s and are as illuminating as they are unpretentious. I have mentioned already one article on humor in the treatment of America, and another on the conjunction of death, innocence, and the countryside in Oliver Twist. There is a shrewd comparison of David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn in terms of the protagonists’ self-deception and deception of others. Other essays deal with Cruikshank’s relation to Dickens, money in Our Mutual Friend, and point of view in Bleak House—old topics made to reveal new insights. Trollope is the “Victorian subject” given most attention after Dickens, though Carlyle and Hopkins are admirably dealt with in single essays.
Answering those who deplore the current elevation of the critic over the artist, Kathryn Chittick makes the provocative claim that critics were more honored than novelists when Dickens arrived on the literary scene. Contrary to what Thackeray and others thought or hoped, Dickens did more to elevate the novelist’s dignity in the age of Matthew Arnold than did more gentlemanly associates. He accomplished this by his business sense of the audience and a command of book production and promotion techniques, matters in which he was a ruthless innovator (one of many ways in which he resembled Mark Twain). Chittick’s sense of the book as a product is as clear-eyed as that of Dickens.
After Dickens gave up his acting ambitions and his parliamentary reporting, he thought his hopes as an artist lay in gentlemanly histories of Walter Scott’s sort. But by the time he got to his historical novel (Barnaby Rudge) he found his path blocked by his own first commercial successes, Pickwick and Oliver Twist. He was feeling his way toward his destiny. Chittick traces his progress in the puzzlement of reviewers, who could not “type” him in their critical categories. He was not really another journalist like Defoe, or picaresque author like Smollett, or “Newgate novelist” like Ainsworth, or “silver spoon” writer. He was creating something entirely new in his interrelated struggles for economic and artistic success. If we wonder what Dickens talked about with his angel Nelly in her remote shrine, we may suppose that with him (as, no doubt, with Shakespeare), contracts and box-office returns were never neglected. After all, as a third-generation member of “the quality,” Nelly knew there is a magic in filling the house.
Adams had been married to a woman whose hysterical devotion to her father, along with her general sickliness, kept her at a physical remove from him. He worshiped his "Clover"—just as he would worship, later, the safely married Elizabeth Cameron.↩
Dickens: A Biography (Morrow, 1988; Avon, 1990).↩
Dickens’s Girls June 13, 1991
Adams had been married to a woman whose hysterical devotion to her father, along with her general sickliness, kept her at a physical remove from him. He worshiped his “Clover”—just as he would worship, later, the safely married Elizabeth Cameron.↩
Dickens: A Biography (Morrow, 1988; Avon, 1990).↩