[The following passage comes from “Myths and Morals,” chapter eighteen of Tomalin's excellent The Invisible Woman. In contrast to Edmund Wilson and E. D. H. Johnson, who argued that Dickens affair with Nelly Ternan positively affected his novels by greatly improving his portrayals of women, Tomalin argues that Dickens “didn't know what to do with her artistically” (263). — George P. Landow]

Pace Edmund Wilson, the most striking thing about Nelly and Dickens's fiction is her absence from it. There have been many attempts to incorporate her into his late heroines, as Adelina Fareway in George Silverman's Explanation, as cruel Estella in Great Expectations, as capricous but fundamentally cosy Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, and even as the passionate, enigmatic Helena Landless in Edwin Drood: none stands up to examination. Bella may be the best candidate, because she represents the interchangeability of daughter and mistress, always powerfully seductive to Dickens. She makes us think of him dancing through the whole evening with Kate in the last year of his life, and of Kate's interest in becoming an actress; she reminds us that Kate and Nelly were born in the same year and were in some respects conscious rivals for Dickens's affection and attention. Some of Nelly's charm no doubt lay in her daughterliness, and Bella is at her most erotic with her father; yet nothing about Bella's background, and nothing about the development of her character from mercenary girl to good little wife who wants nothing better than to sit poring over her copy of The Complete British Family Housewife, answers to Nelly.

Nelly's only convincing appearance is the physical one, as Lucie, in A Tale of Two Cities, such an undeniable likeness to the girl in the Florentine photograph that, once you have seen it, the nothingness of Lucie's character becomes all the more maddening. But Dickens was never a portraitist, as his most perceptive critics have pointed out; he was a mythologizer. Chesterton claimed that he had to make a character humorous before he could make it human, and John Carey made a similar point, saying that when too much feeling got in the way of his comic invention, Dickens ceased to write well.5 Perhaps there was always too much raw feeling surrounding Nelly for him to begin the process ofmythologiz- ing her. Mrs Nickleby - partly drawn from his mother - and Flora Finching - partly drawn from his first love Maria Beadnell, later Mrs Winter - are wildly alive, because he has made them into mythical, surreal figures; so, rather surprisingly, is Dora - again based on Maria Beadnell - precisely because he has moved her so far beyond credibility. [263-64]

The critics seem to be talking past one another, since whereas Wilson and Johnson argue that the novelist's experience of Nelly changed the way he characterized women, she argues something very different — that Dickens never included a portrait of his lover in his works. Note Tomalin's convuncing observation of similarities between Nelly and his daughter Kate.


Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan (1990). Reprint. N.Y.: Vintage, 2012. [Review]

Charles Dickens Biography

Last modified 14 January 2014