Thackeray's decorated initial P

reparing for the appearance of The Invisible Woman, a film for which Ralph Fiennes serves as both director and male lead, Claire Cifelli of Sony Pictures Classics sent the editors of the Victorian Web movie posters, images from the forthcoming film, and copies of the scholarly book on which it has been based. So how does Tomalin's book look more than two decades after its initial publication? The short answer is, very well indeed. Although the book hardly needs another review, it does offer the occasion for some reflections on Dickens, the Dickens industries (both commercial and scholarly), and the roles of truth and imagination, particularly imaginative reconstruction, in both.

One of the most valuable parts of Tomalin's book is her detailed presentation of the harsh economic and social realities that nineteenth-century actors and actresses endured in an age in which live drama provided one of the few available forms of group entertainment. Before the appearance of radio, cinema, television, or video games, dramatic and musical performance provided one of the available forms of entertainment, the others being reading, being read to aloud, and listening to lectures and sermons. Nonetheless, despite its social importance, the Victorian theater offered precarious lives of extreme hard work and no security.

The Invisible Woman also does an excellent job providing family and individual biographies of the Ternans before, during, and after Nelly's relationship with Dickens. Tomalin, who writes very much as the advocate of the Ternan women, tells the stories of a mother and three talented and hard-working daughters, all of whose lives followed the pretty much the same narrative arc: working as young women in an occupation whose moral stature and social position differed little from that of prostitutes, each had a modicum of early success but were unable to achieve stardom and the financial security it might bring; after they eventually abandoned acting, they hid their early history and made respectable, even prestigious marriages, achieving for a time considerable happiness and prosperity, but eventually, late in life, they descended into shabby genteel poverty. Part of the problem lay with the husbands of all four women, two of whom had physical and mental breakdowns; the third, Thomas Trollope, Anthony's brother, was much older than Frances Ternan, and when he died, she faced many years of widowhood in diminished circumstances.

Tomalin wisely arranges The Invisible Woman as a scholarly detective story in the manner of Richard Altick or A. S. Byatt, though unlike Byatt, but like the author of The Scholar Adventurers she constructs a narrative of discovery in which the facts that constitute a convincing proof require many years and many workers to assemble. Generous to all her predecessors, she cleverly teases the reader, repeatedly emphasizing how Dickens's friends and family destroyed virtually every letter, diary, and bit of evidence of the existence of the invisible woman, Nelly Ternan. Not until the chapter when she reveals that a single year's diary survived do we receive convincing proof that the relationship existed. Throughout, Tomalin uses those constructions that in the hands of other critics and historians almost always alienate the reader -- all those repetitions of "perhaps," "might have," "may have," and "must have." They don't weaken Tomalin's credibility because she has so carefully reconstructed of what is known about the Dickens-Ternan relationship and its aftermath. Her careful, fair evaluation of occasionally contradictory evidence creates sufficient ethos, or authorial credibility, that we grant her the right to speculate. She treats the evidence with such obvious balance and fairness that most of her suppositions appear to the reader to remain just that — interesting, perhaps likely possibilities and not, as in the case of so many other biographical works, shaky assertions of fact.

Another part of the historical record that Tomalin makes particularly clear is the great extent to which Dickens's friends, family, and later readers willingly lied rather than tell the truth about his relationship with Nell. As recent case of Robert Frost, his mistress, and his biographer shows, things haven't changed very much. According to a recent biography of Robert Frost, Lawrance Thompson, the poet's official biographer, covered up the existence of Frost's mistress and himself had an affair with her. Thompson, a brilliant, cantankerous teacher from whom I learned much of what I know (or think I know) about teaching, served as my undergraduate adviser at Princeton and directed my senior thesis, and he always portrayed himself as someone who placed the greatest stress on intellectual honesty. In fact, although he had generously recommended me for fellowships, when I applied for a Fulbright to study Ruskin and Turner, he found himself unable to do so because, as he explained, he thought I would "just be looking at pictures." (Thank you Richard Ludwig and Dudley Johnson who wrote recommendations instead and were thus major reasons I was able to study with the wonderful Geoffrey Tillotson.) Imagine my shock at opening the TLS at discovering that Thompson, a real traditionalist where it counted, followed so closely in the steps of Dickens and his friends. Of course, now when few believe that individuals with any celebrity have any right to privacy, the discovery of such falsification takes a few years and not many decades.

Tomalin's concentration upon Victorian realities also raises the question how many of those qualities and characteristics of nineteenth-century life must a twenty-first-century cinematic version of The Invisible Woman omit. How will the film portray streets covered with horse manure and other animal filth, and how will it convey the foul odors that pervaded London before, during, and after the Big Stink? We forget that modern hair products largely originated half a century ago, and women in Dickens's time waited months, often two or three months, between shampoos. Deodorants and dry cleaning did not yet exist. In addition, will the film avoid the bold, often (to our eyes) hideous colors and patterns of both men's and women's clothing, so as not to distract a twenty-first-century sensibilities with too much truth? Will we encounter men's wearing large black and yellow checked trousers? What filter, in other words, has decided which Victorian realities can not be shown? I can't wait to see the movie.

Related Material


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

Charles Dickens Biography

Last modified 15 January 2014