Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

I scored a copy of this book, used, about a month ago. Probably not something of much interest to the general reader, it's definitely a good book for anyone interested in learning more about the woman who inspired the single most popular English writer of the 19th Century to reinvent himself in middle-age, along the way fracturing his family and friendships, his business partnerships, and his twenty-four year marriage.

Ellen ("Nelly") Ternan was an eighteen-year-old actress of stunning beauty when she met the forty-five-year-old Dickens, and the ensuing relationship caused a literary scandal and a public relations nightmare for a writer once beloved by his readers for his stories of hearth and home. Not to be ruined by the scandal, he rebounded with two blockbuster serial publications: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Nelly and Dickens continued their relationship for the next thirteen years until he died in 1870. She eventually remarried and lived a relatively normal life, barely ever mentioning her relationship with Dickens, and died in 1913.

Tomalin's book is considered a landmark of biography because of its success in fashioning a life story from such scant material. Indeed, while she and Dickens were together the author and his loyal friends took great pains to conceal her identity in coded terms; Dickens's best friend and biographer, John Forster, never even mentions Nelly in his biography of Boz. Which is probably why I felt that the strengths of Tomalin's book lie in its depictions of pre- and post-Dickens-era Nelly. With so little to go on during those thirteen years, Tomalin essentially rehashes the usual biographical information on Dickens himself (to which I would direct the reader to Fred Kaplin, Edgar Johnson, and Peter Ackroyd)... but if you want to read about women of the theater in the early 19th Century, the circumstances leading up to the scandalous relationship, and the way in which a woman begins life anew following her lover's death without hardly a glance back, this is a pretty good book.

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