Friday, October 01, 2010

Claire Tomalin – ‘The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’

This paperback edition has a ‘new postscript’, after the final ‘Myths and Morals’ chapter, called ‘The Death of Dickens’. He has already died once, 76 pages previously, as the result of a stroke suffered at his home, Gad’s Hill, over dinner with his sister-in-law Georgina in June 1870. The remainder of the book deals with Nelly’s fortunes afterwards, and the afterlife of the story of her association with Dickens, which continues into the 1930s and beyond, having an especially unfortunate effect on her son Geoffrey. Three months after the book’s publication, the postscript tells us, its author received a letter from the grandson of a Nonconformist minister, who had worked at a church in Peckham from 1872, and had heard from the caretaker that
Charles Dickens did not die at Gad’s Hill, as was generally supposed, but at another house ‘in compromising circumstances’. (p. 271)
Although the minister would not have known this, his church was ‘almost opposite’ Windsor Lodge, the house in which Nelly Ternan lived in 1870. From this interesting but unverifiable claim, Tomalin imagines an itinerary for Dickens’ penultimate day alive (he didn’t die until the evening of the day after the stroke), following him from breakfast at his home, via Higham station to New Cross, catching a cab from there, and spending time with Nelly, ‘perhaps [giving] her the Windsor Lodge housekeeping allowance’ (p. 277), before falling ill between one and two in the afternoon. After he had collapsed, Nelly, it is suggested, colluded with Georgina to get him secretly back to Gad’s Hill, with the help of the caretaker from the nearby church, to prevent scandal.

Tomalin makes it clear that this story is mostly supposition, but it is simultaneously, deliciously convincing. It is typical of the way the book as a whole works: facts are scarce, and gaps can be equally important. For nearly a whole year, 1867, there exists a pocket diary which Dickens kept of his day-to-day movements, and this is used to show how he divided his time into equal thirds, spending it with Nelly (using the alias Charles Tringham), with his public (he performed many readings that year), and with Georgina at Gad’s Hill, keeping up appearances. Rather odd appearances, one might think, Georgina being the sister of his estranged wife, but still, this is the version of himself he wished to project. At an earlier period, Nelly disappeared from the record for four years, during 1862-5. Tomalin’s explanation is that she was abroad, somewhere near Paris, and that she gave birth to a child who died in infancy. Michael Slater’s biography steers clear of this interpretation, and he points out that it is not known for certain whether Dickens’ relationship with Nelly was ever consummated. He’s right, but what does he expect – witnesses? (there are witnesses who confirm the existence of a child, including Dickens’ son Henry). Tomalin puts the affair in an interesting context: several of Dickens’ friends also kept mistresses, but far more openly than he was willing to do. Wilkie Collins, for instance, gave his two mistresses ‘simultaneous seaside holidays in adjacent resorts’ (p. 169). George Cruikshank and William Frith are also given as examples, not of men who indulged in dalliances, but who maintained long term relationships (and had children) with more than one woman at once. We hear about Dickens’ ‘dandy’s streak’ with a moustache and beard of which
there was nothing patrician […], rather a hint of the raffish and piratical; he didn’t look or seem old. (p. 83)
But his behaviour belied this easy going appearance. When he fell in love with Nelly, he had ‘the door between his dressing room and what had been the marital bedroom’ blocked, and we are offered this conclusion:
This is the action of a romantic, not a worldly man, who would see no harm in continuing to sleep alongside his wife, however many mistresses he might pursue or take. (p. 108)
And what of Nelly? She came into her own, briefly, in the years after Dickens’ death. Knocking 12 years off her age, she started a family and ran a school with George Robinson, a history student at Oxford ‘destined for the church’ (p. 205) until Nelly persuaded him otherwise. Here she was able to put her theatrical background to good use, for school plays and prizegivings, and for a few years she seemed to have found her niche at last. It is in the chapter ‘The Schoolmaster’s Wife and the Foreign Correspondent’ that she is happiest, and in which she comes across most vividly. For the rest of the time, there is not really enough of Nelly to justify a biography, and even here her story is bolstered by that of her sister Maria,
the merry and gentle sister, [who] emerges as the most unorthodox, both by leaving her husband and by becoming a successful career woman as a foreign correspondent. (p. 224)
The other Ternan sister, Fanny, married Anthony Trollope’s brother Tom (twenty-five years older than she was), and wrote novels. The book’s focus flits between the three of them, giving a family history more than an individual one. An earlier, pre-Dickens chapter gives the history of their theatrical careers, which never quite rose to the first rank (Nelly’s was nowhere near, but Fanny came close), and were consequently a struggle. So they didn’t object as much as they might have done to the benefactor who enabled them to become less dependent on, and eventually to leave the stage.

No comments:

Blog Archive