Charlotte Mathieson, University of Warwick
February 7th marked two years since the bicentenary of Charles Dickens, and with it the release of The Invisible Woman: the film adaptation by screenwriter Abi Morgan, directed by Ralph Fiennes, of Claire Tomalin’s 1990 biography of Nelly Ternan, the woman who was Dickens’s mistress from 1857 until his death in 1870. At the time of its publication Tomalin’s biography caused controversy among some, but has since become mostly accepted as a credible and valuable account that is important both for what it tells us about Dickens’s life, and as a piece of feminist scholarship that brings to light the story of a woman who had been neglected, ignored, or wilfully overlooked for over one hundred years.
Anyone familiar with Tomalin’s work will immediately recognise the central challenge faced in adapting this book for screen: Tomalin constructs an admirably full picture of Nelly’s life from fragments of documents, letters, and newspaper reports, but Nelly left little trace of herself and her character, feelings, and responses to events can often only be surmised; Nelly remains the invisible woman of her own life story. The move from book to screen therefore faced the task of giving her substance, and in this respect I felt that the film achieved a commendable depiction of Nelly Ternan: Felicity Jones played her with a careful balance between quiet reticence and vulnerability, yet with a calm command over her actions. Abi Morgan has spoken of how she wanted to achieve something different with her portrayal of the mistress figure and move away from clichés of mistresses as scheming femme fatales out for material gain; Nelly was “a gentle observer of her own destiny”, she says, and this aptly describes the balance of Jones’s performance.
In contrast to Nelly is the lively exuberance of Charles Dickens. With Ralph Fiennes directing and performing Dickens himself, it seemed inevitable that this would be more his story than Nelly’s. It’s a testament to Jones’s portrayal that this is not the case, but that’s not to say that Fiennes is not extremely dynamic as Dickens. In the opening scenes we see Dickens at full force, conducting every move of the theatre company preparing for a production of The Frozen Deep, and this energy continues throughout later scenes as he plays to the crowd of the Ternan women who are delighted by his entertaining presence.
The film doesn’t shy away from challenging his actions, and this ability to orchestrate those around him emerges more cruelly in the contrivance of his family members: the worst of such actions is when his wife Catherine is instructed to deliver to Nelly a birthday gift of some jewellery from Dickens. Catherine is well played by Joanna Scanlan, given space and sympathy to develop as a character without becoming the figure of ridicule that Dickens often presented her as, although the film does not delve too deeply into her feelings; watching this is a reminder that her story, too, remains to be more fully told.
The climax of the film is the period that is most difficult to reconstruct: the years 1862-65 when Nelly disappears without trace from all surviving letters and documents. Tomalin’s careful reconstruction of the sources that remain leads her to surmise that during this time Nelly may have been living in France, visited regularly by Dickens who is known to have made frequent cross-channel trips in this period; further to this, she adds the possibility that the couple had an illegitimate child together who died in infancy. Tomalin is cautiously hesitant about the fragmentary narrative she constructs and it remains largely speculative, albeit plausible, but the film’s decision to include this as an integral part of the story serves to solidify this version of events without the tentative handling of Tomalin’s account.
The main shortcoming of the film is its use of a framing narrative which depicts Nelly some years later, now married to George Robinson and assisting in the running of a boys’ school in Margate; it is through a series of flashbacks that Nelly’s life with Dickens is gradually reconstructed until Nelly reaches the point of revealing the great secret of her life to her parish priest. The aim of the framing device appears to be in conveying the pain of concealing an unspeakable past that Nelly faced in her later life, but I felt this added little when set against the much greater depth that is given to Nelly’s experience at the time of the affair.
At the end of The Invisible Woman, Tomalin reflects on how a trip to Nelly’s grave inspired her to start writing the story of Nelly’s life: “It seemed a good moment to start putting something on paper which might restore Nelly to visibility.” In the wake of Dickens’s bicentenary, this also seems like an apt moment to make visible the silent presences that shaped his life and works and The Invisible Woman serves as a fitting tribute to Nelly’s importance in Dickens’s history.
Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study. Her research centres on travel and mobility in nineteenth-century literature, with a particular interest in Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte.