cover image The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

Claire Tomalin. Knopf Publishing Group, $25 (317pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57959-7

In a remarkable feat of biographical sleuthing, Tomalin offers the fullest account to date of Charles Dickens's secret 13-year relationship with actress Ellen (``Nelly'') Ternan. She was perhaps 18 when the famous 45-year-old novelist made her a ``fallen woman,'' according to Tomalin, who presents a compelling case that Ternan was his mistress. He could offer neither steady companionship nor marriage, unwilling to jeopardize his virtuous public image with his Victorian readership, even after the affair apparently triggered his separation from his wife, Catherine. Tomalin, biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Mansfield, portrays a frantic Dickens slipping into self-delusion, falsely claiming that his marriage had been awful all along. After his death in 1870, Ternan, who outlived him by 44 years, married a reverend, wrote poetry, became a right-minded Victorian lady and helped maintain the secrecy surounding her association with Dickens. Besides offering a marvelous whirl through the ``disreputable'' world of the theater, Tomalin provides a new slant on Dickens as a writer uncomfortably trapped in his own conventional morality. Photos. (Mar.)