Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Real Estella by Grace Lovelace

Ellen “Nelly” Ternan at 19, a year after meeting Charles Dickens.

Like the work of Charles Dickens itself, The Invisible Woman, the new film about Dickens’ mistress Ellen Ternan, is more radical than it appears. The 45-year-old Dickens met Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, 18,  when she appeared in a play he was producing and starring in. She stepped into the role previously played by his daughter Kate, as he decided to take the show on the road. She also became his companion for the next 12 years, his last.
Nelly Ternan has generally been treated as a somewhat ambiguous footnote to Dickens’ life. In this, his biographers took their cue from Dickens himself, who expended great energy wiping out the traces of his late life love affair. A famous man in mid-life spends enormous time and money on a pretty young actress? Generations of Dickens’ scholars have found this behavior unreadable. “Family friend,” had been the somewhat gingerly consensus, at least until the English biographer Claire Tomalin stepped in with her 1990 book on Ternan, her family, and their association with the  famous novelist.
Then, as now, the theater represented a sort of liminal space, on in which real world rules don’t always apply. Actresses, too, as Tomalin explains, though disapproved of, were also allowed unusual liberties. While regarded as outlaws, with an inevitable aura of prostitution, they were also, when successful, granted a remarkable degree of autonomy in Victorian England,  frequently moving between relationships or having children with different partners, within or without marriage. Nelly came from a well-established theatrical family, with roots and connections. She also seemed quite young and innocent, most people agreeing she seemed more immature than her 18 years. A potent combination, as it turned out, when it came to Charles Dickens.
For Dickens, the putting on of plays seems to have filled a number of purposes: providing an at least temporary escape from his by then unhappy marriage, and an opportunity to hang out with his Bohemian friend, Wilkie Collins. (Collins wrote the play, The Frozen Deep, in which Ternan and her sister appeared. He was also involved in many of Dickens’ other theatrical endeavors.)  A fellow novelist (The Moonstone, The Woman in White), Collins was also a notorious rogue:  a connoisseur of actresses, in fact, maintaining several households over his adulthood, while remaining unmarried. A man of the continent and of the theatre, he was the perfect companion for the restless Dickens, enacting freedoms the infinitely more famous, and famously virtuous Dickens could not allow himself.
When he eventually decided to sack his wife, Dickens seemed to have encountered surprisingly little resistance. He simply spun the story to his advantage. His wife, he wrote to the papers, had never taken an interest in the children, though she bore him ten. She was cow-like and crazy, he claimed, an unfit companion for his genius. According to Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman, from which the film is adapted, she was pensioned off to a small house north of Regent’s Park, away from the rest of the family. Georgina Hogarth, her sister, who had long enjoyed a position of power and favor with her celebrity brother-in-law, was happy to officially become matron of the house. She also publicly backed Dickens claims.
Dickens turned out to be quite masterful in shaping his public image, even well after his death. The beloved Dickens of a Christmas Carol didn’t just happen, he needed producing and stage managing. To that end, he blackmailed, wrote in code, used pseudonyms and most of all, burned anything incriminating and ordered others to do the same. His daughter Kate, writing much later to George Bernard Shaw, said she looked forward to letters surfacing “in which the real man is revealed, minus his Sunday clothes and all shams, and with his heart and soul burning like jewels in a dark place! I say there may be such letters and they may be one day given to the world” (quoted by Tomalin, p. 236). As it turned out she underestimated the extent of her father's control.
But history, like family, is an unruly thing. When Tomalin began to fill in the missing pieces, there were plenty of clues to be found. Ralph Fiennes takes up this material, as adapted by screenwriter Abi Morgan (
The Iron Lady), to give us a life not so much invisible as willfully erased. Tomalin’s Invisible Woman reads like a detective story; the drama lies in piecing together the evidence into the most likely scenario. What does it mean for a Victorian couple to disappear to France, as Dickens and Nelly appear to have done?  She posits that Ternan became pregnant and was spirited away to a morally flexible Gallic retreat, rather a tradition for English gentlemen of the period. Financial records for leases and sums of money under false names, frequent appointments with “N” in a lost appointment book? Along with testimony from Dickens’ children, several of whom made sure to go on the record before their deaths, the story of Dickens and Nelly Ternan began to take shape.
     While covering the same material, Fiennes movie takes a somewhat different approach.  His film, detailing the somewhat mercenary arrangements of an influential Victorian figure, plays out against our expectations for a love story, specifically one about an artistic couple  bucking convention. There’s not much transcendent here, the film makes clear, and Dickens alone had sufficient power to alter conventions to his own needs.
Fiennes gets a lot across of this across, very economically, in the early scene rehearsing The Frozen Deep.  His own theatrical experience, as well as growing up in a large, artistic family, no doubt came in handy. The casting is particularly effective: Felicity Jones, a young British actress unfamiliar to me, is attractive and fairly effective, but clearly unable to compete in terms of star power with her elder co-stars, evoking her youth and experience in what must have been an overwhelming situation. Ralph Fiennes plays Dickens and, in an extremely clever bit of casing, Kristin Scott Thomas is Nelly’s mother, Fanny Ternan. We cannot help but be reminded of their archetypal love story together, The English Patient, every time they are together in a scene. But now Thomas has been transformed to chaperone and somewhat unwilling broker. A sense of things are askew, of displacement, is the effortless result of this particular reunion.  Kristin Scott Thomas is flawless, as usual. She conveys a weary grasp of the situation, as well as a determination not to let it veer out of control. If there is a weak link, in terms of the acting, it is Fiennes himself.  When I first heard he was playing Dickens, I found it hard to imagine; how could this slow-moving, introspective actor play the tiny, hyper Dickens? (The very best man for that job, it strikes me, would have been Willy Wonka era-Gene Wilder. He alone could convey his manic vision and zany leadership style. And the costumes could essentially remain the same.) Though Fiennes acquits himself as Dickens, his acting in this film does not rise to the level of his directing.
When Nelly has been discussed as part of Dickens’ public life, it has been as the inspiration for Estella in Great Expectations, his late, great novel writing during this time. Although she may have initially appeared to him as a figure of virtue and passivity, in the long term he seems to have found her, and her family, rather less pliable.  Estella, an intractable beauty controlled by powerful backstage forces: this  does seem to bear some resemblance to his dealings with the Ternan clan. In the beginning he used his influence to get them parts and rent them houses; as time went on he procured her older sister Fanny a position as governess to Anthony Trollope’s widower brother, a job that quickly morphed into wife. Fanny began to publish regularly, at top prices, in Dickens publication All the Year Round. In the twelve years of his association with the family, before his death, they established themselves quite firmly in the nexus of his financial and literary connections. Later historians had grounds to wonder is this family was simply one of his ongoing charitable endeavors; they seem to have represented a package deal.
If at times these Ternan claims may have seemed onerous, they did confer one real advantage to Dickens: once established in respectable marriages, the Ternans were just as anxious to hide the true nature of the connection as he was himself. The extent to which Nelly was erased from the official Dickens story was due, largely, to her own efforts.
Nelly seems to have picked up Dickens knack for fictionalizing her own life. After his death she shaved a neat decade of her age, conveniently refreshing her maidenhood to marry a much young clergyman. Together they founded a school, coincidentally in Margate, the setting for much of Dickens’
Great Expectations.  She also had a son. Scenes from her life in Margate punctuate the film, which is told in flashbacks. These scenes of her helping to run the school, striding along the shoreline, and staring moodily into her first editions of Dickens, are some of the film’s weakest. Part of the point seems to be to establish the connection between Nelly and the real life elderly local cleric, coincidentally a huge Dickens fan, to whom she confided her secret and who eventually spilled the beans, establishing one of the important links in the chain of Nelly evidence. But this legalistic accounting, evident too in the scenes regarding Nelly’s probable stillbirth (closeup on Dickens signing the French death certificate, using one of his many Nelly-related pseudonyms), sits uneasily with the doomy romanticism.
After Dickens is gone, so too, largely, is the point of the film. Pasting in what are basically sequences from The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not, unfortunately, add depth to the portrait of Nelly Ternan, who seems to have been in point of fact  proactive in the extreme, not at all prone to depressive trances on the pier. She went on to live to a very old age, the Dickens relationship only discovered by her son much later, as he attempted to make sense of the financial records and mementos she left behind.
I saw this film as part of a series of early  industry screenings, accompanying my sister, who happens to be a SAG member. The showing of The Invisible Woman was sparsely attended, there was muttering about boredom on the way out. Very much in contrast to the later showing of  Out of the Furnace , the testosterone and violence fueled vehicle featuring powerhouse performances by Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck, as well as a standard bit part by Zoe Saldana as girlfriend/pre-school teacher. “Brave!” and “startling!” was the consensus on that one. The Invisible Woman is a small movie, not a perfect one, but it is unusual in having a genuinely feminist vision. From where I sit, that is startling.


  1. In the recent film "The Invisible Woman", Charles Dickens is given a Revisionist treatment from a socially conscious novelist/reformer/crusader for Victorian London's poor to sexual exploiter of young actresses, specifically Nelly Ternan. Dickens himself experienced the horrors of Debtors Prison with his family when his father was unable to pay the family's bills. Dickens quite possibly worked tirelessly as a writer, reader, and performer of his own works in order that he, his wife and 10 children would never descend into such poverty. Disclosing his situation with a young mistress quite possibly would have endangered his public persona and ability to earn a good living. This would have been a terrifying prospect for him.
    It is difficult to completely accept that Charles Dickens, at 45, was an older sexual predator of an 18 year old actress. Eighteen years old, then as now was hardly a child. Rather than shamelessly luring a naïve waif into sexual servitude, most everyone connected with the affair (which removed Nelly from a pure, chaste "life upon the wicked stage", a commonly assumed path to prostitution) appeared to benefit. Nelly's mother indeed cooperated in helping arrange her daughter's new life style. Other members of Nelly's family benefited socially and financially directly from her liason. Dickens'wife was removed from what already appeared to be an unhappy failed marriage to a nearby home of her own. His wife's sister continued willingly as a social help for Dickens.
    Nellly herself after 12 years as his mistress, upon his death, subtracted a decade from her own age, remarried, had a child and an apparently comfortable uneventful married life. All in all, those close to Dickens appeared to benefit and profit from their association with him, including Nelly. Although he may not have been a paragon of male behavior or a completely admirable human being, he was neither a "Scrooge" nor a black-hearted villain. Rather he was merely a man of his time: a combination of weakness and strength, talent and indulgence.

  2. Made aware of additional biographical information, I want to revise my defense of Charles Dickens. (realizing that he doesn't need my support.) I now regard him as a giant in English literature but a dwarf in Human Relations, particularly concerning his wife/ mother of his 10 children.