Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Invisible Woman

Nelly Ternan was the youngest daughter in the Ternan acting family. Her father, Thomas Ternan, was the son of a Dublin grocer and he had 15 siblings. Her mother was an actress named Fannie Jarman, and her grandmother was from Yorkshire and was the first of the family to work on the stage.

I wasn't familiar with Nelly until I picked up a book called The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin. Subtitled "The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens," it shines the light on the long-hidden story of the woman Dickens set up as his secret mistress. She had to be kept invisible in order not to stain Dickens' immense reputation as a social moralist/critic. Turns out it was all the rage among male authors and artists -- have a wife with lots of kids, and at least one mistress -- maybe more. Wilkie Collins maintained two separate households, with a mistress and children in each!

Beyond the fascinating details of how Dickens managed to lead a double life for 13 years, this book is also a most unusual look at backstage life for the working actor during the late 19th century. Nelly, her two sisters and her mother toured the length and breadth of the British Isles for many years, and all tried to crack the London stage, with varying levels of success. Fanny Jarman Ternan was the most successful of the family. Her husband Thomas was the least. His lackluster career was cut short by syphillitic mental illness. He was confined to an asylum for two years until he died.

The mother trained her girls in the art of acting. There were no performing arts schools -- it was on-the-job training from the womb on! Thanks to the volumnious crinolines of that era, actresses could keep working throughout their pregnancies. Although the social ranking of the actress was considered to be somewhat scandalous, it was one of the few opportunities that gave women some freedom in a very repressive era. The very nature of acting demands intellect, dedication and curiosity. The Ternan women were all well-read, fluent in several languages and were practiced writers. Nelly's sisters eventually left the stage, one to become a novelist and the other a journalist.

As for that Dickens fellow, we find that he was a man who was willing and able to get what he wanted. After fathering ten children, he decided to wall up the door between his bed room and his wife's. No, this was not Victorian birth control, it was Dickens way of shutting himself off from someone for whom he no longer cared. Eventually, he moved her out of his home and into a cottage, paying her an annual sum until his death. He kept the children and he kept her sister, Georgina, to oversee the house-keeping and child-rearing. And at the same time, he took up with Nelly Ternan.

They met in an amateur theatrical project, set up by Dickens. Her hired her entire family to perform in this piece. She was only 17. He was 45. He managed to win over her mother's approval and eventually Nelly herself. She traded in the stage life for the role of kept woman. After Dickens died, she was left with a bequest and freedom to do as she liked for the first time in her life. After travelling in Europe, she eventually married a young scholar who never knew of her past involvement. In fact, years after she died, her son and daughter from this marriage were shocked to find out about her mother's past and her actual age. She had chopped 13 years off her real age -- and no one knew except her sisters.

One interesting tidbit was that Dickens, rather like an alpha wolf, sent his sons away when they reached the earliest age of maturity -- 16! At least two of them were sent to Australia. He kept the daughters around, however. Daughters were more useful, and handy to keep around the home. Reading this book, I am again so glad that I was born into the latter half of the 20th century. Life as a woman still isn't the greatest thing, but it sure is a hell of a lot better than life for women in Victoria's England.

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