The Invisible Woman – Charles Dickens’s Secret Love & Life

Growing up during the 40’s and 50’s in Australia, where remnants of the climate of the English Victorian age, despite two world wars, still guided Australian society was in many ways helpful for me when reviewing the film The Invisible Woman.

British playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan has produced the script of this amazing story, first told and published in 1991 after eons of research by English biographer and journalist Claire Tomalin (1933- ).

It is about the vulnerability of a young woman embarking on an ‘economic’ affair with Charles Dickens (1812-1870), a legend and literary colossus during his own lifetime.

The telling of this tale strikes a chord because of the huge celebrity status he achieved. Likening his position in life to novelists such as J.K. Rowling in our age will only give us a small inkling of who he really was.

Dickens was a giant of a man; taking on the cruelty and injustice of a Christian society he belonged to by endeavouring to address issues of hypocrisy with religious institutions, through literary criticism.

English actor and director Ralph Fiennes, reveals his own view of an intimate period in the life of this renowned nineteenth century novelist, journalist, public speaker and social critic Charles Dickens (1812-1870) with discretion.

When Dickens is on stage being applauded he’s bathed in golden light as he inspires and entertains everyone.

His was a world in which women were only fit to do certain ‘jobs’ for men.

This story is about Dickens failed marriage and the secret love he had for a young actress in his own stage circle, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan (1839-1914).

Their story is one we gradually discover as she inspires his great mind, giving him far more than he hoped for; constructive criticism.

The relationship Dickens and Nelly share is very powerful, more akin to courtly love – about declarations of service, devotion, and passion, as well as an emerging sense of the self. Dickens and Nelly are to have a life together, although it is destined to be a secret life.

It quickly becomes apparent it is clearly not one of her choosing, although she undoubtedly loves him.

It’s not simply that cut and dried because Nelly desperately wants to keep her identity.

However there are many complex factors to consider, including the monumental constraints, rules and double standards of the society of their age

Dickens reached unprecedented levels of fame during his lifetime and we struggle right along with Nelly Ternan as she comes to terms with what she has really been offered – a life of security and seclusion, while secretly living as a famous man’s mistress under his protection.

Presented by BBC Movies, The Invisible Woman will divide critics and audiences.

They will either appreciate its restrained nuances, excellent acting, wonderful locations, stunning costumes and striking sombre scenes, or alternatively find it as frustrating as living inside an unhappy marriage or relationship would be in any age.

Ralph Fiennes is Charles Dickens an extroverted, energetic man who wooed everyone and everybody with his wonderful winning ways, especially when delivering words on a page, or on a stage where he was a rock star speaker of his day.

Dickens, risking scandal on every level of his life as he gradually falls in love with this modest young woman and her mind. Their secret is to be one his family kept close until the death of his last surviving child in 1933.

Felicity Jones is Ellen (Nelly) Ternan – The Invisible Woman and her difficulties become his and ours during the movie. He wants her in his life permanently and patience is something he is prepared to endure to ensure that it happens.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes both are sensitive, subtle and sparing in every aspect of their roles, which are acted with a great sensitivity and powerful restraint.

Hers is an extraordinarily insightful performance. She offers us a modest quiet demeanour in her portrayal of Nelly, the young girl struggling desperately to come to terms with the awkward situation she finds herself in and what it means.

They are both supported by such splendid seasoned performers as Kirsten Scott Thomas (Nelly’s Mother), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), John Kavanagh (Rev. William Benham) and Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens). They all punctuate and powerfully add to the performance.

To my mind the movie is a wonderful achievement, a fragile film about the foibles and flaws attached to the human condition, which was marred for me only by the odd hand-held camera technique, one many modern directors seem to admire for a reason I am yet to come to terms with.

Charles Dickens marriage it seems only became loveless with the passing of time, weighed down by the stifling constraints society placed on human relationships, as well as the inability of medical science to provide methods of birth control that actually worked.

His wife Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan) was a stoic woman who made babies (10 in fact), staying at home in the countrified suburb just outside London, to bring them up well.

There is no doubting her true devotion to Dickens, or her very real understanding of and about the man she was married to.

Despite all the merriment that happens when he’s around, for the rest of the time Catherine as his wife is alone at their house while he’s away in London lecturing and performing extensively of campaigning vigorously for children’s rights, education and other social reforms. It is a loveless place.

They have both become trapped, isolated and inwardly very sad and lonely.

Their small children play on happily, totally oblivious in many respects to what is happening until they are of a certain age, like that of his elder son Charley who questions his father’s fidelity, while being in awe of his fame.

His wife Catherine’s scenes with the lovely young Nelly and with her son when she comes to terms with the fact Dickens has left her, are particularly harrowing.

Dickens was just 45 at the time, when he decided to go against contemporary conventions and walk out on his wife without seeking a divorce and set up house with his mistress, albeit in seclusion.

Nelly had an advantage in that she was able to contribute and take part in his world of writing as well as the one he inhabited on the stage as well, in a way that his own wife could not.

Charles Dickens pioneered narrative fiction, inspiring the expanse of his readers.

He provided his age and readers with vivid dark and very real descriptions of the abject misery of poverty that existed in England during their sovereign Queen Victoria’s reign.

Dickens aroused the social conscience of his time like no other, inspiring the well off Victorian family to do ‘good works’. Although on the other hand the romantic and self-indulgent view of life given to the populace by another literary giant Sir Walter Scott was probably far more powerful for the populace and one that many of them preferred.

Scott made young girl’s thrill to the thought of gallant knights, loyal chieftains and faithful lovers, romantic gestures and dashing deeds in both love and much later, war.

Dickens and Scott’s England had no income tax, no capital gains tax and the Industrial revolution was at a highpoint with a country full of very rich people, in direct contrast to the very poor and marginalised.

The rising and expanding Middle Classes were violently critical of aristocratic arrogance; immorality and inefficiency, challenging their power as well as that of the politicians and people they considered ran the country badly.

This was not an open society that revealed its compassion as we are invited to do today. It was one that criticised, gossiped and concealed passion by wearing red satin petticoats under black dresses and making love behind closed doors.

It’s a society that was trapped in its own malaise ignoring the misery of others. Especially children, who were living terrible lives working in factories from a young age or being ‘rented’ off the streets and then discarded like waste when they were not wanted any more.

In our age there is no doubt such a relationship as Dickens and Nelly’s would be impossible to keep secret for more than a minute. Let alone be sustained over a thirteen year period as Dickens and Nelly Ternan’s affair was until his death aged 58.

Why does she convey her reluctance to being Dickens’s whore so bluntly? And why, when Dickens takes her to meet Wilkie at home with his mistress does she act so cruelly towards her counterpart?

Many will be asking where is the ‘sex’ and what’s with all that silence – what does it mean?

You need to be inside the Victorian mindset to appreciate the society they lived in.

Its structure was so very complex and completely class ridden, one in which everyone judged everybody else based on some sort of ‘Christian ideal’ that in fact they really didn’t understand at all.

The supporting actors in this are very fine. Dickens great friend is the radical writer Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Hollander gives us a great sense of this other interesting man of Dickens’s time.

He also lived an unorthodox lifestyle, setting his second mistress up in a house around the corner from his first. They gave him the material for his own books about the world of prostitution, working class women and unjust marriage laws.

I will admit to sometimes wishing theisstory had just been related in a far simpler and completely straightforward manner. However Fiennes is intent on giving us an insight into the difficult, awkward and distressing conditions that existed, as well as what a loveless marriage must have been like at that time for those living the experience.

What I particularly admired was the long periods of silence he uses, without music, although they clearly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

They do provide a pause so we can reflect on the wonderful words spoken and feel the full impact of their meaning.

Nelly Ternan’s mother, who was focusing on ensuring her daughter’s survival past her own, basically sold Nelly, although she was putting the beautiful young woman and the prospects of her fate and future first and foremost.

Nelly was recognised by her peers as being clever and charming, a beauty and a very dear girl with a passion for poliltics, literature and the theatre. She did not however have any skills for the work available for her actor family, who worked regularly on the London stage.

Nelly also did not have any domestic skills, and, as her mother well understood, beauty can quickly fade.

For women of this time options were exceedingly limited. If you were not a maid for the rich and powerful, then you more or less became an actor or prostitute. Becoming a shop girl (somewhere in-between) was in Dickens’s age a slowly growing concern, one that would eventually help bridge a gap and bring women into the more respectable daily workforce.

Theatre of the second half of the nineteenth century was a world of the privileged elite. Successful actors moved in two circles, the one they lived in and the one they were admired within.

There was also the distinct contrast between those cast out to make their life on the streets after a moment of brief fame, than that of a being the kept mistress of a powerful man.

If you were lucky enough to find such a man, one that would set you up in a home for life, you enjoyed the full of the trappings of his success.

Ultimately your family would enjoy the flow on effect as well.

So Nelly becomes Dickens mistress, saddened when her only child by Dickens is stillborn. How deeply distressing it was to watch him cut off a lock of hair from the tiny lifeless body before it is carried away to be buried in an unmarked grave. He wanted Nelly to have a keepsake of their love child.

The telling of the tale slowly reveals the life Nelly is leading a decade or so after Dickens himself has died. She is living with her husband George and their son.

He is a kind and caring teacher working on tenure, probably for life in a British public (private) school.

Known by the incumbents as having ‘known Charles Dickens as a child’, his wife has been put in charge of producing and directing a school production of “No Thoroughfare”, a play by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Her rare and unique insight into Dickens and his world means that she is just the girl for the job.

Long torturous fast walks along the long lonely beach nearby, as well as confiding with the local Anglican incumbant, allow Nelly to work through the decisions she made in her past life while reflecting on the positive aspects of it that she and Dickens enjoyed together.

Canon Benham is a wise old clergyman who is often at her husband’s school and he has worked out that this seemingly outwardly tough, but inwardly fragile lady was the rumoured ‘secret’ love of Dickens’s life that so many seemed to know about, despite it being a secret, and he can see that she is in turmoil.

Their confrontation and conversations finally enables her to talk about her life openly so that she can come to terms with, and fully appreciate the brand new and wonderful life she has made for herself with her new family.

It’s all very poignant, precious stuff with at its essence, human frailty. My score; 4/5

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

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