Niagara Gazette

January 28, 2014

CALLERI: 'The Invisible Woman' details a scandalous relationship hidden from the public

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Asked to ascribe a single representative word to the literary works of Charles Dickens, it’s probable most people would say “orphans.” The loss of a parent or parents is essential to an appreciation and understanding of much of his writing, especially his books “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist,” and to a slightly lesser extent, “David Copperfield.” But no one should question that the experiences of children living on their own is a mainstay of Dickens’s fiction.

It’s ironic; therefore, that Dickens himself was a player in a real-life drama involving children (his own), as well as an eighteen-year old named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, who most people considered a child. No one thought of her as an adult, certainly not in the Victorian Era.

Dickens and Nelly Ternan, are the subject of “The Invisible Woman,” which is based on the non-fiction 1991 work of the same name by Claire Tomalin. The book details the relationship between the writer and his muse that was kept so quiet that Ternan’s existence couldn’t be found in many public records. Once she was with Dickens, she virtually disappeared. The interesting movie is directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as Dickens. Felicity Jones is Ternan.

Dickens loved the theater as much as he loved writing his popular serial tales for British newspapers and magazines. He was also an amateur actor and enjoyed performing, often giving well-attended dramatic readings of his stories. He had a solid creative relationship with writer Wilkie Collins, and he published some of Collins’s work in his literary journal. They would also collaborate on plays.

In 1857, Dickens is 45 and has long been married to his wife Catherine with whom he has ten children. He and Collins are involved with the production of an historical drama called “The Frozen Deep,” which Collins has written, and to which Dickens has contributed structure and large amounts of dialogue. Playing a part onstage is Ternan, a young actress who is starting to earn a following in England. Dickens is struck by her beauty.

Despite their 27-year age difference, Dickens begins a 13-year relationship with Ternan that would last until his death in 1870.

Divorce in Victorian Britain among the elite was unacceptable. Public disclosure of the relationship would have been ruinous. Unsurprising to say the least, but regarding the affair, Mrs. Dickens is not amused. Charles, already bored with his wife (“She comprehends nothing,” he says), considers her demanding and inflexible. Having ten children with a man will do that to a woman.

To her credit, Catherine tells her husband to take their marriage and shove it. She leaves with one of their children and drops off the other nine at her sister Georgina’s house. Orphans in a relationship storm, indeed.

“The Invisible Woman” begins with Ternan married and teaching. It then flows in flashback as she relates the story of her time with Dickens. Memories of the man surround her, and she has the desire to share her past. We learn that initially, she felt more interested in Dickens the writer than in Dickens the man. His stories attracted her. Soon she would care deeply about him. We also learn that her mother Frances, played deliciously by Kristin Scott Thomas, while certainly wary, is intrigued that a famous man such as Dickens is attracted to her daughter. Of course, Frances is thinking marriage and money, not thirteen years hidden away in a house in a heath somewhere.

Fiennes is good as Dickens, but Jones doesn’t quite deliver as Ternan. Her performance is a bit dull. This isn’t helped by the fact that Abi Morgan’s screenplay doesn’t give Nelly much characterization. She’s more porcelain doll than living and breathing woman. Ternan doesn’t have much to do except have a great man stare at her and tell her how wonderful she is as they stroll about the countryside or relax in over-stuffed, amber-lit rooms.

With Ternan in his life, Dickens writes “A Tale Of Two Cities,” and “Great Expectations.” The film wants us to think that because of this, she was good for him. But what it doesn’t really explain is the passion that existed between the two. It’s weakest where it should be strongest. This movie about a volatile love affair is remarkably chaste.

As director, Fiennes has made a conscious decision to give respectable Victorian behavior a bit of a whirl. The moments of intimacy are quiet; however, I have a feeling that men of that era didn’t exactly bask in the prudish glow of their conquests. I think they acted out their fantasies.

The refined sensibilities of the Victorian Era demanded that discretion regarding Dickens and Ternan be of paramount concern. Fiennes understands this, but he needed to share his understanding in a fresher and more dramatic way.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at