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The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly…

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1990)

by Claire Tomalin

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3661529,640 (3.96)60
  1. 10
    Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (lilithcat)
    lilithcat: Tomalin is one of the finest biographers writing today, with a real knack for explaining the societal context in which her subject lived. Readers of The Invisible Woman will find the same excellent work in Jane Austen: A Life, and vice versa.
  2. 00
    Dickens & Ellen Ternan by Ada Nisbet (burneyfan)

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Excellent! I really enjoyed this well-written, well-researched book. ( )
  rrbritt53 | Oct 27, 2015 |
The 1991 British Penguin paperback edition has an extra chapter on the death of Dickens not found in the first edition. My copy was printed in at least 2002 so it looks as if all British paperback editions have this extra chapter. I've not seen any foreign copy. So unless your heart's set on a first... ( )
  Lukerik | Oct 23, 2015 |
Just as good as her bio of Jane Austen, and with the added difficulty of fighting off years of Dickens' admirers either defaming Ternan or trying to bury her existence. You will not look at Dickens the same way after this book, but you may well have a better understanding of why he couldn't write a well-rounded, psychologically full female character to save his life. As always, Tomalin tells us as much about the world in which Ternan and Dickens lived as she does about the people themselves. My edition is a later one, and has an added chapter which casts new light on the circumstances of Dickens' death. Tomalin's further investigations were spurred by the receipt of a letter she received following the book's initial publication, a letter describing a family story suggesting that Dickens did not die at Gad's Hill, but that his body had been transported there after his death. It is, of course, a story that at this juncture cannot be proved or disproved, but it is interesting to consider the steps that Tomalin took to investigate its plausibility, steps that show her to be a true scholar.
  lilithcat | Jun 18, 2015 |
I have to begin by saying that I am not a Dickens fan, and as I read this book, I began to like him even less. Tomalin focuses on Dickens's relationship with the Ternan family, in particular his presumed affair with the youngest daughter, Ellen, best known as Nelly. She was only 18 at the time their affair began, Dickens 45. The Ternans were an acting family, and Dickens used his prestige first to persuade Mrs. Ternan and the girls to perform in his play 'The Frozen Deep,' then to secure various roles for her with his theatrical friends. Before long, he abandoned his wife (the mother of his 10 children), spreading rumors about her mental health and the ingratitude of her family members for all his assistance. (Wikipedia notes, "Matters came to a head in 1858 when Catherine Dickens opened a packet delivered by a London jeweller which contained a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband.") Dickens began to lead a double life, leasing and purchasing a series of homes for Nelly, her sisters and her widowed mother--homes deliberately located further and further from the public eye. After all, the man whose works were supposed to be the moral compass of England couldn't be caught with a mistress! His financial and personal arrangements were handled through coded letters to friends who acted as go-betweens, including Wilkie Collins. Nelly was kept such a deep, dark secret that her identity was even hidden when she suffered a serious injury in a train derailment while traveling with Dickens. Tomalin posits that she had at least one, and perhaps two, pregnancies by Dickens but lost both babies shortly after birth. Later in life, long after Dickens's death, Nelly supposedly confessed the affair to her pastor, saying that she greatly regretted it and loathed Dickens in those last years but could not, financially, break away.

The last section of the book addresses Nelly's life post-Dickens and the history of both the coverup and revelation of the affair.

I felt sorry for both Catherine, Dickens's long-suffering wife, and for Nelly, a young woman pressured by poverty and impressed by celebrity. As for Dickens, what a pompous, self-righteous hypocrite! ( )
4 vote Cariola | May 4, 2014 |
I. How The Invisible Woman Totally Captured My Imagination & Why Some of You Fellow Readers Could End Up Just as Hooked

When I received my free copy of The Invisible Woman as the winner of a Goodreads giveaway, I couldn't tell you a thing about its subject matter. I know when I had discovered it on Goodreads, it seemed very appealing. And, of course, the book's manifestation as a "movie tie-in edition" showed its great promise to be the kind of compelling, dramatic story that I and so many other readers love to read. This Claire Tomalin character turns out to be a biographer and not a novelist, so The Invisible Woman didn't turn out quite as I first imagined before I opened it ;)

Nevertheless, The Invisible Woman fulfilled the promise I perceived in my ignorant state. First of all, the work was a lighter, more novel-esque read than the lion's share of histories and even many biographies -- unhampered by popularly unfamiliar or simply dry factual information that many compelling nonfiction reads must relate as a foundation for the insights and exciting findings the authors have to share. More strikingly, I found it more difficult to put down than the lion's share of novels I read, and reading novels is one of the great passions of my life. This book will keep many readers spellbound pageturners.

It's obvious why this is the case. Tomalin isn't attempting an exploration of Dickens's place in literary history or even a bird's eye view of his life, such as a general biography would provide. Her work concerns a relationship between two human beings that involved attraction, connections of various kinds, and suffering for both parties. What happened between these two, let alone how and why, is very mysterious and difficult to cover in a historical study due to the lack of documentation. But, what about human relationships -- especially those romantic and/or sexual -- isn't mysterious to outsiders? Most people know the extreme (and sometimes permanent) impact of these relationships on our hearts. Our curiosity in the mystery of others' experience could hardly be more easily understood through intuition, relatively speaking.

The main purpose of this work is not to explore the truth of human relationships. Through looking at Nelly Terman's life and those of the exceptional people closest to her, is a fresh and rich way to explore the truth of Victorian women's lived experiences. This is what Tomalin attempts to do. I think she succeeds in posing valuable questions and offering sophisticated insights to the reader. I recommend this book without reservation based on my own personal experience. Let me clarify...

II. Weaknesses of This Book That May Be Potentially Fatal to Your Enjoyment of It

A) Tomalin hides the ball a bit and doesn't clearly disclose Terman's representativeness of important issues in the realities of Victorian women's experiences as the main focus of her book. It's abundantly clear, but I think there are some readers who would be quite annoyed by this coyness. It seems like the kind of thing that might be a pet peeve. I merely speculate here.

B) As I've seen many other reader reviews discuss -- Tomalin explores scenarios wherein she appears to vastly overestimate her ability to gauge their truth based on the evidence. She writes as though her assumptions are factual (although she doesn't appear to think them factual, obviously...IMHO anyway). I've seen several reviews that make this criticism principally in re: the existence of the affair between Dickens and the so-called invisible woman. I don't think Tomalin oversteps at all on this central point. For me, an assumption she makes about someone's reaction to an event in the last chapter or so is the only glaring overestimation of probabilities Tomalin makes. It's the only part not worth writing about, IMHO.

Thanks for reading/skimming my thoughts. I hope they are of some use. ( )
  kara.shamy | Mar 8, 2014 |
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This is the story of someone who - almost - wasn't there; who vanished into thin air.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140121366, Paperback)

This is the story of someone who - almost - wasn't there; who vanished into thin air. Her names, dates, family and experiences very nearly disappeared from the record for good. 'Claire Tomalin's multi-award-winning story of the life of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens is a remarkable work of biography and historical revisionism. It not only returns the neglected actress to her rightful place in history, but provides a compelling and truthful portrait of the great Victorian novelist.' A biography of high scholarship and compelling detective work' - Melvyn Bragg, "Independent".

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:37 -0400)

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Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan met in 1857; she was 18, a hard-working actress performing in his production of The Frozen Deep, and he was 45, the most lionized writer in England. Out of their meeting came a love affair that lasted thirteen years and destroyed Dickens's marriage while effacing Nelly Ternan from the public record. In this remarkable work of biography and scholarly reconstruction, the acclaimed biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen rescues Nelly from the shadows of history, not only returning the neglected actress to her rightful place, but also providing a compelling portrait of the great Victorian novelist himself. The result is a thrilling literary detective story and a deeply compassionate work that encompasses all those women who were exiled from the warm, well-lighted parlors of Victorian England.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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