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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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  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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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 |
This is an analysis of the family background and life of Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, the young actress who was almost certainly the mistress of Charles Dickens from 1858 until his death in 1870. Tomalin pieces together a range of evidence from different sources and, while there is no smoking gun, the circumstantial evidence for an affair seems overwhelming. Dickens's associates, in particular his sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgina Hogarth, and his biographer John Forster, kept the affair secret during his life and after his death. Nelly went along with it, largely keeping the evidence secret until after her own death in 1914, the last of her immediate family; her son Geoffrey found out about it afterwards from examining his mother's papers and talking to the author's last surviving son, Sir Henry Dickens, and it seems to have blighted the remaining 45 years of his life. This collusion was, of course, very much the flavour of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Dickens's and his family's desire to maintain his uniformly positive public image added an edge to this drive . The book is also interesting in its coverage of the life of actresses in the early 19th century - Nelly's sisters, parents and grandparents were all in the profession, which was then regarded as very disreputable and actresses little better than whores. Interesting stuff, and good photos as well. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Jan 4, 2014 |
Claire Tomalin, maybe the best biographer of the classics (Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens), has taken a chapter of Dickens' biography and made this excellent book about the Inimitable's affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, based on documents, letters and original research. "The Invisible Woman" shows one of Dickens' less bright sides, while at the same time creating a fascinating caleidoscope of his time and a look behind the facade of one of Dickens' favourite pastimes: the theatre. Nelly Ternan's story is one of truly Dickensian scope in itself and gives its readers a new image of women in the days of the greatest English writer of all times. ( )
1 vote DieterBoehm | Jan 22, 2013 |
This book inspired a play "Little Nell" which was performed at the Ensemble in 2009, written by Simon Grey and directed by Mark Kilmurry. The main character of Nell was played, from the age of 17 to an embittered old woman, W by Kate Fitchett and Mark Lee gave an excellent portrayal of Dickens. We gave the play 4 stars. ( )
  lesleynicol | May 26, 2012 |
The invisible woman is the woman who, for the last thirteen years of Charles Dickens's life, was his secret obsession and intimate companion. Her name was Nelly Ternan; she was an actress, reared in a family history of performers but within a few years of meeting Dickens she left the stage and disappeared from public view. Although she reappeared, she was always liable to become invisible again, sometimes by her own choice, sometimes at the insistence who preferred to keep her out of sight.

Her disappearance was considered essential for the protection of Dickens good name with a public that idolized him. It enabled him to continue in his role as the great upholder of family values. It also protected Nelly from scandal. So efficiently did Dickens and Nelly shield themselves that they managed to efface most of the traces of their association; she was able to reappear after his death as an entirely new person, constructing a background, history and even age to suit the requirements of the society she wished to enter.

We move through this book in three parts of Nelly's life. A child actress, a hidden love and a respectable wife and mother which span the Victorian and Edwardian ages. In her lifetime no one asked Nelly for her memories, any more than they asked her sisters Fanny and Maria, both writers who had also known Dickens intimately. It was only after the First World War and Nelly's death that this part in Dickens life began to be discussed openly, though even then some denied the very possibility of the association.

The Author Claire Tomalin looks at this story from her own point of view, but it does offer up some new perspective and surprises. What I loved most about this book, it reads like a Dickens novel, wonderful social history, part detective, many twist and turns involving lost and found diaries and inked-out letters, playbills, hidden bank accounts, railway networks, newspaper reports and disappearing babies. While on Nelly's side of the family, part of the journey is a history of actresses. We get a feel of what it was like to be an actress before an audience that simultaneously despised and desired you. Another interesting aspect was the way Dickens lived this part of his life in codes, to protect Nelly who was not so much asked but forced to live in a world of double identities and secret arrangements; or find herself as damaged goods with an uncertain future.

Overall I love this book, it reminded me of the programme Who Do You Think You Are? Looking into our own family history and finding the emotional highs and lows, the element of surprise when discovering a secret, one that our great grandparents had tried to bury. The Invisible Woman is highly recommended, its entertaining reading and an account of a love affair that cast its shadow over two families and two generations, a century later, it remains a matter of dispute.

Andrea Bowhill
Why no voting buttons? We don't let customers vote on their own reviews, so the voting buttons appear only when you look at reviews submitted by others. ( )
1 vote EmmaLadyHamilton | Sep 3, 2011 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:44 -0400)

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