Charles Dickens and Ellen Nelly Ternan–Hidden Lives
by Renee Kimball
“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.” ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
In 1812, eight years after Queen Victoria began her reign and the start of the Victoria Era, Charles John Huffman Dickens was born. England was the most powerful empire in the world–”one on which the Sun never set” (Royal Forum). It was a time of class division, social unrest, poverty, and the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Charles Dickens went on to become the most revered author in English history. His career was meteoric, his influence immense; his work remains in print today.
Yet, in spite of all that has been said, researched and written, about Charles Dickens–the author, the family man, the father—Charles Dickens, “the inner man,” remained hidden. It was the private Dickens who created an alternate secret life, a life so well hidden that it was a long time after his death that the efforts that he had gone to to bury that secret life were revealed.
When Dickens died at 58 years of age, all of England mourned his passing. It was only after his death, and many years later, after the death of his children, that a cache of personal documents were released. The discovery confimed that Dickens had been concealing a hidden life—a life he shared with one other person for thirteen years; that person, the “other woman,” was Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, an actress he met while attending a play in 1857 (Ackroyd, Tomalin).
Knowing there was another Dickens, a Dickens other than what he presented to the world, who had a dark streak, an obsession, can we still admire him? Respect his memory? Can we look past his mistakes?
Whether we are aware of it or not, Charles Dickens is never far away; his characters are in our hearts. If you hear his name, what do you think of? Do you know a “Scrooge”? Do you see Marley’s Ghost wrapped in “chains of his own making,” warning the cowering, disbelieving, obstinate Scrooge? (A Christmas Carol). Or Oliver’s quavering request, “Please, sir, I want some more” (Oliver Twist). “He hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas day who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (Bob Cratchit, A Christmas Carol). And Tiny Tim, “God bless us every one!” (A Christmas Carol).
Before writing fiction, Dickens held a variety of positions, but all that changed forever in 1833 with the publication of the weekly serialization of The Pickwick Papers; Dickens was an instant success; he became a household name.
Dickens was an early social reformer, using his stories as a platform for change. If you were one of London’s lower classes, you faced unrelenting poverty, degradation, constant hunger, rampant disease, and high child mortality rates. Unabashedly, he exposed these issues through his characters to arouse empathy in the upper classes towards those who struggled.
London’s readers –rich or poor—were drawn together weekly by the installments that cut through class lines; these installments became something to look forward to, talk about, and share. Dickens raised awareness –every week on every street corner, with every weekly publication.
But there was something less desirable behind Dickens’ strident, boisterous personality. In spite of his popularity, financial success, and a growing family, as well as his many talents, Dickens remained unfulfilled, emotionally adrift. Unable to find balance in his life, his bitterness grew heavier, the work he once loved, less and less appealing; familial relationships became frayed. The once exciting and successful life became nothing more than a quagmire of business and family demands.
Dickens believed that something or someone outside himself was to blame for this despair; he decided the cause was no other than his wife of twenty-two years —Catherine Hogarth Dickens. Catherine had failed him; it was time for change.
Many have offered opinions as to why the Dickens’ marriage failed, but Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Dickens – A Biography, published in 1990, is brief.
Ackroyd describes Charles’ dissatisfaction with his marriage with one word: “Lassitude. In other words, want of ardour. Want of enthusiasm and quickness. Want of all the qualities on which Dickens prided himself” (Ackroyd, 1990, p. 687).
At what point does indifference take the place of love and commitment? As for Catherine, she had borne Dickens ten children in twenty-two years of marriage; it had taken a toll. Catherine was no longer slim, no longer young; she was not energetic. To Dickens, Catherine’s love, loyalty, congeniality, and her care of the children were not enough any longer. And just like that, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan appeared and calamity and despair followed.
Dickens met Ternan in 1857 while attending a play; she was in the cast. Ternan was 18, Dickens was 45. Not long after, their affair began, and Nelly left the stage forever.
Obsessed with having Nelly in his life, Dickens began a private long-range plan to keep her close by, accessible only to him, even though they could never marry.
The first step was removing Catherine from the home, relocating her, beginning the legal separation, and ensuring future care of the children. Dickens’ initial plan was to have total custody of all ten children, but their oldest son chose to move with Catherine while the remaining nine children remained at the Dickens home under the care of Catherine’s younger sister, Georgina Hogarth. Georgina’s loyalty to Dickens, rather than to her sister, shattered relations with the Hogarth family; their relationships never recovered.
In spite of these enormous difficulties, Dickens kept his relationship with Nelly Ternan a secret. For the next thirteen years, he hid Nelly from prying eyes, by moving her in and around London, once to an outlying village. Dickens continued to provide financially for Nelly, Catherine and all the children, while continuing to maintain his regular frenetic pace of publications and appearances.
On June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens died; at his bedside were Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law. Dickens’ will bequeathed to Nelly Ternan £1,000.
Despite years of sleuthing by literary experts, Nelly Ternan’s relationship with Dickens remained a mystery. It wasn’t until Claire Tomalin published The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, in 1990, that many of the age-old questions were answered. Tomalin was unrelenting in her search for information related to the Dickens-Ternan love affair, and her finished biography shows just how successful her efforts were.
Tomalin successfully connected information found in old documents and ledgers that were written in Dickens’ personal shorthand. The clues and notes together proved just how far Dickens had used his formidable reputation and resources to keep prying eyes away. For his plan to be foolproof, he made sure Nelly Ternan’s real identity “disappeared,” that she become “invisible” (Tomalin). When Dickens died at fifty-eight, Nelly “the person, the actress” had been erased; she was a non-entity. Nelly had been out of the public eye for thirteen years.
Tomalin’s work is comprehensive, tracing the affair, the numerous relocations, the false names and identities, and the revelation that Nelly may have had one, or possibly two, pregnancies during the thirteen years the couple were together. The fate of the children, if they came to full term, or failed to survive, remains unknown. It is highly probable that the real facts will never be known, but Tomalin has definitely come closer to the truth more than anyone else.
Some Additional Thoughts . . .
Catherine Hogarth Dickens: Catherine, deprived of her home, children, and status, lived another twenty years after Dickens died. His actions towards her and his children were cruel and selfish. While Dickens remains a phenomenal author, his behavior towards his wife Catherine Hogarth, family and even Nelly Ternan, revealed a man with a skewed sense of self-importance, a broken sense of right and wrong, and a man emotionally bankrupt.
Admitting Nothing: Ternan went on to marry a school teacher, had two children, and lived until seventy-five years of age. Ternan died without ever admitting to or discussing her relationship with Charles Dickens.
Unanswered Question: Nelly Ternan’s mother, Frances Eleanor Ternan (née Jarman) was an actress of some renown; her father, Thomas Lawless Ternan, was a renowned actor. The family was a theatrical family by profession. When Dickens became interested in 18-year-old Nelly, her mother allowed Dickens’ pursuit of Nelly–even acting as a chaperone–essentially giving her approval despite knowing that Dickens was already married and much too old for Nelly. Why did Frances Ternan allow Dickens to pursue the illicit affair with her 18-year-old daughter? The social consequences would have been disastrous for the entire Ternan family if the secret came to light; what motivated the mother to acquiesce to the arrangement? Whatever those reasons were, they went with Frances Ternan to her grave.
Lastly, but importantly, there is the question as to whether or not Ellen Nelly Ternan actually loved Charles Dickens. Like so many other questions related to this affair, it will remain unanswered forever.
Photo No. 1 Portrait of Charles Dickens. William Powell Frith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo No 2 Volume 29 Portrait of Charles Dickens
Author: Charles Dickens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. 1990. Harper Collins Publishers. Book Photo Courtesy of Amazon.
Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman. The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 1990. Alfred A. Knopf. Book Photo Courtesy of Amazon.
Perdue, David. A. The Charles Dickens’ Page. “The Mystery of Ellen Ternan.” Explore Charles Dickens’ relationship with the young actress. (1997-2022). David A. Perdue https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/ellen-ternan.html
“Georgina Hogarth.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgina_Hogarth
Wayback Machine. “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens.” Chronology of Events. http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Chronology.htm
Victorian era. historical period, United Kingdom. Britannica Encyclopedia. https://www.britannica.com/event/Victorian-era
Royal Forums. Queen Victoria – The Longest-Reigning Monarch in British History. https://www.theroyalforums.com/11704-queen-victoria-the-longest-reigning-monarch-in-british-history/
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
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