How do you write the life story of an invisible woman?

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Title: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

Author: Claire Tomalin

Label: Biography

Published in: 1990

Jukebox: My own idea of Nelly reminds me of “The Greatest” by Cat Power. Check it out:

Usually the most I read about people’s lives is casual Wikipedia surfing. Unless I’m in historian mode, biography does not float my boat.

So why did I read The Invisible Woman? Because I saw that it got made into a movie and Ralph Fiennes is in it (duh, it’s Voldemort with a beard, THAT’s why). I haven’t watched the movie yet. After reading the plot summary, I decided that I would make an exception for Charles Dickens’ mistress and read her life story instead of going straight for the well-made period drama.

I did not know Charles Dickens had a mistress. That’s really why I started reading (and the truth is out). But don’t shy away from the word “mistress,” because this book is not racy entertainment. This book is not a love story. This book isn’t even the “sad life of a girl manipulated to believe her body is her only value” sob story. This book is an attempt to salvage the parts of Nelly Ternan’s life that weren’t deliberately erased by her, her family, and Dickens.

Claire Tomalin is a detective historian, first and foremost. I am kind of in awe of all the research she did, and the way she stitched all of her information together to make a coherent picture of a woman’s entire life. Tomalin had a huge puzzle on her hands, with this woman of whom there is no record of but who was apparently the longtime companion of one of the greatest writers of all time.

Who was Nelly Ternan and why was she kept a secret? Well, Tomalin did an awesome job answering both questions. If anything can be said about this book, it’s that Tomalin was very, very thorough. The first three chapters aren’t even about Nelly; instead Tomalin goes back a couple generations and introduces us to Nelly’s grandmother and her life as an actress. At first I was a little put off by the long background of theatre life and hardship, as well as the lists of all the places Nelly’s grandmother performed. But then Nelly comes into the picture as a little girl in the middle of Chapter 3 and I realize how much of her childhood was onstage. In fact, she was acting it up in London until she met Dickens at 18. So yeah, those first chapters, however boring, are important.

When Tomalin finally gets to Nelly, it’s funny how I didn’t see the punchline coming. Nelly is the invisible woman, therefore she was made to be untraceable, and therefore there’s practically no record of her. No letters from her to Dickens, no pictures of her with Dickens, no diary, no nothing. So what does Tomalin do? How can she write the life story of an invisible woman?

She writes around Nelly. She writes about her two sisters, her mother, her friends, the places Nelly travels, where she lives. Now the long acting history comes in; a lot can be gleaned from knowing someone’s profession. Most of all, she writes about Dickens. Gradually, Tomalin builds the outline of Nelly’s life, in the hopes that one day that outline will become a fully fleshed-out woman. Here, try this: Tomalin is Giuseppe and Nelly is her Pinocchio.

So, was Tomalin successful? Did Pinocchio become a real boy (er, girl)? Yes, I think she did. Even with all the meticulous research, Tomalin understandably had to fill in a lot of holes with her own imagination. But Tomalin’s imagination was very well prepared to bridge the gap and assume things that we’ll probably never know (for example, whether Nelly ever had a child by Dickens. Tomalin says yes, while most others say no).

That said, I think I appreciate her detective skills more than her writing. At times, she described Nelly with such sympathy and understanding, especially during those times of educated-guessing-imaginative-gap-filling:

“However cultivated she might become, there was not much to do with her cultivation if she was destined for a life of nervous isolation.”

But most of the time, Tomalin’s narrative voice was restrained and carefully unbiased. So we’re back to the beginning, where I wonder if biographies are really worth it if the writing never gets me emotionally attached to a character. Certainly Nelly represents a lot of historical significance, as she was proof of Dickens’ hypocrisy and the rest of London society at the time. I am certainly more informed. I think Tomalin’s intent in writing this biography will save me then. The last chunk of the book occurs after Dickens’ death. Nelly marries and lives a totally normal life. The fact that Tomalin strove to paint a complete picture of Nelly, and not just focus on the blaring, destructive relationship with Dickens tells me why this biography was worth reading.

Random Musings:

~Tomalin also did a great job explaining Charles Dickens. Knowing that she’s also written a biography on Dickens makes more sense. He was so fearful of separating his public and private life that Tomalin claims he literally died of exhaustion from all the traveling he had to do between his office, Nelly, and his family. It was nice to get a clear and concise understanding of the beloved author who stressed clean-cut, good/bad characters in his own novels but struggled with his own morality on the inside.

~The power of public image, my friends: Claire Tomalin attributes Nelly’s disappearance from written record to Dickens’ public relations people.

~Dickens isn’t even one of my favorite authors; Oliver Twist was a little painful to read the first time, though I appreciate his sentence-shaping more after English class. But that doesn’t mean his vibrant, conflicted life isn’t worth knowing about.

~I said I was bored by the beginning chapters, but the ending makes up for it: Tomalin’s last chapter deals with Nelly’s impact on her son Geoffrey when her affair with Dickens is revealed to the public. The longevity of Nelly’s life was well captured, from her great-grandmother’s acting career to Geoffrey’s silence on discovering his mother’s hidden identity.

Rating: 7 – good: would recommend, above average, has some problems but I can deal.

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