Sunday, 17 May 2009

Doomed Love

I don't know what's got into me this past week, but suddenly I am devouring books quicker than normal, and I've been totally immersed in the lives of women on the periphery. If it's not Dorothy Wordsworth, then it's Nelly Ternan. Does it say something for my subconscious that I seem to be reading about woman who were repressed (deliberately or otherwise) by the men that loved them? I do hope not.

It's hard to write a biography when there is not much evidence of the person being scrutinised. Ellen (Nelly) Ternan was a young woman brought up in an acting family with what looked like a decent, if not completely promising, acting career in front of her, until one day Charles Dickens decided to take his amateur acting up a level and hired her, and the rest of her family, to take the roles that his family had previously played. From that day in 1857, Nelly was inextricably bound up with Dickens and as a result slipped almost completely from the pages of history.

Certainly as the Victorian era's best model for family values (even if he did abandon his wife and was unduly critical of his children) Dickens could afford no scandal to touch his name, and he therefore endeavoured to keep Nelly as cloistered as possible, but the subterfuge went so far that even after his death, Nelly remained silent on the subject of her famous patron.

Claire Tomalin's portrait is an interesting one to read, because even with the scant information there is to enable us to form a clear picture, there is still enough snippets for us to gain an understanding of where she came from and where she went after a thirteen year vanishing act. The fact that Dickens had a mistress doesn't particularly shock modern sensibilities, but when the news was breaking just after the First World War people were outraged. The person it appears to have hurt the most, however, was Nelly's son from her marriage after her time with Dickens. Geoffrey had been brought up believing his Mother was young and truthful, wholly in love with his father, and never anything more remarkable than the wife of a schoolmaster. To discover she had once been an actress, was a decade older than she pretended to be, had possibly deceived his father for the whole of their marriage, and might have never truly loved him, was too much. Geoffrey refused to talk about the potential truth for the rest of his life, and is believed to have destroyed much vital evidence that would have helped us put a character to the many images we have of Nelly. Interestingly, the reverse is true of Dorothy Wordsworth - we have many words, and only two images, one a silhouette.

I wonder sometimes if there are any other invisible women to be discovered. Half the Victorian world seems to have lived double or triple lives; who else split their lives into public and private and managed to get away with it - up to a point? One can only wonder at the scandalous stories that are still to be revealed to the world.

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