The Invisible Woman – the book and the movie

9780804172127_p0_v1_s260x420In Claire Tomalin’s biography – The Invisible Woman – Charles Dickens could be a cliché  – the successful middle-aged man in his forties with a wife and children whose eye wanders to the young blond eighteen year old beauty.  In his self-directed movie, Ralph Fiennes brings the book and the author to life.  Although Charles Dickens was merely a man, his prodigious talent and personal power sustained an overpowering aura of Victorian ideals, until his relationship with Nelly Ternan was revealed to tarnish his self-promoting image.  For Dickens aficionados, Tomalin’s book has more than the inside story of Dickens’ fortitude and ambition, loves and secrets, inconsistencies and talent.  Tomalin manages to get inside his head – with the help of letters and a year from his diary that escaped the obliteration of the rest of his annual recordings – to reveal “a man intent on a split life.”

He believed strongly in his own ability to wrench the world into the shape he wanted, the stage manager of real events and lives as well as imaginary ones. ‘I know my plan is a good one {Dickens stated} – because it is mine!”…In his dealings with his wife and in-laws, he behaved as a man who never doubts that what he wants is what is right and will surely be brought about. He was not often defeated…”

The movie successfully incorporates many of his practices documented in Tomalin’s book – long walks, parlor games, amateur theater, fastidious dress.  In addition, small but important moments are reflected in the movie: Charles Jr. accidentally coming upon his father and lover on a long walk, Catherine (Dickens wife) delivering Nelly the birthday present mistakenly sent to her, Dickens denying Nelly as his companion on the train that wrecks, Nelly’s purple gloves.

While the movie shows Nelly pregnant and delivering a still-born child, Tomalin’s narrative only speculates the possibility of illegitimate offspring – possibly more than one – who did not survive.  In true Hollywood style, Nelly’s mourning of her lost child becomes the catalyst for a confession and rebirth into a new life for her.

His stressful life wore on Dickens –  the divided days and weeks and the train rides between his personal life with his children at Gad’s Hill, his professional life traveling to deliver readings, and his secret one with Nelly in Slough, caused him sleeplessness, faintness, and small strokes. He kept up the frantic pace with his readings and a last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, until his died of a stroke at 58, thirteen years after beginning his life with Nelly.

The movie begins with a flashback of an older established Nelly, purposely walking the beach and remembering her time with Dickens.  Following the book, after Dickens’ death, Nelly married a clergyman who opened a school for boys, and in the movie, she is directing a school play – the same play, “The Frozen River,” in which she first connected with Dickens.  Nelly effectively erased her years with Dickens, and moves on to an established life, making herself 28 years old when her son is born (when she is actually 40), and later giving birth to a daughter.  The movie ends on a note of conciliation with George, her husband, and following Tomalin’s last chapter, titled,”Nelly Tells,” her confession of her past life to her local parish priest.

The movie ends with Nelly believing her secret is safe and the promise of a good life; however, Tomalin continues beyond the Hollywood “happy ending” to note that the clergyman later reveals her confidences to a Dickens biographer.  After her husband becomes ill and they lose the school, Nelly becomes the family breadwinner by taking in boarders, supplemented by her small income from Dickens and her tutoring.  She becomes a playwright in her seventies, before she dies and leaves her papers and letters to her son, Geoffrey, eventually revealing her true life story to him.  Geoffrey is ambivalent, and a little ashamed of his mother; the details stay hidden for years.

Tomalin strays from the biography to include important background about the lives of women in the theater at that time – not considered a respectable Victorian womanly past time, yet one of the few occupations that gave a woman independence and sometimes management experience in a world that had women quietly embroidering, awaiting the fate their fathers and husbands created for them.   She also follows Dickens work, and focuses on books that may offer a hint of Nelly’s influence.  In both the book and the movie, Nelly’s mother and sisters, especially her mother Fanny, the true theatrical talent, appear noncommittal, sometimes supportive, grateful for their new opportunities and comforts, while delicately avoiding the truth that Nelly’s virtue is being compromised and offered in exchange for the monetary support that Dickens offers them.

Tomalin credits her assumptions about Dickens life with Nelly through pages of research and credible resources; however, she carefully concludes that her conclusions are speculative.  Many Dickinson authorities today still question this relationship of the middle-aged man with the young protegé, steadfastly believing that Nelly was no more that a second daughter, a contemporary of Dickens’ daughter Katy.  In true Dickenson style, Tomalin pursues the tale like a well-documented detective story, following the money, which leads to incontrovertible evidence.

In this case, I saw the movie before I read the book.  I’ve known of Tomalin’s biography for a while and have meant to read it, but seeing the movie was the catalyst I needed.  Immersed in Tomalin’s conversational tone, I found it rewarding to follow her research and relive the events of the Victorian era.  Dickens was a rock star of the times, and revealing his secrets only makes him more human and possibly more popular.

The movie is slow-moving.  At one point the two prospective lovers gazed at each other so long, many in the theater thought the camera had broken.  If you enjoy period pieces with beautiful expansive scenery and costumes, you might appreciate the elocution of the actors and the cleverness of the scenes, and disregard the lack of surprises in the narrative, as I did – a movie made for PBS.

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