She is the shadowy figure in Dickens’s life, the woman who shared the last thirteen years before his early death. His biographers tried to erase her, their letters to each other were burned, but still the story of Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan could not be obliterated from history.
Ellen Lawless Ternan was born on March 3, 1839 in Rochester, England, coincidentally a city that had much meaning for Charles Dickens. She was born into a theatrical family of long standing. Her mother, father and grandmother had all been actors; her mother, Fanny Ternan, had even appeared on the London stage, with the great actor William Charles Macready (another good friend of Dickens). When Ellen was around six, her father Thomas Ternan had a breakdown and was committed to an asylum where he died two years later.
From the time they were small children, Ellen and her two older sisters Fanny and Maria had appeared on stage. The life of an actress in Victorian England was difficult. Not only were actresses considered one step above prostitutes (the consensus being that pretending to be someone else made you morally suspect), but actors weren’t exactly rolling in the dough, not even stars of the era could count on job security. There was no Actors Equity back then to make sure that the actors were paid adequately and not worked to death. The life of an actor was a constant round of touring from one provincial theater to another, punctuated with performances in London if the actor was lucky enough to secure an engagement with a London theater. But even stars of the caliber of Mrs. Siddons and Dorothy Jordan still relied on benefits (a practice whereby the night’s proceeds went to the actor) and constant touring. Actors were responsible for their own costumes, they carried sandwiches with them on the train or coach, and lodgings ranged anywhere from dismal to adequate. If an actress was pregnant, she worked up until the day she gave birth, often playing roles like Juliet while 8 months pregnant.
While all three girls had a modicum of success as actresses, it was clear that none of them were ever going to even have even the minor success of their mother. Fanny had ambitions to be a singer, not an actress. All three women faced a life of dwindling parts, playing in minor plays, and constant touring.
Everything changed however in 1857 when they made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens, the most famous writers in England if not the world. He strode the divide between Regency England and the Victorian age like a colossus. By the time, the Ternan women met him; he’d published many of his major novels, and was running a magazine Household Words. He was also the father of ten children, nine of them living, and divided his time between his home in Kent, Gads Hill, a bachelor apartment in London on Wellington Street and a London house.
Dickens was a man of prodigious energy and ambition that had taken him from the blacking factory as a child, through a career as a clerk, and then a journalist covering the Parliamentary debates to his career as a novelist and sometime playwright. Despite his marriage and children, he spent as much time with his friends attending the theater, hanging out at his various clubs, including the Garrick Club (founded in 1831 as a place for actors, men of theater and their supports. Even after over 150 years, its still men only, women are only allowed in the club on the first Thursday of the month with an ‘R’ in it or something like that). He would often walk all night around London; he said that it helped him to plan the next day’s writing.
Dickens was preparing a benefit performance of the play, The Frozen Deep he had collaborated on with his good friend Wilkie Collins. The performances were to take place in Manchester, and Dickens decided that the play needed professional actresses in the female roles. Dickens was fascinated by the theater, at one point he even thought of pursuing a career as a professional actor. He’d secured an audition with the Haymarket, and had prepared assiduously for the audition with the help of his sister Fanny. He’d decided that his forte would be comedy so he’d studied the performances of the comic actors of the day. Unfortunately, Dickens had prepared so strenuously that on the day of the audition, he’d come down with a head cold and was unable to perform. The theaters loss was fiction's gain, but Dickens never lost his desire to perform. He’d often put on performances for his friends that rivaled professional productions. Once, he confided to a friend that his dream was to be a theatrical manager.
The Ternan family was recommended to Dickens by his good friend William Charles Macready. At this time, Mrs. Ternan had pretty much retired from the stage, at the age of 55; parts were few and far between. The lead role went to Maria and Fanny and Ellen (called Nelly by her family and friends) played smaller roles. All four women were impressed and awed at the chance to work with the great Charles Dickens. Dickens in turn was most impressed with Nelly who was 18, blonde and very pretty. Although she was probably worldlier than most 18 year olds having spent her life among theater folk, she still had an air of innocence about her that appealed to Dickens. She was also the same age as his daughter Katey.
Dickens was 45, and clearly suffering from a mid-life crisis. Although he enjoyed family life, he was slightly dismayed at how huge his family was, as if he had nothing to do with the increasing number of children. He was also disenchanted with his wife, Catherine. After twenty-three years of marriage, they had nothing in common anymore. But the seeds of marital discord came two years before Dickens met Nelly, when he became reacquainted with his first love Maria Beadnell. His romantic vision of her was shattered leading to a devasting portrait of her in as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. After the performances in Manchester, Dickens had secured knowledge of the Ternans’s next engagement in Doncaster, and followed them there. He was taken with Nelly Ternan and was in ardent pursuit of her. Mrs. Ternan, although mindful of the honor, was still careful to find out exactly what his intentions were towards her daughter. His friends as well advised caution.
Matters came to ahead when Catherine found jewelry that Dickens had bought for Nelly. His marriage to Catherine was over, and nothing could be done but that they separate. History has judged Dickens harshly for his behavior towards Catherine and rightly so. In his mind, the marriage was wrong from the beginning, Catherine was unstable and a terrible mother. Her sister, Georgina Hogarth who lived with them, agreed in a letter that Catherine had never had any feeling towards her children. Dickens took a step further and published a letter in his magazine putting forth this view of the marriage, and stating that Nelly Ternan was innocent, and in no way responsible for the breakdown of relations between him and his wife. It was very badly done, particularly taking the children away from Catherine. Only his eldest son, Charley, defied his father and stayed with his mother. Catherine was forced to leave her homes and move into a smaller establishment. Dickens agreed to pay her £600 a year for life.
Divorce was unthinkable, especially for a man in Dickens's position. It would have involved public scandal, as the only way to obtain a divorce would have been to admit adultery. Now free of his wife, Dickens felt free to pursue Nelly, setting her up in her own house which he put in her own name, and then later on moving her out to Slough and then Peckham. Nelly was everything that Catherine was not. She was undomesticated, clever, witty, charming, interested in theater, politics, and literature, while Catherine had neither Dickens’s intellect nor energy (no surprise given that she’d spent most of their marriage either pregnant or raising children).
The rent on the London house provided an income for her. Over the next thirteen years until his death in 1870 Dickens spent at least three nights a week with Nelly, when they weren’t traveling together abroad. Dickens proved himself to be the master of the divided life, no one knew at any given time where he would be. Since none of their letters survive, it’s difficult to surmise what the exact nature of their relationship. Some biographers, like Peter Ackroyd claim that Dickens and Nelly were strictly platonic, that he thought of her like a daughter that he was rescuing from an uncertain life. However, according to Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography Invisible Woman, that contradicts Nelly’s own statements made years later to a vicar when she was married and living in Margate. My own feeling is that if they did have a sexual relationship it probably didn’t last long, subsiding into companionship.
There is also evidence that Dickens and Nelly may have conceived a child around 1866 that didn’t live, or even more than one who didn’t survive. The evidence consists of cryptic notes in a diary that Dickens lost while touring in American in 1867. Whatever the truth, the relationship had its share of strains. Once he set up Nelly as his mistress, he seems not to have known what to due with her. Nelly, for her part, while possibly glad not to be traipsing up and down the country playing increasingly smaller parts for even smaller pay, must have restless after a life of constant activity.
She spent as much time as she could with her sisters, both of whom married. Her older sister Fanny married Thomas Trollope the elder brother of novelist Anthony. He was 27 years older and the father of a teenage daughter Bice, who Fanny had been governess for. Maria, the middle sister, married a brewer in Oxford. While Fanny’s marriage was reasonably content, and she went on to a minor career as a novelist, her works published by Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, Maria’s marriage floundered. Life in Oxford did not suit her, and she increasingly spent time abroad in Florence where Fanny and Tom lived.
The turning point in Nelly’s relationship came with the Staplehurst rail crash they were involved in on June 9, 1865 while returning from France with her mother. Dickens spent some time tending to teh wounded and dying before rescuers arrived. Nelly’s arm was seriously injured and her health became delicate after that. Dickens just managed to keep her name out of the papers as his traveling companion, and he avoided appearing at the inquest into the crash where it would have become known that Nelly was traveling with him.
Now instead of spending her time waiting for Dickens to arrive, Nelly spent more time abroad visiting her sister. It must have been hard for her to see her sisters settled with respectable marriages, while she was kept in the shadows of Dickens’s life. While authors like Wilkie Collins had no problem keeping two separate households (A lifelong bachelor he had two different mistresses), Dickens needed to be more discreet. His reputation rested on the image of him as a devoted family man, upholding Victorian values. Even the disintegration of his marriage, he attributed to the flaws of Catherine, not any wrong doing on his part.
While papers in the United States, like The New York Times, had published whispers about his personal life, and most of his close friends knew about his relationship with Nelly, Dickens was still incredibly discreet and circumspect about the relationship. They didn’t entertain many of his friends at Nelly’s home, nor did Nelly have many outside acquaintances apart from her sisters and her mother. Dickens also undertook to burn his letters periodically and he asked his friends to do likewise, a boon to him but something that every Dickens biographer since then has cause to rue.
So what did Nelly do with her spare time while waiting for Dickens to appear? Well, she read a great deal, studied languages, and helped him by reading his work and advising him. When they were together, they went walking frequently and Nelly learned to ride. Not much of a life for a woman who had spent at least twelve years on the stage. There were more than likely regrets on both sides. While Nelly may have been an actress, Mrs. Ternan had brought up her daughters to be ladies. It must have been a hard decision for both of them for Nelly to accept the life of a mistress. And for Dickens, Nelly was not the comforting wifely woman that he might have wished for (that position however was being filled by his sister-in-law Georgina) nor was she the femme fatale of the Catherine Walters/Cora Pearl variety. Nelly’s choices were few, she couldn’t leave him, and a position as a governess or a teacher at this time was out of the question. Still, as long as he was alive, she was his ‘magic circle of one.’
There is speculation among biographers whether or not Nelly inspired any of the characters in his fiction after the start of their relationship. Clare Tomalin’s theory is that apart from the physical description of Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, there is little of Nelly in any of his female characters, although there are biographers who speculate there is something of Nelly in Estella in Great Expectations or Bella in Our Mutual Friend. Katey Dickens once said of her father that he didn't understand women, and there is some truth to that in his fiction.
After his final tour of America, Dickens settled down for a bit to start writing his last novel which was left unfinished, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he was tired. He’d already suffered a mini-stroke some months before. Now although he was not quite 60 years old, he looked much older. Finally on June 9,1870, Dickens suffered a collapse and died. Although the official version is that he died at Gad’s Hill, there is a theory that he actually collapsed in Peckham with Nelly, and that she then transported him by coach to Gad’s Hill where he died. Clare Tomalin examines this theory in the appendix to her biography of Nelly.
Whether he died at Gad’s Hill or with Nelly at Peckham, Charles Dickens was gone, and Nelly was finally free. He took care of her by leaving her £1,000 in his will as the first of his bequests, finally making public his high regard for her. He also may have left her other funds that were given to her while he was still alive. The rest of his £100,000 estate was divided amongst his children, with a bequest left to his sister-in-law Georgina, who stayed with him after he separated from her sister.
Nelly was now 31 years of age, and a spinster. For the next few years she traveled, staying with her sister Maria, and with Fanny and Tom in Italy. While staying with Maria in Oxford, Nelly met an undergraduate by the name of George Wharton Robinson who intended to make a career in the church. For the next several years, Nelly and George corresponded, and after he finished his MA degree he proposed marriage. He was 24, and Nelly was 36, although she told him that she was much younger. She was helped in the fact that she still looked youthful. While she admitted that Dickens had been a good friend to the family, her now apparent youth precluded there being anything untoward about the relationship. By shaving off a few years, Nelly had managed to erase thirteen years of her life.
The couple settled in Margate, where Nelly persuaded George to give up a career in the church to buy into a boy’s school. They were blessed with two children, Geoffrey and Gladys but the strain of running a school was too much for George so they had to give it up after several years.
From then on things were difficult for the Robinsons. Nelly still had her small annuity from the money that Dickens left her and the rent on the house in London, but it didn’t go very far with a son who needed money to buy a commission in the army and to pay tuition at Sandhurst. Nelly taught privately when she could, and her sisters gave her money when they were able. Still, Nelly is to be commended that she wasn’t tempted to write a tell-all book about her relationship with her Dickens. She spent her last years living in Southsea. After her husband died, she spent more time with her sisters until one by one they died as well, first Maria and then Fanny. Nelly had been operated on for breast cancer, which now returned. She died at the age of 75, buried beside her husband.
It wasn’t until after Nelly’s death in 1914, that the truth began to come out about her relationship with Dickens. Her son, Geoffrey, was in for a shock when he went through his mother’s few papers. Not only did he discover that she had been actress, and older than she claimed, but there must have been hints that she had more than a passing acquaintance with Charles Dickens. Apparently his suspicions were confirmed by Sir Henry Dickens, the only surviving son. Appalled, he burned every last scrap. More revelations were revealed with a book published after Kate Dickens Perugini’s death called Dickens and Daughter. The secret was now out for better or for worse.
The question remains, did Ellen Ternan love Dickens? It’s clear from the few letters from Dickens that survive that he loved her, was passionately attached to her. That’s one thing that will never be certain. She was probably fond of him, he took care of her, respected her opinion on his work but love? The illicit nature of their relationship and the toll that it took on both of them probably precluded love of a romantic nature from lasting for long.
If it weren’t for Dickens would anyone be interested in the life of a third-rate at best actress, who married a schoolteacher? Probably not. Still, Ellen Ternan fascinates for what she might reveal about Dickens in his later years. The British playwright Simon Gray recently premiered a new play called Little Nell about their relationship. I think Simon Gray had it right when he said it was more than an affair, what they had was a marriage, albeit a secret one. Unfortunately she will probably always remain a mysterious and shadowy footnote in the life of Charles Dickens.