The Invisible Woman

April 19, 2014
Ralph Fiennes in The Invisible Woman (2013)
Ralph Fiennes in The Invisible Woman (2013)

Charles Dickens (1812-70) was not only a literary giant, he was a celebrity whose every move was chronicled in the press. As a practising Christian and tenchant social critic Dickens had a reputation to uphold, but his temperament and energy lured him away from the path of convention.

The Victorians were no more flawed than the citizens of any other age, but rarely has a society put greater emphasis on keeping up the appearance of moral purity. Small wonder we look back on a time of hypocrisy and deep, dark secrets. This also explains our undying fascination for Victorian fiction, because the agonies of conscience and arts of concealment are the material of timeless literature.

The Invisible Woman tells the story of Dickens’s long-running affair with Ellen (‘Nelly’) Ternan, a young actress for whom he separated from his his wife, Catherine. When they met in 1857, Nelly was 18 and Dickens 45. The following year Dickens left the family home after 22 years of marriage, and ten children. He established Nelly in various houses under false names, and may even have fathered a stillborn child with her. It remained, however, a clandestine relationship. When biographer, Claire Tomalin, began to research the life of Ellen Ternan, she was surprised to find so little documentary evidence.

In 1876, six years after Dickens’s death, Nelly married schoolmaster, George Wharton Robinson, who was twelve years her junior. She lied to him about her age, claiming to be 23 when she was really 37, pretending she had been only a child when she made the aquaintance of the famous author. The movie is framed as a flashback, with the older Nelly reflecting on her earlier life as she directs a schoolboy production of a play by Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

It’s an amazing story that Ralph Fiennes and his scriptwriter, Abi Morgan, have turned it into a deft and touching movie. This is Fiennes’s second stint in the director’s chair, after the brutal excesses of Coriolanus (2011), and it reveals a subtlety that was never glimpsed in the previous film. The Victorian period is brought to life in immaculate sets and costumes, while the interactions between characters are never allowed to lapse into the sentimentality that was Dickens’s personal vice as a writer.

Fiennes’s performance as Dickens is breathtaking, as he captures the enthusiasm and charisma of the man, along with the contradictions and the cruelty. One is conscious of his egotism, but also his extreme sensitivity. It’s even more impressive when one looks back on Fiennes’s most recent roles, which have seen him taking on characters as diverse as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, the blood-spattered Coriolanus, and the camp Monsieur Gustave, in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It may be significant that he played Magwitch in the most recent adaptation of Great Expectations.

Fiennes’s co-star, Felicity Jones, is equally good in conveying the mixed emotions that Nelly must have felt to be so adored by a man she had idolised as a writer. This could not, however, compensate for the age difference, nor the fact that Dickens was married and felt compelled to preserve the proprieties. She was poor and he was rich. He lived his life in the limelight, while she stayed concealed in the shadows.

The film’s other outstanding performances come from Joanna Scanlan, as the long-suffering Catherine, who tries to maintain her dignity in the face of her husband’s increasingly callous behaviour; and Kristin Scott Thomas, as Nelly’s mother, Frances Ternan – an aging actress, and widowed mother to three girls – who tacitly encourages the liaison with Dickens.

From 1857 to the end of his life, much of Dickens’s time was taken up with strenuous but lucrative reading tours, testifying to his need for public adulation. He would complete only three more novels, but they are among his finest: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. Nelly is said to have inspired the character of Estella in Great Expectations, and the last line of that novel – “I saw no shadow of another parting from her,” acknowledges that love may endure even when both partners have gone their separate ways.

For a film about a writer, The Invisible Woman is most eloquent in its silences. While returning incognito from France, Dickens and Nelly were involved in the Staplehurst rail crash. In this scene he can acknowledge his mistress only as “this young woman”, watching her being packed off to hospital while he helps with the injured. Nelly spends much of the film wearing expressions of inner pain and resignation, not unlike the mask Catherine had perfected.

In the movie it is often difficult to judge how much time has passed, but the relationship between Dickens and Nelly allegedly lasted 13 years. One gets the impression of a woman whose youth has been sacrificed at the altar of Dickens’s public image, but the real Nelly was rather more calculating than this portrait suggests. As for Dickens himself, he comes across as neither villain nor hero, his flaws almost a function of his fame. With so little evidence, and all correspondence consigned to the flames, it’s inevitable that the true story of Dickens’s life should become entangled in fiction. It has been his good fortune to be dealt with so sympathetically.

The Invisible Woman
UK, rated M
111 mins
Directed by Ralph Fiennes; screenplay by Abi Morgan, based on a book by Claire Tomalin; starring Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Perdita Weeks, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Hollander, John Kavanagh

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19 April, 2014.