Charles Dickens is a Hero for many people, but for some time now it’s been difficult to picture him as a Saint. As a married man with a large family, Dickens found time to enjoy a long-term clandestine relationship with a much younger woman, an actress called Ellen Ternan (aka Nelly Ternan).
Claire Tomalin, whose brilliant biography of the novelist was recently published, was one of the first people to write about this affair back in 1990, in her book The Invisible Woman. Ternan too lived in Fitzrovia for a while, although for a much shorter period than her famous protector. In 1858-9 Dickens set her and her sister Maria up in lodgings at 31 Berners Street, while he himself was living close by in Tavistock House, Tavistock Square.
Dickens and his unhappy wife Catherine – mother to the couple’s nine children – were formally separated at the novelist’s insistence in 1858. But they were never divorced, and the relationship with Ternan remained a closely guarded secret. Claire Tomalin believes that all the evidence points to Ternan having given birth to a son in France in about 1864. If so, the child probably died in infancy.
One summer’s day in 1865 Dickens was escorting Ellen and her mother back to London from the channel port of Folkestone when their train crashed off an iron bridge near Staplehurst in Kent. As in one recent train disaster, mistakes had been made over track maintenance, and a number of rails had been removed for replacement. Most of the train’s carriages fell into the river below, but the one occupied by the Dickens party hung in mid-air over the embankment. The novelist managed to clamber out of the window to give help to the wounded and dying, and even at one point scrambled back into the train to fetch his flask of brandy. Ten passengers in total died in the crash, and there were over 40 injured.
But Dickens was also determined not to reveal the identity of the people with whom he was travelling. His two women friends were somehow smuggled away from the scene, and he categorically refused to give evidence at the inquest. However, three days afterwards he did write to the station master at Charing Cross: “A lady who was in the carriage with me in the terrible accident …lost a gold watch-chain, a gold watch-key and a gold seal engraved ‘Ellen’. I promised the lady to make her loss known at headquarters in case these trinkets should be found.”
Ternan had also injured her arm and neck in the crash, and what’s more she may well have still been grieving for her child who had died in France. But she was apparently not put off by these traumatic events. Though the pair always occupied separate establishments, Ellen’s affair with Dickens continued until the novelist’s death from a stroke in June 1870. Then in 1876, at the age of 37, she married a man who was 12 years her junior. The couple had two children and together ran a boys’ school in Margate.
In its long and lively history Fitzrovia has been the site of a wide variety of erotic adventures, so it comes as no surprise that it has sometimes provided a refuge for ‘secret families’ like the one established by Dickens. Are we shocked by the men who created these love-nests? Or do we see the arrangements as quite understandable at a time when divorce was expensive and socially unacceptable? The women involved must surely have found the need for concealment quite humiliating, but perhaps it was preferable to poverty or abandonment by their lovers.
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The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomlin will be re-issued by Penguin in June 2012.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com