The current fascination with 19th century period dramas appears not to be abating. Audiences continue, strangely, to be drawn to an era where pain-free dentistry was inconceivable and, at least for the masses of the working class jammed into burgeoning slums of industrial cities, life was colored with its own particularly brutal hue.
But is there a quality of that era of convention, tradition and etiquette, the absence of which modern people recognize as a loss, that drives the fascination? Perhaps it is the restraint of speech and behaviour that contrasts so sharply with our own unfiltered times that lends weight to whatever nostalgia is attached to that age? Or is it merely the enjoyment of an era that is quaint and so foreign to us that it makes for good entertainment?
Either way it’s not hard to see why the story of Charles Dickens and his mistress makes for captivating story telling. Dickens was the most successful novelist of his time, and the author of classics like Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. In 1857 Dickens, married for over twenty years and father of ten, fell in love with a young actress, Nellie Ternan. Dickens was 45 when he met Ternan. She was 18. A year later he separated from his wife.
The Invisible Woman is based on biographer Claire Tomalin’s account of the relationship believed to have been the inspiration for characters such as Estella in Great Expectations and Lucie Manette from A tale of Two Cities. Dickens and Ternan destroyed all correspondence that would have provided the details of their affair and therefore much of the content of the film is speculative.
Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Dickens in the film alongside Felicity Jones (Nellie Ternan) and Kristen Scott Thomas (Nellie’s mother). Meticulously constructed, the detail in costume and sets and subtlety in direction make for a convincing recreation of the time. In an intense atmosphere restrained acting powerfully portrays the agonised nature of a love affair where the enthralled couple can never be together in a conventional sense. Tomalin argues that Dickens lived with Ternan for the last 13 years of his life, but in another very real sense, Ternan had to remain invisible—hardly a recipe for domestic bliss.
The film depicts the 19th century version of celebrity with its benefits and pitfalls. Dickens was the rock star of his day, lauded and loved and recognized in public. He is presented as somewhat caught up in that life, as he travelled around England, Scotland and Ireland and twice to America giving public readings of his work to packed theatres and grand acclaim. His wife, the other invisible woman, warns the younger mistress that she’ll always have to share him and will never know if he loves her more than the adulation.
Embodied in this story is the tendency we have to idolize those who are blessed with a great skill such that an encounter with the real person is bound to disappoint. “Avoid meeting your heroes” is wise advice rarely taken. Fiennes’ Dickens has many admirable qualities even beyond his literary genius but he is deeply flawed. Not the least of his foibles is his inability to resist falling for Nellie despite his circumstances, while consigning her to a murky life in the shadows beyond polite society.
Dickens is well known for his religious faith. No-one could read A Tale of Two Cities and miss the Christian gospel within its climax. But it’s hard to know how much he wrestled with the relationship as a moral struggle. The film version, at least, presents him as melodramatically swept up in his attraction to Nellie and quick to move on from the woman who “understands nothing” but nonetheless bore his children.
At one level this is a great love story. “You are part of my existence, part of the little good in me, part of the evil,” Dickens says to Nellie, channeling Pip in Great Expectations. At a superficial level, the casting of The Invisible Woman implies approval of the affair. Who could blame Dickens for falling for a bright and eager Felicity Jones in place of the frumpy, dull and disinterested Mrs. Dickens, right?
But actually, beyond the breathless rush of tantalizing illicit love, there is simply a whole lot of unhappiness for all concerned—the rejected wife, the embarrassed sons, even Nellie herself who spends much of the film tormented by her in-between state. Ultimately she has to make a choice to embrace real life and an actual husband rather than the romanticized memory of the great writer. That she is, in part, able to do so signals the beginning of a kind of healing and emergence from a tenebrous cloud of shame and loss that had haunted her since her youth.
The Invisible Woman will be too plodding and somberly reflective for some, but there will be plenty of moviegoers interested enough in the life of Dickens, or 19th century tragic romance or just a beautifully artistic exploration of a complex and controversial relationship, for this to be a satisfying cinema experience.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.