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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Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens

All of Dickens’s major works (except The Christmas Carol) were originally published in weekly or monthly installments – like waiting breathlessly for the next episode of Downton Abbey.   Most of us have read or seen one of Dickens’s stories, but if his birthday inspires you to revisit his classics, his biographer Claire Tomalin suggests starting with David Copperfield, Dickens’s own “favorite child.”   Oprah’s pick was A Tale of Two Cities, and Ralph Fiennes with Helena Bonham Carter will soon be in a remake of Great Expectations.   

 With over 90 biographies of the prolific author,  Robert Douglas-Fairhurst just added to the list; Becoming Dickens focuses on Dickens’s early life and has the flavor of a good dissertation.    A better story might be Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991) – about 45 year-old married Dickens’s affair with an 18-year-old actress.

To commemorate the day, I’m reading The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford.  Although Standiford includes the requisite background of Dickens as a poor boy in a boot blacking factory, he quickly fast forwards to how Dickens became a writer.  The focus has The Christmas Carol saving his writing career; the “judicious edits” and concern over small details – like the end papers – will endear him to any writer.  The not so well-known aftermath of the piracy of his story, and the unsatisfactory court litigation is balanced by Dickens’s delight that it was so well received by readers.  Noting that  “if every copy were destroyed today, it could be rewritten tomorrow, so many know the story by heart,” Standiford journies through what may have been Dickens’s inspiration in the writing, and then follows through with a short reflection on the rest of Dickens’s life and subsequent writing.

Charles Dickens wrote 4 more Christmas stories after the success of A Christmas Carol, but none as well known, or as effective at relaying “the enduring themes: the deleterious effects of ignorance and want, the necessity for charity, the benefits of goodwill, family, unity, and the need for celebration of the life force, including the pleasures of good food and drink, and good company.

…It is a mark of Dickens’s genius that we return eagerly to his hopeful vision – millions of us now – year and year.  And vow to do the best we can.”

So – Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens, and thanks.

Masterpiece Contemporary Theater

With over a hundred channels available, I still find it hard to find something to watch on television – one of the reasons I read more than watch.  By sheer luck, I stumbled onto the PBS Masterpiece Contemporary airing of “Page Eight” – a spy thriller starring veteran actors Bill Nighy and Judy Davis as British spies, Michael Gambon as the frumpy head of M15, Ralph Fiennes as the unprincipled Prime Minister, and Rachel Weisz as the mysterious beautiful collaborator.

A screenplay rejected for the movies for its lack of violence and sex, Page Eight offers film noir fans an intelligent and suspenseful British version of corrupt politicians and civilized spies.   PBS Masterpiece Theater raises the bar for contemporary drama in short doses.

If you missed this one, look for the rerun or the DVD.  More are coming.  Put down the book for a few hours, and enjoy.

The PBS Masterpiece Schedule