This is an account of the woman with whom Dickens had an intimate relationship for over a decade, though the ranks of family and other supporters sought to hide the fact from the what would have been a scandalised and disapproving world.
Tomalin's book is a fascinating and multi-faceted read. The lengthy background to the Ternan family allows for a really interesting exploration of the theatrical world of the nineteenth-century. This is brilliantly dovetailed into an exploration of the ambivalence of an actress's social position at that time and of women generally. Dickens' own lifelong pre-occupation with and delight in theatre (he longed to run one and was an enthusiastic amateur actor) is central to the narrative, while the position of women is cleverly elaborated through the way Tomalin explores the highly problematic nature of Dickens representation of them within his work through the prism of his relationship with actress Nelly.
Dickens emerges badly and the author does not gloss over his cruelties and selfishness. The modern reader is less shocked by his having had a mistress than by his almost megalomaniacal determination to keep the skeleton right at the back of the cupboard, a determination which leads to cruelties one associates more with a Steerforth than his creator.
Yet Tomalin is not a narrowly moralistic writer. She recognises the psychological struggles taking place out of sight, and that the awfulness of Dickens' behaviour at this point in his life does not obliterate his history of generosity and kindness, his energetic exposure of the ills of the society he lived in and active fight against many of them. However, he was not as free of that society's sense of propriety, nor as courageous in confronting it as he might have wished, nor as some of his associates managed to be.
But of course this book is not about Dickens, though he has a central role within it and is the point about which much of the narrative turns. This is Nelly's story, as far as it can be discovered, and it is remarkably vividly presented for all her 'invisibilty': one cannot but feel the deepest sympathy for her dreadful plight and vulnerability in a relationship which protects her at the cost of depriving her of any real independence whilst putting her at the gravest risk of exposure and ignominy. Post-Dickens, she emerged from the shadows, married and for some years gained happiness and a respectable social position. However, one is most touched by the awful fate of Nelly's son, who, unable to come to terms with what he discovers about his mother and her former secret life, has his affection utterly poisoned by shame: the loving parent is obliterated by his post-mortem discoveries, Victorian social prejudices trumping affection and tenderness. Poor Nelly seems to have missed out in every way!
A fascinating and moving account which, in the paperback edition, also contains new evidence which seems to suggest that the established details of Dickens' death are not as has been assumed for over a century!
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