Luck of the Mistress – Nelly Ternan


“These things cannot be written with a quiet hand or dry eyes.” Nelly Ternan

Sometimes it pays to be the mistress, especially to someone famous. Though the movie is a couple years old now and the biography much older, the Nelly Ternan story is a prime example of the sometimes advantageous position of the mistress–or so it would seem. In reading on the web, the facts vary slightly but all agree that she moved from actress to mistress to the rest of her life and onto fame and history without so much as a hitch. Of course there is so much to flesh out of these bare facts of Ellen Lawless “Nelly” Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress. If there is punishment, divine or otherwise, meted out for playing the role of mistress, this one seems to have gone unpunished.

According to Claire Tomalin’s biography, Ternan is born to a family of actors who tour the country even after the father dies in an insane asylum. One day Ternan, later acting in a burlesque show, is spotted by Dickens who casts her and her sister in his production of The Frozen Deep. Dickens, then 45 and married with 9 children (later 10), falls for the 18 year old Nelly, and they end up having a 13 year affair–though biographers differ on the nature of the relationship as Dickens himself took great pains to keep the circumstances of his estranged wife and his contacts with Ternan Victorian scandal proof secret–yielding one still born child from Dickens, who later dies, leaving his mistress money in his will. Ternan then moves on to marry a clergyman ten years her junior, with whom she has two children before he dies and she goes on to join the anti-suffrage movement. She dies of cancer at 75 years old. In 1913, that’s a pretty good long time. Much later, in 2013, a movie about her, The Invisible Woman, airs detailing her affair with Dickens, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography.

She lived 75 years, got married, had children and a long term love affair with a famous author that yielded her money and fame as long lasting if not as ubiquitous as Dickens’. She even got to campaign for her own political beliefs in her retirement. What a great story of American come uppance by being in the right place at the right time. The facts tell the story of a game with the score: Nelly 1, wife Catherine Dickens 0. Mrs. Dickens does not get her own write up and movie. No, her story is told through Dickens’ viewpoint. She goes down as the fat, grumpy woman with whom Dickens had 10 kids and then became dissatisfied for her lack of “ardor,” which is how he characterized his failing marriage at the time of meeting 18 year old Nelly.

Fame, fortune and history are random that way. Nelly’s story seems to reinforce that idea. Although, who can read between the mere hollow facts to see the story beyond the margins of the biography: the strife of being a young mistress to a much older demanding man of fame, his stress and the risk of both their reputations, or even the probable contentment of Mrs. Dickens being set up in her own apartment away from her dissatisfied husband who impregnated her ten times and left her to raise kids who likewise suffered the mortification of this hardly contained, much as Dickens tried, affair. One can only imagine the story behind the story. Unfortunately, the love letters between Dickens and Ternan were destroyed. In those letters lies the real story, I would like to believe, which is the story of passionate, irresistible love.

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