Charles Dickens (1812–1870), the most popular and one of the greatest of English novelists, also deserves plaudits for his literary indictments of society for abusing the poor. To be sure, however, he did have faults. For instance, he fostered belief in the pseudoscientific notion of spontaneous human combustion in his novel Bleak House (1852), although Dickens at least seemed honest in his error.
An example otherwise was his longstanding affair with a young actress, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (1839–1914)—not because of their age difference, but for the betrayal of his wife and ten children. Dickens had grown apart from his wife, who lacked his intellect and boundless energy, while the actress was as bright and vivacious and interested in literature as Mrs. Dickens was not. Dickens’ and Ternan’s love match lasted from 1857, when he was 45 and she 18, until Dickens died in 1870. (Some of Dickens’ characters may well have been modeled after her.)
The famous man tried to keep the relationship a secret, hence the title of the biopic (released in 2013), The Invisible Woman. Not surprisingly, of course, there were rumors, but, as skeptics well know, rumors are often false. The pair did have one especially close call—both with public exposure and worse—when they were together in a train accident.
Although not mentioned in the movie, posthumous confirmation of the affair came from Dickens’ letters. Although many had been destroyed by his family, some merely had offending passages inked out. But that cloak of invisibility was ineffective: Dickens scholars turned to forensics, using infrared photography to read the obscured portions. These contained references to “Nelly” and confirmed the persistent rumors. (See my Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past, 2005.)
This was, however, long after Nelly’s death as well, so she had remained largely invisible. (Several years after Dickens’ death, she had become a wife and mother herself, marrying a man 12 years younger but taking 14 years off her age, and she appears to have been glad the invisibility continued.)
In some ways she is still invisible—even after a feature-length motion picture in which she is played by actress Felicity Jones. That is because—unlike Dickens (well played by Ralph Fiennes, who also directed)—we still know remarkably little about her. There is just so much that infrared photography can reveal.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)