What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens has long been revered as a hero by fans of his fiction but a new film biopic reveals he was no angel.

Based on a book by Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman is the story of Dickens’ secret lover Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, who was just 18 when she was wooed by the impressive – married – man. 

A great lover of theatre, Dickens performed and stage-managed many amateur plays and it was in this world that he came across Nelly, her sisters and her widowed mother, all professional actors.

Unhappy in his own marriage, Dickens fell hard for the youngest Ternan daughter and relentlessly pursued her while assisting the family in their acting careers.

When Nelly finally allowed herself to reciprocate the writer’s ardour, the father of nine publicly and cruelly rejected his wife Catherine by announcing their separation in an open letter to the national newspapers in 1858.


For the remaining years of his life, Dickens maintained a romantic relationship with Nelly Ternan in secret. She was hidden away in France for several years, is rumoured to have given birth to a son who died in infancy, and was installed in several of Dickens’ homes under the name Mrs Tringham. Nelly essentially became ‘invisible’.

But now, thanks to the efforts of her biographer Claire Tomalin and actor/director Ralph Fiennes, Nelly’s story has come to the big screen starring Fiennes himself as the literary colossus; up-and-coming young actress Felicity Jones as his muse and lover; and The Thick Of It‘s Joanna Scanlan as his long-suffering wife (pictured above).

You can read an interview with Joanna Scanlan in the March issue of woman&home out now.

The Invisible Woman is in cinemas from 7 February. 

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