Virginia Barton

Don’t put your daughter on the stage

Catholic Herald, 19 October 1990


Review: The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin (Viking, £16.99)


cover the invisible womanMr. Coward advised Mrs. Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage. His reasons were somewhat shallow, but they hid, I think, much the same thinking my own mother impressed upon me: “Nice girls don’t become actresses.”

I have no idea if modern mums feel the same way – certainly it’s a career filled with temptations.

The invisible woman revealed in this excellent biography succumbed; and, it would seem, with the blessing of her mother. The temptation in Ellen Ternan’s case was very great, as Ms. Tomalin is at pains to point out. She was a second-rate actress and her seducer none other than Charles Dickens, then at the height of his fame and popularity.

Ellen was Dickens’ mistress for the last 13 years of his life. Some 27 years younger, she outlived him by 44 years. The liaison was carefully concealed and the breath of scandal barely touched the great man’s public persona, that of the upholder of all the domestic virtues.

Even when he deserted his unfortunate wife, friends and family colluded in the secret, including the unfortunate wife’s own sister.

It is a squalid tale of deception, hypocrisy and unhappiness. Claire Tomalin handles the detective hypothesis with skill, tracking Ellen’s past through newspaper reports and playbills, census returns and bank accounts, and such letters and diaries that escaped deliberate destruction. The result is very convincing and  would, l suspect, be difficult to disprove.

After Dickens’ death, Ellen reappears on the public scene not as an actress but as an acceptable younger sister. So complete is her success in hiding her past, that this “goddaughter” of Dickens makes a respectable marriage, lopping ten years off her real age in the process. The shameful episode is concealed even unto death – with tragic consequences for her son, who finds out of course.

Ms. Tomalin not only holds the reader in suspense but lays before him the dreadful prospects  open to young actresses in the last century, and indeed the few sorry alternatives for all women who had to work. The cruel humbug practised by some Victorians, trapped in the repugnant mores of the day, make chilling reading.

Whether or not today’s “sexually liberated” society makes anybody happier, or better, is a moot point. Unlike many biographers Claire Tomalin seems detached from her subject, an objectivity that spurs me to hunt out her other publications.


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