Ellen_TernanClaire Tomalin, in her final chapters, summarises about the reasons and the motives that might cause Dickens irretrievably embroiled in the love with Nelly Ternan. First, it would be because of the nature of vulgarity that Dickens and Nelly both shared. As Tomalin said, “Vulgarity belonged to the class from which Dickens sprung and was deeply ingrained in him”, as for Nelly, as one of the Gaslight Fairies, she was, as Kate Perugini once stated, different from the traditional Victorian women of the time in defying the conventionality and was free as a bird in the theatrical world where the actresses indulged themselves into hard play. It was certainly  the field that Dickens was interested in too. So in this case as Dickens was disenchanted and demystified with Catherine all these years, he must be seeking some merriment and juvenile nature in him in 47, Nelly would be a good replacement for Dickens’s amusement, who Dickens must have mystified and fantasied about her at start. She also had Little Nell’s (The Old Curiosity Shop) flawless and compassionate vibe on the hardship and loss of a parent she had to endure at a very young age.

Secondly, Nelly reminded of and recalled the resemblance of Kate. Dickens’s daughter Kate was the favourite child of all his and they were also of the same age. Kate must have disappointed Dickens always; she befriended with John Everett Millais, a member of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and married Charles Allston Collins, a fragile brother of Wilkie, those incidents might have aroused Dickens’s detest. Provided with Kate’s outspoken and determined nature, Nelly who was somewhat similar to Kate, who were both 27 years Dickens’s junior, must have attracted Dickens’s attention, and treated Nelly as an affection of daughterliness.

However, something about their relationship was handled so discreetly. I think it was because they both concerned about their reputation of one another. If their relationship was revealed at some point, it would be scandalous because Dickens just separated from Catherine, provided that he was the greatest writer of the time doing so much charity work for women, the affair must be unendurable (as similar as the philanthropic irony in Bleak House?) , his personal and literary reputation would be disputed, and on the other hand, Ternan was still young and still in her 30s in 1870s, her affairs with Dickens would also considerably ruined her reputation. She later on in the marriage to her husband she reported to have lied about her age 10 years younger and concealed the affair to her children Geoffrey and Gladys until her death. I don’t know if it is a good explanation and don’t know why Wilkie would have two mistresses, but I guess it is the case of social perception like adultery in Victorian era. Or that they were resolute to reveal it upon Catherine’s death but it never worked out because Dickens’s death was earlier than Catherine’s.

I didn’t digest this biography completely and still have many points missing out but I really like this book because I found myself eager to do some research on the people who came across in this book when I was reading along, for example, it dug my curiosity on the relationship between Dickens’s and his children, his relationship between other fellow writers, some other historic accounts like Staplehurst Accident, as well as some anecdotes of the Royal History like William IV. Moreover, I like this book’s direction and narrative. Its main focus was not on Dickens but on Nelly’s life and the theatrical world in the 19th century, and underline the poignancy and struggle of women in that industry of the time. I have learnt so much from this book and love every bit of it!


I have got more biographies: Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett, and Effie by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. Can’t wait to read and share them all!