Ralph Fiennes’s unlikely follow-up project to his virile directorial debut Coriolanus is The Invisible Woman, the intimate story of Charles Dickens’ secret relationship with a young actress named Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.
“He was about 45 years old. She was 18,” explains Fiennes, 49, who also plays the great writer. “From that point on, his life went into a huge, massive about-face. He separated from his wife, even though he never admitted to an affair. He finally got Ellen as his mistress but he never publicly acknowledged her.”
For the Charles Dickens of our collective imaginings—the fatherly, compassionate, moral beacon and champion of the poor—divorce was unthinkable, and an open affair, especially with an actress, would have meant scandal and ruin of his fiercely guarded reputation. Torn between his desire for Nelly and his need for public approval, for thirteen years, Dickens led a double-life.
He was trapped by his own success, and trapped with him were the women in his life. He banished his wife Catherine to the countryside and never saw her again, while his adoring sister-in-law Georgina took over as housekeeper and nanny to eight of his nine living children. He purchased a house for Nelly near London and kept her there. Nelly gave up her career and independence and allowed herself to become a virtual prisoner for the sake of their love.
One could argue that Nelly’s invisibility was not only in society’s eyes but in Dickens’. While both a social reformist and theater devotee, he was a conventional man in the domestic sphere. Unable to fully reconcile his double-life and Nelly’s dual role as both his refuge and cause of his struggles, Dickens eventually succumbed to the pressures and died at the early age of 58.
During the last years of his life, Dickens wrote his final completed novels A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), the latter of which gave us the unforgettable Miss Havisham, the discarded and theatrically vengeful spinster, and Estella, the cold but beautiful pawn and victim of her adopted mother’s plot. One can only speculate if these later works and women are darker and more complex because of Dickens’ struggles and ambivalence about the women in his own life.
Perhaps most poignant of all was Nelly’s invisibility even to herself. Having lost her own identity as an actress and participant in society, she was reduced to living in the shadow of her famous lover. But, years after Dickens’ death, Nelly, then 37, reinvented herself in the role of a 23 year-old ingénue and married a clergyman twelve years her junior with whom she had two children, never revealing to them her past. Just as Nelly reclaimed a life that had been stalled by creating her own story, so is the film told from her point of view, making her no longer the unseen but the seer.
“The film is really her story,” says Fiennes. “It’s her heart and her spirit.” Fiennes searched for a young actress “who could inhabit an interior life of someone much older than herself,” and found her in Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), 28. “You hear this word mistress, which has all types of connotations, but Nelly was quite the opposite,” explains Jones. “She was a very smart almost puritanical woman, in fact. The film is about a woman looking back on her life and considering that relationship. It’s also about a woman who refuses to be completely invisible.”
The Invisible Woman was adapted by screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame and The Iron Lady) from Claire Tomalin’s 1991 biography The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. The BBC Films co-production with WestEnd Films also stars Fiennes’ The English Patient co-star Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother and Tom Hollander as fellow novelist and frequent collaborator Wilkie Collins. No release date has yet been set.