Friday, March 14, 2014

The Invisible Woman (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“The Invisible Woman”  Focuses on Boz’s Mistress

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

English novelist Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870) is considered the greatest writer of the Victorian period. Although Ralph Fiennes portrays Dickens in “The Invisible Woman,” the film is really about the title character, his mistress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan.

Although you don’t read much about Nelly in books about English Literature, she was a real person. The oversight is likely because Charles Dickens already had a perfectly good wife, Catherine “Kate” Dickens (née Hogarth). They had ten children. More to the point, Katey was the eldest daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle, a Newcastle newspaper that published some of Dickens’ writing -- in particular many of the 56 installments of a social commentary known as “Sketches By Boz.”

“Boz” was a pseudonym used by Dickens, a clue to his secretive life. A verse in a rival publication spilled the beans:

“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”

The great writer took Nelly Ternan as his mistress in 1857. At 45, he was 27 years older than the young actress.

Unhappy at home, Dickens blamed his wife for their financial woes, due to the birth of their children. Also he didn’t consider her his intellectual equal. What’s more, he didn’t like her housekeeping

They separated in 1858 after Catherine received a bracelet intended for Nelly. Catherine moved out of the Dickens household, taking Charles, Jr. but leaving the other children in the care of her sister, who sided with Dickens.

Nelly remained Dickens’ mistress till his death. He supported her after she gave up the stage, stashing her in houses that he rented under false names. He refused to take her on his American tour, fearing a scandal in the press.

Nelly hated keeping their relationship a secret. Although it afforded her many privileges, was she willing to pay the price? (That question is the angst of the film.)

In “The Invisible Woman” -- currently playing at the Tropic Cinema -- Felicity Jones (“Brideshead Revisited,” TV’s “Girls”) gives us a believable Nelly. Opposite her is Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient”) as Dickens.

The two co-starred in “Cemetery Junction,” playing father and daughter. Now she plays his mistress.

Felicity Jones admits she found it “weird” and ‘very Freudian” to go from playing one relationship to the other, but Fiennes shrugged it off, saying, “It’s just a job. Come on.”

“The Invisible Woman” is not so much a love story as it is the chronicle of a young woman being pulled into Dickens’ orbit by the gravity of his infatuation for her.

Members of the Dickens family maintained a silence about his relationship with Nelly until after the death of his last surviving son in 1933.

The author’s great-great-great granddaughter, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, spoke out a couple of years ago. An author and art historian, she believes Nelly was the inspiration for Estelle in “Great Expectations.”

“At the time he wrote it, his marriage was breaking up and he was living a double life,” she says. “While he was enjoying the excitement of a new romance and this clandestine relationship, he was also feeling guilt about the fallout with his wife and her family.”

Some scholars also consider Nelly as the influence of Lucie in “A Tale of Two Cities,” Bella in “Our Mutual Friend,” and Helena in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

A play about Ellen Ternan’s life (“Little Nell”) was produced in 2007. Now we have “The Invisible Woman,” based on a 2013 same-named bestseller by Claire Tomalin.

No, Nelly is not so invisible anymore.

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