|"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading." Illustration in Harper's Weekly, 7 December 1867. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became Charles Dickens's mistress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I have always felt that one of the most difficult jobs for any actor must be to portray a great man. Most men with the extraordinary capacities they need to be considered “great” are indeed particular: they tend not to be like other men, to have more curious personal characteristics, to have more energy, more self-confidence, to just be more personally interesting. I judge this on the handful of great men I have met briefly (or have run across in my career as a journalist): whether it was Pandit Nehru, Linus Pauling, the double winner of the Nobel Prize, Jacques Tati, the inimitable French comedian, Richard Neutra, the famous American architect, or Osip Zadkine, the Russian sculptor, each of them had whatever they needed to make my work in interviewing them more or less superfluous, the capacity to keep me interested while they just talked on and on, and I listened, as if enchanted.
These reflections are prompted by a remarkable TV movie I watched last night, a British production called The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens’ young mistress, Ellen Ternan.
Although made for TV, this had all the qualities of British theatre that I have always so much admired: magnificent acting, by Ralph Fiennes as Dickens, Felicity Jones as Nelly, Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother, and Joanna Scanlan in the difficult role of Dickens’ shamelessly put upon wife; superb writing, which manages both to capture the raw energy of the great man who was a powerhouse of invention, a repository of almost untameable creative energy; and all of those touches of genius in direction and production that one has become accustomed to see when the British are really trying. Fiennes himself was the director, and in one scene after another the sure touch of a director who knew his subject backwards made the most of the exquisite sensitivity of the playing and writing.
Ellen Ternan was the youngest of three sisters, all actresses like their mother who, after the death of their father, had kept them together as they struggled to make a living in the provincial theatre in the mid-nineteenth century, taking whatever jobs came along, whether in farce, drama, comedy or schlocky romance.
Dickens was an obsessive performer of his own works, so it was natural that he ran across this family of young actresses. In addition he was a man who apparently could hardly resist a pretty face. Woman were easy for him to attract --- of course, he was known to everyone, lionized wherever he went, praised and adulated to an unreasonable degree --- and there was something about the quiet pure beauty of the young Nelly which attracted his immediate attention. Her mother spotted his interest and worried that her daughter might suffer from too close a connection. But she was in no position to forbid her daughter from having anything to do with the great man, even though he was so much older.
Dickens was a close friend of Wilkie Collins, who was living in a settled relationship with a woman to whom he was not married, and when first Nelly brushed up against this couple she bridled at the immorality of it.
She knew that Dickens was married and that his wife Catherine had borne him ten children, who were always around. But eventually the great man made gestures to help the young actress and her family, providing her with an apartment at his cost. She was reluctant, telling him on one memorable occasion that she had not figured part of this bargain was that she was to be his whore.
The portrayal of Mrs Dickens --- a plump, resigned figure to whom Dickens appeared to pay scant respect --- by Joanna Scanlan, was one of the central qualities of this film, and when Dickens insisted that his wife should visit Miss Ternan to present her with a gift that had mistakenly been delivered to his wife, the resulting scene, so tense and yet so understated, laid out the profundity of the human drama between these three protagonists. Here I have to mention the delicacy of Ms. Abi Morgan’s script. Mrs Dickens, who seemed to be used to her husband’s peccadillos, quietly told the young girl that her husband might say he loved her, but she would probably find that he loved his public more, a very prescient judgment of the great man’s behaviour.
Eventually Nelly succumbed to his entreaties and agreed to become his mistress, bearing him a still-born child, accompanying him on his ceaseless journeys to read from his works, and on one occasion – that has become famous in this now fairly well-known story --- being abandoned by him when they were caught in a train wreck. The film shows Dickens as telling someone he was not with this injured young woman, while demanding that attention be paid to her injuries. He is said to have joined in the need for every hand to help with those who were injured in the crash: this may, indeed, be the way it happened. Claire Tomalin, on whose book this film was based, did a remarkable job of research into this liaison, so I will take her word for it, although it is a more sympathetic accounting of Dickens’ behaviour in this crisis than I had always believed took place.
Fiennes performance as Dickens is remarkable: there could be no doubt from the way he acts that he was a great man, an unusual man, a unique man, with exceptional qualities, good and bad, that had made him the most admired writer of that era (or any other), a performance that caught his obsessive vanity, his vulnerability while at the same time not ignoring that his behaviour to those closest to him tended to be abominable.
This is a warts and all portrayal of one of England’s most admired icons. One can believe that long after his death he continued to exert a hold over the young woman who had given herself to him, though she was now married and with a child of her own, restlessly walking the shore of Margate, just as she had done with him, while trying to exorcise his ghost.
This TV production is a testament to one of the most admirable achievements of English life: the high quality, not only of its writers, past and present, but of the acting, direction and production of its dramas.