The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin in film and biography: An impression of Victorianism

So, let me begin by saying how much I enjoyed the movie, 'The Invisible Woman.' It is a fabulous cast of characters based on mostly recognizable real life nineteenth-century figures. Most notably, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. When I first saw the movie, I went with a friend not having read Claire Tomalin's award winning biography beforehand. So many aspects of the Victorian era jumped out at me in terms of place, theme, sights, sounds, clothing, even smells if you believe it!  I am not wholeheartedly a lover of Mr. Dickens as the man he was but in terms of the writer and author well, he is one of the best. However, my heart lies with his friend Mr. Wilkie Collins. I put him first; move over just ever so slightly there Charlie and don't give me that glaring look-you love to be chided! 

At first I was at a loss as how to approach discussing this topic. I mean I don't want to just give my review of the movie because that would be incomplete, wouldn't it?  I waited until I read the biography but then all these discrepancies jumped out at me between what happened in real life between the so called lovers, 'Charles Dickens and 'Nelly' Ellen Ternan. Do I tell you about it because then it would spoil the movie experience for you and I don't want to do that. You should discover these aspects of the movie, novel, and real life situations for yourself; should you choose to!

So, for now, I will just include excerpt quotes from various sources I have read based upon the lives of Dickens, Collins, and Ternan. Let's go back in time shall we to the 1850s in England where an author of well-known authority, Charles Dickens is married to his wife Catherine, and has four or five children at this time, his author friend Wilkie Collins has written his play The Frozen Deep and is working with Dickens on editing, acting, and putting on a show for everyone. Lastly, there is a teenaged and naive theatre actress Ellen Ternan who has caught the very married and much much older Charles Dickens' eye!  I wonder what will happen...they apparently had an affair that lasted for years even after Charlie's divorce through until his death. Ellen later marries and has two children living out her days in England staying very close to her sister, Fanny.
 The old ladies, Nelly, (left) and Fanny in Southsea, where all three sisters settled together in their last years, and where they are buried. They were living here when Dickens's Birthplace Museum was set up in 1904; but Nelly never visited it and went to her grave in 1914 with her secret apparently safe from her children. Source: The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin, Penguin Books, London, England, 1991 edition.

I absolutely loved seeing the friendship acted out in the film, 'The Invisible Woman' between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins acted by Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hollander who looked so much like Wilkie himself! Scenes including gathering together at Tavistock House to rehearse The Frozen Deep and dialogue discussing Dickens making editing suggestions with the Ternan sisters and their mother in tow! Just brilliant. 
Of course, Dickens and Collins during the year 1857 when the play was performed would have looked very much like the actors above:

Dickens to the left and Collins to the right...

Handbill for the play The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins performed at Tavistock House on his birthday on January 8, 1857. Also, the birthday of my friend and an author himself, Kevin!

“I think it was at this time that I first saw Dickens as an actor. He played the principal character in a piece called “The Frozen Deep,” written by my old friend Wilkie Collins, in a theatre erected in the garden of Tavistock House.  Carlyle says Dickens’s “real forte was acting, not writing.” Carlyle has said many wise things, and as he was human, he said some foolish ones; but none surely more foolish than that which I quote. I saw Dickens in all the characters he attempted, and I heard him read most of his works; and no one who has had a similar experience could be blind to the dramatic power with which he realized every character, either created by himself or others. That with training and experience he would have been a great actor there is no doubt. He would have been great in whatever career he might have pursued; but as a great actor stands to a great writer in about the same relation that a great engraver stands to a great painter, I submit that Carlyle was mistaken, unless he meant to imply that Dickens was not a great writer; in that case, like most of my fellow-creatures, I am at issue with him.” William Powell Frith, R.A., My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Volume 1, 1887, pg. 267

 Illustration of Tavistock House one of the homes of Charles Dickens where The Frozen Deep was rehearsed and put on for friends

Hans Christian Andersen visited Charles Dickens in 1857 at his residence Tavistock House in Tavistock Square along Upper Montague street, Woburn Square, Gordon Square on the upper end of which on the east side, Gordon Place leads into a spot cut off from traffic in a quiet neighbourhood. Dickens lived at Tavistock House from 1851 until 1860, with intervals at Gad’s Hill Place. Hans Christian Andersen describes it, “This beautiful house, which has eighteen rooms in it, is now the Jews’ College. The drawing-room on the first floor still contains a dais at one end, and it is said that at a recent public meeting held here, three hundred and fifty people were accommodated in it, which serves to show what ample quarters Dickens had to entertain his friends.  The strip of garden in front are shut out from the thoroughfare by an iron railing. A large garden with a grass-plat and high trees stretches behind the house, and gives it a countrified look, in the midst of this coal and gas steaming London. In the passage from street to garden hung pictures and engravings. Here stood a marble bust of Dickens, so like him, so youthful and handsome; and over a bedroom door were inserted the bas-reliefs of Night and Day, after Thorwaldsen. On the first floor was a rich library, with a fireplace and a writing-table, looking out on the garden; and here it was that in winter Dickens and his friends acted plays to the satisfaction of all parties. The kitchen was underground, and at the top of the house were the bedrooms. “  A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land by William R. Hughes, Illustrator F.G. Kitton,  published London: Chapman & Hall, Limited, 1891. 

SIDENOTE:  Apparently, Dickens himself corrected Andersen’s description by explaining that the plays were not put on in the library but “the stage was in the school-room at the back of the ground-floor, with a platform built outside the window for scenic purposes.”  A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land by William R. Hughes, Illustrator F.G. Kitton,  published London: Chapman & Hall, Limited, 1891. 

Rehearsal for The Frozen Deep 1857. From left to right: artist William Telbin, Mr. Evans, novelist Shirley Brooks, Mark Lemon Jr., printer W. Jones, publisher Frederick Evans, artist Marcus Stone, musician Francesco Berger, Punch editor Mark Lemon and artist Augustus Egg; (middle row) author Albert Smith, artist Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, Miss Evans, journalist Edward Smyth Pigott, Mrs Francis and artist John Luard; (bottom row) Charles Dickens Jr., Kate Dickens, Miss Hogarth, Mary Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Miss H. Hogarth. Charles Dickens is stretched out at the front of the group.  Source: Wilkie Collins A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett, 2014 UK hardcover edition. 
The Frozen Deep, a play by Wilkie Collins, Claire Tomalin describes in her award winning biography, ‘The Invisible Woman’ she says, “Maria (Ellen Ternan’s sister) at least found a better diversion. She got herself a ticket for the theatrical sensation of the summer. It was a melodrama called The Frozen Deep, got up by its author, Wilkie Collins, with his famous fellow writer Charles Dickens. Both men fancied themselves as amateur actors and were giving a few performances at the Gallery of Illustrations in Regent Street. All the cast were Dickens’s friends or members of his family, and they included his sisters-in-law and his two daughters; the whole thing had begun as a private entertainment, which had now burgeoned. The settings were spectacular, and the story was of a man who triumphs over his own murderous impulses; this part was played by Dickens, who died on stage to a specially written orchestral accompaniment. In the best theatrical tradition he rose again immediately to play the farce that concluded the entertainment. He did it again with great relish and much impromptu gagging; and in this he was partnered by his pretty seventeen-year old daughter Katey.  The Saturday Review said nothing else currently on the stage equaled it, and the Athenaeum declared that Dickens’s acting ‘might open a new era for the stage.’ The ladies in the cast were particularly commended. The Queen herself asked to see The Frozen Deep and was persuaded to come to the gallery of Illustrations by Dickens who said he preferred not to take his ladies to the palace ‘ in the quality of actresses.’ She came accompanied by Prince Leopold of Belgium and Prince Frederick of Prussia, and they all expressed themselves delighted. Dickens, summoned for a private word,refused the Queen not once but twice, on the grounds that he did not want to appear before her in his costume: a further triumph of his will over hers, for which she graciously and, under the circumstances, very sensibly forgave him. When Dickens chose to be unbudgeable, not even a queen could move him.” The Invisible Woman The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin, Penguin Books, London, England, 1991 edition, chapter 6, pgs, 71-2.

SIDENOTE:  Although, The Frozen Deep was performed at Dickens’ Tavistock House there were a few performances put on for the public at The Royal Gallery of Illustration then located at 14 Regent Street, London, England. It was a 500 seat theatre so you can just imagine the crowd! 

Actress Felicity Jones as Ellen Ternan in the movie and on the right the real Ellen Ternan (Nelly) Source, The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

During the movie I saw a Victorian painting come to life before my eyes and acted out as well. It was Derby Day by William Powell Frith a nineteenth-century painter of the day who created masterpieces called paintings capturing the essence of the Victorian era on canvas. There is a scene in the movie where Dickens makes up a reason to his wife to travel to see a dog race with his friend Wilkie Collins. In reality, he went there because Nelly was acting in a play and it was an excuse to see her. It was still early on in their 'friendship' but where there's a will there's a way...

Take note of how Ralph Fiennes is dressed and Felicity Jones almost matching a close-up of the painting below.

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith, oil on canvas, 1856-8, Tate Gallery, England

“My first visit to Epsom was in the May of 1856-Blink Bonnie’s year. My first Derby had no interest for me as a race, but as giving me the opportunity of studying life and character, it is ever to be gratefully remembered.  The acrobats with every variety of performance, the n***** minstrels, gipsy fortune-telling, to say nothing of carriages filled with pretty women, together with the sporting element, seemed to offer abundant material for the line of art to which I felt obliged-in the absence of higher gifts-to devote myself; and the more I considered the kaleidoscopic aspect of the crowd on Epsom Downs, the more firm became my resolve to attempt to reproduce it. As the time for observation was too short to allow of sketching, I endeavoured to make such mental notes as should help me in my proposed work.  I arranged the general lines of the composition of the “Derby Day” in what I call a rough charcoal drawing, and after making numbers of studies from models for all the prominent figures, I went for my usual seaside holiday to Folkestone, and employed much of it very delightfully in preparing a small careful oil-sketch-with colour and effect finally planned-so that when I chose to begin the large picture, I found the “course clear” before me. “  William Powell Frith, R.A., My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Volume 1, 1887

William Powell Frith by Maull & Pollyblank, albumen carte-de-viste, 1864, NPG

William Powell Frith might have been depicted in the  movie as theatre cast during The Frozen Deep scene. He was a very close friend to Dickens and Collins at the time and he describes their friendship himself if you read his Autobiography and Reminiscences. I couldn't leave him out of this whatsoever.  Lastly, I wanted to include Frith discussing his process of painting a portrait of his friend Charles Dickens. Though, nothing to do with happening in the movie or the biography at all; I just read this bit and thought it important to include it. 

Charles Dickens, photograph by Herbert Watkins, 19th century. Museum no. PH.87-1982, V&A Museum, UK.

“John Forster called upon me to paint a portrait of his friend Dickens. I need scarcely say with what delight, mixed with fear, I heard of this commission-delight because of my veneration for the author, and my love for the man; fear that I might fail, as so many had done already. When Dickens had adopted the moustache-a hirsute appendage of which Forster had a great horror; and with reason, as regarded Dickens, for it partly covered, and certainly injured, a very handsome and characteristic mouth. We waited in vain. Indeed, we waited till the beard was allowed to grow upon the chin as well as upon the upper lip, so, fearing that if we waited longer there would be little of the face to be painted, if whiskers were to be added to the rest, the order was given and the portrait begun.  As I had heard that portrait-painters had often derived advantage from photography, I asked dickens to give me a meeting at Mr. Watkins’s, who was thought one of the best photographers of that day. Apropos of this arrangement came the following from Dickens:

I just love that part of the first portrait sitting occurred on my birthday, January 21, 1859. 

“Well, the truth is,” said Dickens, “I sat a great many times. At first the picture bore a strong resemblance to Ben Caunt ( a prize fighter of that day); then it changed into somebody else; and at last I thought it was time to give it up, for I had sat there and looked at the thing till I felt I was growing like it.” 

“The portrait had progressed to the time when it was necessary to consider what the background should be, and I thought it best to discard the common curtain and column arrangement, and substitute for these well-work properties the study in which the writer worked, with whatever accident of surrounding that might present itself. Accordingly I betook myself to Tavistock House, and was installed in a corner of the study from whence I had a view of Dickens as he sat writing  under the window, his desk and papers, with a framed address to him-from Birmingham, I think together with a bookcase, etc., making both back and fore ground. The first chapter of the “Tale of Two Cities,” or rather a small portion of it, lay on the desk. After what appeared to me a vast deal of trouble on the part of the writer, muttering to himself, walking about the room, pulling his beard, and making dreadful faces, he still seemed to fail to satisfy himself with his work.  However, I was amply compensated by the universal approval of all Dickens’s family and friends-Stone, Egg, Leech, Mark Lemon, and Shirley Brooks, etc., etc. who said, “At last we have the real man;” and best satisfied of all was John Forster. “ William Powell Frith, R.A., My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Volume 1, 1887

Charles Dickens, oil painting, William Powell Frith, 1859. Museum no. F.7, V&A Museum, UK.


Pamela Britley said…
Terrific article. So much interesting history covered. I saw the movie and didn't notice half of what you did!
Hi Kimberly,

Wow! I didn't know about all the history. I loved the movie and have to read the book now! Thanks for a great article!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela and Francine,

Thank you both so much for your kind words and for taking time to leave comments.
I hope you both enjoy the biography!
Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberley,

Fantastic article, I must see the film. I'm going to a talk next month about Dickens and the Staplehurst train disaster.

Thanks for sharing and including me in your blog.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,

Oh, I am so happy you enjoyed it so much. It is a good film. The talk on Dickens and the train disaster sounds interesting. There was a train disaster scene in the movie with Dickens of the train traveling with Nelly Turnan. He has to pretend they are not traveling together and makes sure that she gets medical attention after their train car turns over and they are thrown out onto the roadside. I wonder if its the same event in your talk?
Happy to include you :)
Lynn Cullen said…
Such a goldmine of information about Dickens and Nelly! Thank you for putting together all these side stories surrounding their relationship. I loved the day at the races painting and the other Firth work that you pulled in here. And Nelly looked cute and sweet, too. Thanks, Kimberly. This was a treat.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Lynn,

You know the feeling so very well of reading nineteenth-century sources and getting a glimpse into these incredible people's lives better than anyone. I'm so glad you enjoyed the bit with the painter Frith. He was so amazing! Thanks so much for commenting and your kind words.
Essie Fox said…
Such a wonderful post. Thank you, Kimberly.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thank you, Essie! It was such a beautiful film and researched so well.