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Book Review: The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

My experience with The Invisible Woman began by accident. I was meeting someone in a bookstore. They happened to be late, so I began perusing the shelves. The lovely cover stuck out, and having no idea what it was, I picked it up and read through the first few pages. I was so interested by it that I immediately took it to the counter, and in doing so, almost missed my friend's arrival. (Woops.)

Before discussing my feelings on it, I will offer the disclaimer that my experience with Charles Dickens is minimal and I have not seen the movie adaptation of this book. I'm not a Dickens scholar. I've only read bits of his work here and there through school and I've never studied any of his biographical information, though I do intend to read Tomalin's companion biography of Dickens at some point. Rather than being intrigued by the behemoth reputation of Dickens, I was drawn to The Invisible Woman primarily because it offered an outsider's perspective on such a legendary literary figure. History so often forgets the women, and I find attempts to rectify those omissions irresistible.

With little knowledge of the subject matter and few expectations given how I came across the book, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Claire Tomalin introduces readers to the main character, Nelly Ternan, through detailed historical accounts of the world in which she was born. Though she acknowledges early on that parts of the book are speculative, and that much of the evidence which could have proven or disproven such speculation has long since been destroyed, Tomalin approaches the content with an objective perspective and a clear list of sources. Though some may consider it redundant, I appreciated her reminders of the conjectural nature of certain chapters, and I appreciated even more the fact that evidence remained at the heart of the book. The skeptic in me found her speculations and sources to be credible and reasonable. Even if you're inclined not to believe any of it, her ideas and suggestions remain thoughtful and interesting.

In examining Nelly's origins and life, Tomalin introduces readers to the world of Victorian theater, a lively but uncertain profession. Including images of playbills and descriptions of popular performances, Tomalin manages to bring this world to life, including even descriptions of all the major and minor players who would have come into contact with Nelly and her family. Tomalin thoughtfully keeps the reader apprised of these characters as time passes. These updates are also useful, as they act as a sort of standard against which you can view Nelly's life. They also demonstrates just how volatile the life of a theater worker could be. I often found myself amazed by the sheer difficulties the Ternans and all the other women faced, almost to the point of impossibility, which made their unwavering optimism all the more poignant.

She includes a brief education on Victorian society's history of opinions regarding the theater and of actresses in particular, which unsurprisingly is extremely poor. This conscientious examination of Victorian culture and its implications for Nelly remain central to the book, always contextualizing the evidence and Tomalin's interpretation of it. However, this historical focus is rarely dry or difficult to read as it is always intertwined in the narrative of Nelly's life. In this way, the book manages to capture what are, in my opinion, the best qualities of both creative nonfiction and of the novel.

Nelly and Dickens both make for interesting characters, sometimes as a pair and sometimes as counterpoints. Nelly in particular I found compelling, and I feel that Tomalin gave the fullest account of her possible with what historical information remains. That being said, there are large gaps in her history. Many of her actions are shrouded in confusion and misunderstanding, which has only deepened with time. That being said, it was enjoyable speculating about these gaps in the timeline, imagine Nelly hear or there, avoiding the public eye and going about her business. Despite my more optimistic imaginings, Tomalin does balance these more mysterious sections against an understanding of the powerlessness of women from this period. With this in mind, I really saw Nelly in two ways. First, as she related to Dickens and his formidable influence and power. And secondly, as she was as a woman in Victorian England. All things considered, I was left feeling the Nelly was both lucky and very savvy to have accomplished all that she did.

Though Nelly was the character I was most drawn to, as such a significant player in the story, Dickens can't be ignored. He is perhaps even more difficult to to get a handle on than Nelly, which was surprising to me. Tomalin points to the historical understanding and cultural narrative which claims that Dickens was an upstanding and heroic figure, countering all of this with a large body of contradictory evidence which paints him in a different light entirely. From his treatment of his wife to the friends he keeps, Tomalin examines his character from many angles. The presentation of this evidence is always at tension with the culturally accepted narrative that Tomalin describes. This tension is a large part of what kept me locked into the story. It seemed that Dickens could never quite settle on which persona he wanted to assume, and Tomalin's description of his struggle to juggle his many lives was fascinating. Whereas with Nelly, there is a lack of solid information, in the case of Dickens there is a flood, much of which Tomalin attempts to challenge. One of the things in this book that I enjoyed the most about Dickens though, was that this book was not about him. Of course, he remains prevalent throughout, but his narrative is not the central one. So, even when Tomalin stops to discuss and evaluate Dickens, she always relates it back to Nelly, who remains firmly the center of attention.

I became quite attached to Nelly and the Ternans throughout the book, and by the end, as always, I had begun to hope for a lovely and neatly-packaged ending. However, Tomalin surprised me a little. She chose to continue the story on past Nelly's death, and instead ends the book with an examination of those left behind. For readers who enjoy a tidy resolution at the end of a book, you're likely to be somewhat disappointed here. The deception of Nelly and Dickens, while attractive in a sort of romantic way, long remained a thorn in the side of everyone else involved and caused considerable damage to some. There is no long walk into the sunset. It wasn't necessarily what I'd hoped for, but after some consideration, I did find it to be a satisfying conclusion. It served as a reminder that both Nelly and Dickens made choices that were often morally ambiguous and deceptive. Couched in a romantic narrative, they may seem harmless, but viewed within their larger context there were ultimately many more people involved who were forced to deal with repercussions. Despite these implications though, Tomalin never passes down any sort of judgment on either character. She simply presents her account of the evidence, straight through to the end.

A fascinating excursion into literary history, and into the life of a woman who is virtually unknown today, The Invisible Woman is also an earnest attempt to look back at the life of Charles Dickens and pick apart scarce and conflicting evidence in order to shed light on both his mistress and the parts of his character which may have been obscured by time and good intentions. It is captivating in both its historical elements and its narrative skill. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and though I typically don't make it a habit to watch film adaptations of books, I may have to give this one a try, just to see how such a hazy narrative translates into film. Five star. Two thumbs up.

To sum it up:


-Well written, flows as a narrative rather than chunks of historical information.

-Fairly honest- attempts to build a story which runs counter to many popular accounts of the time by piecing together distant and obscure shreds of information- remains objective and scholarly.

-Author clearly marks when narrative moves from evidence-based to more speculative territory.

-Well documented citations, references to communications with scholars, notes on personal investigations and interviews.


-The narrative includes so many people that it's fairly easy to get some of them confused, particularly early in the book.

Provocative ideas raised:

-Differences between the reality and the persona of celebrities/historical figures

-Life in Victorian England- tension for many between what was considered proper, what was necessary to survive, and what was desirable in order to be happy.

-Myth vs Reality- In the case of Dickens himself and in his literary works.

-Women's Issues- the relative blame of Nelly, her family, and Georgina- circumstances and limited choices available to all the women involved.

The verdict:

-Really engaging and fascinating. Held my attention all the way through.

-I found her interpretation of the evidence presented plausible and thoughtful.

-Historical setting of the stage and descriptions of social views and customs of Victorian England useful as peripheral evidence and also interesting.

-It was cool to get a glimpse of the inner workings of the theatrical and literary culture from this period. (ie the tension between Dickens and Thackeray, the lifestyle of Wilkie Collins)

If you like this, you may also like:

-Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

-Anything by Charles Dickens (Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Tale of Two Cities, ect.)

-Vanity Fair by William Thackeray

-The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

-The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

-Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

-Howard's End by E.M. Forster

-Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (This one is a little bit of a stretch, but I stand by it as I see parallels between Nelly and the main character.)

-The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (Another stretch, but it offers a glimpse of women/mothers and daughters of another culture struggling to overcome the difficulties of society in a way which I find similar to that of the Ternans. )

-The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London by Judith Flanders

-Victorian Women by Joan Perkin