Ellen Lawless Ternan, 1839-1914: Best of Times, Worst of Times

Her name was Ellen. She was an actress born to an actress mother and had two older sisters who were also actresses. The Ternan family had been treading the boards long before Ellen came along and the talent in the family belonged to her mother rather than to her actor/manager father who died early and tragically. Ellen Lawless Ternan struggled along after that death with her mother and sisters trying to eke out a living on the London stage.

For many years it must have seemed like a thankless struggle and an unprofitable one to the little family, but then, when Ellen was eighteen, a privately produced melodrama went into Wilkie Collins production which required professional actresses. It was called The Frozen Deep and it featured among its principal players, the writer Charles Dickens.

Ellen got one of the secondary roles and one of her older sisters a better one, but they both shared the experience of acting with Dickens and his improvised company for several weeks during the rehearsals and then private performances of the Deep, and by the end of that time Dickens was in love with the teenaged Ellen.

The affair certainly changed both of their lives, and it changed the lives of his family, then his friends, and by concentric degrees, the lives of Society and its attitude towards Dickens.

He was then well up into his forties and bored by his marriage to Catherine Dickens who was depressive, over weight and the mother of nine children. After meeting Ellen, Dickens decided that the marriage, which had for some time been failing was now absolutely impossible. He walled off his wife’s bedroom from his own in their London residence and began the business of seeking a separation, all the while apparently wooing Ellen in a stealthy manner.

If all this has an overall depressing familiarity to readers it has to be remembered that Dickens was the darling of his public, and something of a banner bearer for Victorian morality. To find that he was the sort of man to tire of an out of shape, dull wife in favor of a bright little blonde of eighteen or so, does not surprise us any, but it would have surprised, and possibly alienated Dickens’ public. He had to keep his relations with Ellen secret.

He separated from his wife under terms which seem cruel. Only her eldest son went to live with her in the house that Dickens provided in another London neighborhood. The rest of her extensive family was discouraged from visiting her, and it seems that even her spinster sister, who had functioned as a Dickens housekeeper and nanny for years avoided her. She was cast off from the circle of Dickens.

Rumors swirled about the troubles in the Dickens family, eddying and flowing but never pooling in the obvious depression of adultery. At Dickens’ club the Atheneum, men said that he had taken up with his sister-in-law, Thackeray, a fellow member upon hearing this piece of gossip roused himself to Dickens’ defense:

“It’s no such thing,” declared his literary competitor stoutly. “It’s with an actress!”

This did not help to quell the rumors and when Dickens wrote a long an impassioned self defense and had it published making many allusions to malicious people who entertained evil suspicions about young ladies of his acquaintance, it probably baffled more people than it reassured.

As for Ellen she nearly disappeared during this time, although biographers have traced her to a migrating pattern of residences she probably shared with Dickens, and a stint in Northern France probably to hide a pregnancy and a birth, although it seems likely that the infant died. At least one of Dickens children in old age, the barrister Henry Fielding Dickens did acknowledge the birth of an illegitimate half sibling.

Dickens life devolved into a endless scurrying between his public appearances, which were many, because he now had to maintain three households, and private shuttles down endless railway routes out to where ever he had managed to stash Ellen. Only a select few men friends were allowed to meet her, and to enjoy the evenings around the piano that Dickens and his Ellen favored.

His health suffered. There were signs of hypertension, what was then called brain fever or apoplexy. He kept on with his public readings, insisting on including the murder scene of Nancy from Oliver Twist, though it always shot his blood pressure through the rafters to read. He even included an American Tour of readings which proved very lucrative, though lethal, as it probably killed him in the end. He had small recourse, the fortune he was owed in American royalties had never been paid except for a couple of small amounts from two American publishers with guilty consciences. The rest had made fortunes of their own off the talent of Dickens, and at the end of his life when he desperately needed the money, there was a fortune, but not a large one. He would have done better to exploit the masses, rather than to publicize their plight.

In any case, stasis caught up with his ceaseless movement in the end. One day in 1868 he had been writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood and at dinner suffered a massive stroke. He murmured something about having to go to town, and never regained consciousness. One of his daughters sent for Ellen. Mrs. Dickens was not informed.

As for Ms. Ternan, now about thirty, she was left with a large gap in her life and her concern until the end of her days, seems to have been to fill it in, to deny its existence, to go on as if it had all never happened. She married a much younger man, prevaricating about her own age, and they had a son together, her husband was the head master of a boy’s school, and for years, they lived fairly happily, only once did she confess her secret to a clergyman. It seemed that the years of adultery weighed heavily upon Ellen’s mind. She felt guilty, she wished it had all never happened, and she said she had not been happy in the relationship.

In old age, as a widow, she lived with her sisters, and her son was shocked and scandalized when he was approached by Dickens fans and scholars about the writer’s double life with his mother. He attempted to burn large amounts of his mother’s letters to cover her tracks. Unfortunately for him, biographers were still able to piece together the patchwork quilt of deceit, Claire Tomalin most prominently in her excellent book about Ellen.

Speaking of her father close to the end of her life, Kate Dickens observed, “He was a very wicked man.”

Question is, would Ellen have agreed?

Claire Tomalin The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dicken,s

One thought on “Ellen Lawless Ternan, 1839-1914: Best of Times, Worst of Times

  1. Pingback: Catherine Dickens 1815-1879: His “Dearest Pig” | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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