The film of this name made its way to our local independent cinema in recent weeks, and it was a timely reminder of a piece I did last year on its very subject.
Ellen Ternan was the long-term mistress of Charles Dickens, who throughout her entire relationship with him was kept under wraps and prevented from publicly being acknowledged as part of his life. While Dickens was at the peak of his career, writing, speaking, giving readings and being fêted by the literary world, Ellen was secretly his ‘magic circle of one’, hidden from view, living in homes he paid for, under false names, sometimes travelling with him until they were both involved in a hideous train crash that almost killed both of them. They met when she was 18, slightly older than Dickens’ own daughter, and he 45.
And of course - he had a wife. The Dickenses separated after 22 years when his affair was discovered by the deceived but patient Catherine, but not before Ternan had borne him a son (for which no evidence exists) who died in infancy. All correspondence between he and Ellen was destroyed, but on his death he left her a trust fund sufficient to live on for the rest of her life and £1000.
The saddest part of the story is that she is believed to have been the inspiration for many of Dickens’ most famous characters, including Little Nell, and she was given money and rewarded with privilege, but only in return for her silence. Obviously, the ‘woman’ part of me wants to punch the pair of them and take the wife out for a few stiff drinks and a soothing chat. The ’novel reader’ in me, however, thinks it’s all very romantic and melancholy.
Which is why I was able to do these illustrations for a serial of the book about her, abridged for Women’s Weekly magazine last year, without drawing The Mistress as a cheating canny bint. Instead, I made her pretty and delicate. The power of illustration!
And no, the real Ellen Ternan looked NOTHING like the blonde poppet in the film.
That’s period drama for you though, innit?