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My Favourite Londoner:

Bamber Gascoigne on Nellie Ternan

Time Out London, 4th-10th April 2007



I knew nothing about Nellie Ternan until I recently read a wonderful biography by Claire Tomalin called ‘The Invisible Woman’. Nellie had a 13-year affair with one of the most famous figures of the nineteenth century, yet she nearly vanished from history – I was fascinated as to how and why this happened, and what it says about the Victorian era.


Born in 1839 and 27 years Dickens’ junior, she was from a theatrical family. Her father, mother and two sisters were all in the theatre, a morally dicey profession in those days, but they were a respectable family who travelled all around the country to perform. Dickens was obsessed with the theatre and organised amateur theatricals. He and author Wilkie Collins put on a play in London in 1857 called ‘The Frozen Deep’, and he was recommended the Ternans for a run in Manchester, so he cast them and instantly fell for this beautiful 18-year-old. He pursued her resolutely and within the year he had separated from his wife Catherine and had persuaded Nellie to live in a house in Ampthill Square, near Mornington Crescent. She gave up acting to effectively become his second wife, and here she begins to vanish.


The main reason for this was to protect her future. When Dickens died she was still in her early thirties so it was important for her to emerge with respectability and build a normal life, which she did miraculously. She met an undergraduate in Oxford called George Wharton Robertson, married him and they ran a school together and had two children, so she suddenly became an ultra-respectable woman, never mentioning anything about her past to her new family. The fact that she managed to completely erase a significant part of her life so she could lead this bourgeois, relatively boring existence is extraordinary. As Tomalin points out, the fashions in sin change along with everything else – nowadays for someone to have an ‘affair’ after their marriage breaks would be completely obvious. In those days it would have ruined his reputation and ruined her life because she would have been seen as a fallen woman. Even when her son discovered her secret life in the 1920s he was outraged and destroyed all her correspondence with Dickens.


I suppose she’s the exact opposite of a kiss-and-tell story. She lived part of her life in houses bought for her by Dickens and the neighbours thought she was his wife, but he was considered a pinnacle of virtue among his peers so was terrified of anyone hearing he was having an affair. Whenever they were seen together he introduced here as his goddaughter – the only people who knew the truth were his wife’s sister Georgina, and a few trusted friends. He destroyed all trace of his relationship with her, all the scholars on him knew nothing about her at all. In fact, the closest proof of how he lived with her was from a diary he kept. Every year he’d keep shorthand accounts of his movements. He’d destroy them at the end of the year, but one from 1867 survived because he lost it while in New York. It surfaced in 1922 when it was brought by a Dickens collector and it has references to ‘N’ in it – suddenly here was concrete evidence as to how their lives worked together.


There’s another tantalising piece of evidence uncovered by Tomalin. After the hardback edition of her book was published, someone wrote to her saying that his ancestor was a pastor at a church in Peckham and passed down the story that Dickens had died in a house there in ‘compromising circumstances’ and had been removed to Gad’s Hill (his house in Kent) by the church caretaker and others. Everyone believed the family accounts that his last days were at Gad’s Hill. There’s no proof of that, but it’s certainly a convincing story. Until Tomalin published her book, no one knew that Dickens had acquired a house in Peckham for Nellie under the name of Mr and Mrs Stringham. After Mornington Crescent she was installed in Slough, but he moved her to Peckham because it was far more convenient, being on the line to Gad’s Hill. Then there is the fact that two days before his death, he’d gone to a bank and cashed a cheque for £22 (a huge amount of money in those days), and when his sister-in-law cleared up at the house only £6 or so was left. So what happened to the £16 or so that remained? It seems likely he made a visit to her in Peckham to pay housekeeping, and was taken ill there. She’s then summoned these men she knew locally, swearing them to secrecy, to put him in a carriage to Gad’s Hill.


All of this was done to avoid scandal – the Victorian age was such an odd time. It’s like a pendulum, isn’t it? In the eighteenth century the mistress of William IV had ten children with him. It was all so much more open then, whereas in Victorian times everything was so suppressed. All the classes in society in Victorian years worked so hard trying to maintain respectability, and Nellie Ternan did it brilliantly. She’s a fascinating character who even now is only glimpsed.



The bare facts


1812 Charles Dickens born in Portsmouth

1839 Nellie, born Ellen Ternan in Rochester, the third of three sisters

1845 Father, William Ternan dies

1857 Plays Lucy in Dickens and Wilkie Collins production of ‘The Frozen Deep’ at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Dickens is smitten, they begin an affair.

1865 Injured in fatal Staplehurst train crash while returning from France with Dickens. Name is kept out of papers.

1870 Dickens dies.

1876 Marries Rev George Wharton Robertson and settles in Margate.

1914 Dies in Fulham.

1922 Son Geoffrey discovers his mother’s hidden past from Dickens’ only surviving son Henry.




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