Nelly Ternan
Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Nelly Ternan

The Invisible Woman

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About Her

Living… a double life, in Margate, England, in the mid-19th Century. It’s here that she waits for her lover Charles Dickens as he comes and goes – never quite knowing when or if he’ll arrive. But their times together make life worth living. She is “his magic circle of one.” If only she weren't married to someone else.

Profession… schoolteacher at a school headed by her husband George. Nelly heads the school’s theatre program. It’s a bittersweet job for Nelly; she loves fostering a love of theatre for her students but she never saw herself as the teaching type. If it was up to her, she’d be on the professional stage, not training students on an amateur one.

Interests… theatre. It was always Nelly’s primary passion, before she met her husband. Once she married and assumed her position in the school, she never pursued her passions individually again. As she put it, “It is hard to reconcile this with life as the wife of a headmaster. So I have hidden it.”

Relationship Status… volatile. She was already married to George, but then she met Charles Dickens at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and her life was never the same. Dickens was in a loveless marriage himself, and had no qualms about pursuing Nelly. Their connection was immediate. If Dickens was right in saying that every human is a profound secret to every other, then Charles gave Nelly his secret to look after.

Challenge… following her passion without getting burned. Charles’s moods and behavior can verge on insanity. She could either distance herself from him and go back to her loveless life with her husband, or follow Charles wherever he goes. When Charles is good to her, he’s better than anyone’s ever been. But if she makes the leap and it doesn’t last, she’ll be left with nothing. In her words, “I do not wish to appear ungrateful. [Dickens] have been generous, some might say too generous to my family. But I did not realise that I was to be [his] whore.” She won’t be another affair mentioned in the footnotes of the famed novelist’s biography. 

Personality… passionate, caring, and intellectual. She is a dreamer who wants more in life than what she has with her husband. She finds it in Charles, but is he worth the risk?


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