A few weeks ago I saw the new BBC film The Invisible Woman, which tells the story of Ellen Ternan, the long-term mistress of Charles Dickens. The Invisible Woman contributes to a trend in film, literature, and scholarship of exploring the lives of previously ignored or neglected women who happen to be attached to famous or noteworthy men. Insofar as I believe this project is a very valuable one, I was predisposed to think highly of The Invisible Woman, and I was expecting a story of the life of a complex, strong willed woman in the context of a still decidedly pre-feminist society. (I am into these types of films, as you might have noticed.) However, on most fronts the movie fell short of my expectations – the two main women in the film, Ellen Ternan and Dickens’ wife, Catherine Hogarth, are underdeveloped, and instead of a complex examination of how heteronormativity limits and damages lives, we get a portrait of relationships without much content or redeeming richness.
Perhaps true to its name, the most mysterious character in the film is the invisible woman herself, Ellen Ternan, a young actress from a family of actors. Elsewhere on the interwebs, Ellen is described as “clever and charming, forceful of character, undomesticated, and interested in literature, the theatre, and politics.” Unfortunately, in the film almost none of these traits are evident. Ellen is portrayed as interested in literature, but only in Dickens’ literature, which she reads obsessively and sighs over wistfully as she listens to his public readings. Nowhere is Ternan shown to be engaging in a conversation with Dickens about literature that does not include swooning, and other than her love for his writing she appears to be totally devoid of intellectual interests or opinions. She is not, it turns out, even a particularly talented actress. As for being clever or charming, we never hear her make a single joke or witty aside – and contrary to being forceful in character, her primary talents seem to lie in being very pretty, melodramatically vulnerable, and appealing to Charles Dickens.
The only exception to this depiction comes when Ternan realizes that her relationship with Dickens – which enters a weird sort of formalism after her family collectively decides she will be better off as a permanent mistress than a mediocre actress – is expected to involve socializing with unmarried, co-habitating couples (which she finds immoral and offensive) and having sex on a regular basis with Dickens. “I did not understand I was to be your whore,” she protests. However, this defiance is short lived; once Dickens makes clear that divorcing his wife is not an option, she settles down into the life of the widely-known-about-but-never-acknowledged mistress, living off of Dickens’ support for the rest of his life and marrying under an alternative identity after his death.
Because of the emptiness of Ternan’s character, we are left totally puzzled as to why Dickens is so infatuated with her. To make matters worse, Dickens’ wife, Catherine Hogarth, is presented in a way that manages to make her more likable and interesting than both Dickens or Ternan while nonetheless attempting, apparently, to push our sympathies toward Ternan’s and Dickens’ romance. It is not that the film demonizes Hogarth or dismisses her suffering – on the contrary, the most emotionally powerful scene of the film came, for me, when her son reads to her the humiliating public notice of their separation Dickens has published in the newspapers. However, to the extent that she gets screen time, it seems like the filmmakers followed the narrative apparently left behind by Dickens – that Hogarth was a boring, unlovable woman who didn’t really deserve the loyalty of someone as vivacious and brilliant as Charles Dickens.