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.
But while Dickens and Hogarth may well have been a poor match, the filmmakers appear to assume that the affair between Dickens and Ternan is therefore self-evident and obvious, and seem fairly content to justify Dickens’ behavior on this assumption. The most problematic scene to this effect comes early in the film, when Dickens accidentally walks in on his wife undressing. Hogarth, in the film and real life, was a portly woman by that time, and hardly the beauty that Ternan, 27 years Dickens’ junior, would have been. Unfortunately, this fact seems like the only evident point of this awkward scene between Dickens and his mostly-naked wife, as she quickly covers herself as he apologizes and then retreats out of the room.
I say this “seems” to be the only evident point of the scene because otherwise, it does not really work – of course, the point could have been to highlight the lack of intimacy between them by displaying how they were not even comfortable being undressed around one another. However, such modesty was not atypical, according to my understanding, of married relations during the Victorian era – indeed, elsewhere in the film we see Ternan passionately making love with her husband years later while both of them are nearly completely covered up in nightgowns.
Unfortunately, without further exploration of exactly what went wrong between Dickens and his wife – he did love her at some point, apparently – the scene left a very ugly knot in my stomach, as it seemed to exist only to point out that Dickens had an unattractive and frigid wife and therefore….therefore what? Therefore we should all be cheering for the relationship between the much more beautiful but apparently equally boring Ternan? I am sure this is not the message the filmmakers were aiming for, but in a film dealing directly with issues of gender, sex and relationships, they ought to have been much more responsible and thoughtful about how they decided to depict the problems between Dickens and his wife.
Finally, Dickens himself comes off looking, quite frankly, like quite the asshole. His decision to pursue a private affair but a public separation is the best option for no one but him, humiliating his wife and leaving Ternan to hide in the houses he stores her in for the rest of their relationship. In an unconscionable act of cruelty, he has his wife deliver a necklace to Ternan that she had mistakenly taken as a gift for herself, just so, as he later explained to Ternan, Hogarth could finally “understand” why he was leaving her for this obviously lovelier, charming, and beautiful young woman. It is worth noting what was at stake for Hogarth – after their separation, she moved out of the Dickens household with only her younger son, one out of ten children she had with Dickens. Ternan, too, suffered from Dickens’ privileged ability to avoid the brunt of the consequences of their affair – not only did she lead a secret life ever after, but in so doing endured countless indignities. For example, when she and Dickens were in a train crash together, Dickens pretended not to know her in order to avoid the scandal that would have ensued from the press discovering that they were traveling together. True to her ever-selfless character, Ternan, in the film at least, lays bleeding on the grass insisting he do just that – but one can’t help but think it is hardly outrageous of us to demand something better of the man.
To a certain extent, these complaints speak to the success of the film as much as its failure – Dickens, as a man in Victorian England, had far greater freedom than women to break the social rules of sex and lifestyle, and when men did break such rules it was, of course, women who suffered the worst consequences of such a decision. Ternan points out as much in her singularly feisty scene, when she snaps back at Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ friend and collaborator, for lecturing her about being free-spirited and nonconformist. “You see a freedom I do not see,” she retorts – and indeed, as a man, he has a freedom she does not have. To the extent that the film gives us these chances to be sympathetic with everyone involved, including Ternan and Hogarth, it has moments where it flirts with being the kind of film I expected it to be. However, it never fully achieved this hope due to how badly it fails at explaining the relationship between Ternan and Dickens. Without this understanding – without the lead role being filled by a complex, strong woman who could clearly mesmerize and engage an energetic and imaginative man – we are left only with the implication of hugely problematic assumptions which seem to reproduce gender normativity as much as undermine it.
Yet to be honest, my dislike of this film might have much to do with personal preference in the way of affect and personality. For there is, of course, no reason why an intelligent man cannot fall in love with a quiet, demure, and sensitive young woman, even if she is not in the habit of expressing or asserting herself. To suggest that Ternan, as the film presents her, does not sufficiently explain or justify her relationship with Dickens is perhaps unfair, an example of a contemporary feminist projecting her preferences and ideal personality types of the “strong woman” onto not only women of the past, but women in general. In this, I do not wish to reproduce some idiosyncratic standards no more rooted in legitimate measurements than any other ideal. Yet it does seem that regardless of character type, the first job of a movie is to make the characters and their relationships with each other believable and compelling – and on the latter score, at least, this film certainly failed. If I judge it harshly, it is due to my belief that a better film could have had much greater political significance and impact; and in wishing for that, as a feminist, I would hope that my primary complaint is not one so narrow nor so arbitrary.
Do not mistake me; I went into this film expecting to be rooting for the adulterous couple, expecting to see something that would make a strong argument about the legitimacy of all sorts of non-traditional arrangements, from easily available divorce to polygamous relationships. Instead, what little information and argument we can discern from the film – ie, Charles Dickens had an unattractive and boring wife and a totally hot mistress and of course this makes sense because you know, what kind of literary genius wants an unattractive and boring wife?, literary geniuses deserve better, obviously – reminds me of feminist critiques of how notions of free love and gender equality have often been used, historically, to victimize and disempower women as much as free and empower them. Free love is all well and good, in other words, as long as it is women who bear the brunt of the consequences of breaking social decorum. Thus what I watched felt like a kind of apologia for male privilege; a film which, instead of opening minds about what love and relationships can look like, seemed to narrow them and drain them of their content.
 Another such movie – and quite a better movie – is The Dutchess, staring Keira Knightly. In scholarship, renowned historian Jill Lepore has recently published Book of Ages, a book about the hard and lonely life of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s impoverished sister.