Actor Ralph Fiennes claims that Dickens, in contrast to his image as a kindly national treasure, was actually a tortured figure who may have projected his private affairs onto his novels and had at least one illegitimate child.
Charles Dickens May Have Talked About His Affairs In His Novels
At the Toronto Film Festival, the actor Ralph Fiennes said, “The gap between brand and man with Dickens is much wider than most people realize.” Fiennes plays Dickens in the film The Invisible Woman, in which he has an affair with the much younger actress Nelly Ternan. “Dickens was tormented, he had huge extremes of emotion. We tend to get the sort of Christmas card Dickens – the smiling, jolly father figure, entertaining the family. But when you read about him, you can identify this very disturbed man: a man in anguish.”
Fiennes said the film’s portrayal of Nelly (played by Felicity Jones), adapted from a biography by Claire Tomalin, as a complex character torn between love and social suicide, resonates with the novelist’s work.
“Great Expectations was written when we know he was involved with Ellen Ternan. And Felicity and I had a lot of conversations about the degree to which Estella might be inspired by Nelly. It’s very interesting the extent to which you can identify elements of Nelly in many of his female characters, especially in his later books.”
“Actually, after his affair with Nelly, I think his female characters enhance,” Jones said in jest.
Tomalin’s biography doesn’t go so far as to say for sure that the couple had a miscarriage, but Fiennes is certain that’s what happened based on the information presented in his film. “Claire argues that although there is no absolute proof, she believes there was certainly consummation. And absolutely she believes there was a child, even possibly two. Other biographers have started to acknowledge that this is probably the best bet.”
Since Dickens’ diaries don’t include entries for their time in France, we don’t know how long he and his wife were there. “France was the place people went to in England when they had to deal with illegitimate births. So I just followed the hints and the leads that Claire writes.”
Fiennes, however, thought it was equally vital that the story not be sensationalized. “I was skeptical of the hasty conclusion that “Dickens was a scoundrel.” As one of my Irish friends put it, “Oh he was a bit of a bollocks, wasn’t he?”
In 1812, writer and performer Charles Dickens was born #OTD. He wrote his first play at the age of 6 and played the lead role of course. Find out more on Dickens’ love affair with the crowd as @SimonCallow examines his theatrical career.
— The British Library (@britishlibrary) February 7, 2021
Even though he is one of Britain’s biggest movie stars, Fiennes had very little interaction with the nation’s best-known author prior to filming this. “It’s true that I was pretty ignorant about Dickens. I’d read Little Dorritt and seen some films, but Dickens had never been prescribed to me and I had never chosen to go through the canon of his work – and in a way that may have been a plus, I came open, and became completely fascinated.”
The film places Nelly’s suffering in the modern context of the difficulties women in Victorian England faced, where they were almost entirely dependent on the earnings of men. “Mrs. Ternan, the mother, tacitly allows this relationship to happen,” Fiennes said. “What’s she going to do? She risks social ostracization for her daughter, but the security and the benefits of the support of Dickens perhaps outweigh the risk of breaking the taboo.”
However, not everything was strum and drag on set. “I had to wear this huge bow tie. I kept saying, it’s too much – but then I looked at the pictures of Dickens and of course, it’s huge, out to here. So I embraced it.” And, as both actor and director, Fiennes was able to weigh in on the two sides of himself. “Ralph Fiennes the actor is very difficult, he’s very moody, tempestuous, storms off the set. And Ralph Fiennes the director … is also very difficult.”
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