Playing Dickens’s mistress

Ralph Fiennes’s movie “The Invisible Woman” was about Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s mistress and an elusive character. Felicity Jones writes about how she found her

Felicity Jones | January/February 2014

My journey into Dickensian London began in a hotel lobby in Beverly Hills. It was March 2011. I was in LA promoting "Like Crazy", and Ralph Fiennes was there with "Coriolanus". After I'd blustered in, apologising for being late, we ordered pancakes and discussed the script he'd sent me, an adaptation of Claire Tomalin's book about Dickens's long affair with an actress, Nelly Ternan, which began when he was 45 and she was 18. Ralph was directing the film, probably not playing Dickens himself ("it can be difficult trying to do both"), and considering me for the role of Nelly.

I had met Ralph on the set of "Cemetery Junction"; he played a chauvinist 1970s tycoon and I was his daughter. I watched him closely, fascinated by his precision. There was a musicality in his delivery, a measure of theatricality, yet he was entirely believable. Once, I took hold of his arm to pull him from his chair in the first rehearsal and then didn't do it in the second—and Ralph said he thought the first time worked better. Even then there was a director at work in the actor.

I had read English at Oxford, but the course included only one measly week on Dickens. I remembered that he’d had ten children and a slightly bizarre closeness with his sister-in-law, but knew nothing of his 13-year affair with Nelly. I learnt from Abi Morgan’s script that she was one of three sisters raised by a widowed mother, all of them actresses. I was fascinated by this family of women struggling to make ends meet: I felt an instinctive rapport with Nelly, perhaps because my mother raised my brother and me on her own.

Claire called Nelly invisible because her role in Dickens's life was hidden, even after his death. Her father had died of syphilis in a mental asylum and I felt this disgrace, together with the taint of immorality attached to her profession, had made Nelly fiendish about preserving her dignity. More than that, I told Ralph, there was something closed and oblique about her; she didn’t spring from the page as a fully formed romantic heroine. He agreed, saying their story could not be read as a straightforward love affair. They were two complex individuals, and part of the process of playing them would be to honour these idiosyncrasies.

Back in London, Ralph came to see me in Schiller's "Luise Miller" at the Donmar. He was now considering playing Dickens, and I could see it in him—his face fuller and ruddier, his manner more expansive. We joked that it was like Dickens coming to see Nelly in "School for Scandal" at the Haymarket. It's the first moment in the script when he is more than a benevolent uncle figure, and you can feel the transgression.

The audition in September was in an office off Leicester Square. We read some scenes with Nelly in her teens and others from her 30s, when she is a headmaster's wife in Margate. For the older Nelly, Ralph wanted me to be more contained, but also to search for something fundamental, "as if you're in a Greek tragedy…more visceral than cerebral". We tried a few approaches as he asked for precise adjustments. I left the audition knowing that I had to play Nelly, but I wasn't sure if Ralph felt the same. A few weeks later, he called. "I'd love it if you’d play her," he said.

The search for Nelly began on my bookshelf. First I re-read "David Copperfield", then "Great Expectations", to see if there had been a shift in his writing—Dickens met Nelly between the two. I wondered, too, if the relationship between Miss Havisham and Estella had been inspired by Nelly and her mother, as Mrs Ternan was protective of her youngest daughter and often acted as chaperone when Nelly was with Dickens. 

When Pip describes meeting Estella, it could be Dickens talking: "I, trembling in spirit and worshipping the very hem of her dress; she, quite composed and most decidedly not worshipping the hem of mine." Pip's account of Estella as "proud and wilful" seemed likely to be true of Nelly, too, and the contrast he describes—"the air of completeness and superiority with which she walked at my side, and the air of youthfulness and submission with which I walked at hers"—was something Dickens had felt himself. 

I immersed myself in Nelly's world. A Dickens exhibition at the Museum of London used soundscapes that gave a real sense of Victorian times. I retraced the sisters' regular 90-minute walk back from the theatre to their house in Islington, Park Cottage, which still exists. Wandering in and out of the little rooms, I pictured Nelly carrying her hooped skirt up and down the narrow stairs, pushing past the equally huge skirts of her mother and sisters. I saw her in the small room in the basement with its tiny high window. It was very dark, and would have been darker then, full of smoke from the range. It impressed me how these women carved out an independent existence, provided for by the acting—they were poor, but they were educated and resourceful. It was interesting too that all the sisters eventually gave up acting. I wondered if it was, for them, a means to an end, a way of making money.

Actors look at the way people hold their bodies for clues to their character. One day my printer wouldn't work, so I sat in an internet café trawling for images of Nelly. It was fascinating just how different she could look. Her clothes were either very fussy or else simple to the point of puritanical. In the fussy pictures, her hair was loose, her clothes more ornate—they seemed theatrical and not true, her hands were arranged in a way that felt artificial. I wondered if that came from having been on stage, then realised these were probably publicity shots. When she appeared as herself, though, she was in control. Her hair was pinned up, impeccably neat. She often wore a small collar with a strong, round brooch, and clothes with stripes and graphic designs rather than anything too floral or feminine. She always wore earrings—a different, carefully chosen pair in each portrait—and even at the end of her life, there was a glint in her eye. She had a sober air that suggested a bluestocking who wanted to be taken seriously, but also a sharpness, a sense of style. This, I thought, is a woman who cares about how the world sees her, and who makes the most of her resources—she feels there's never an excuse for looking shoddy.

I spent many days experimenting with wigs. This was the first film in which I'd wear a wig, and it had to feel right. "Wigs", Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Nelly’s mother, told me, "have their own rules." But it helped me escape myself: I could look in the mirror and think "That's not me", which allows you to completely inhabit a character. I also became obsessed with Nelly’s bonnets. Putting one on was empowering—like a corset, there’s a strength there, a barrier between you and the world. It was almost like a suit of armour.

I kept thinking about the fact that in Nelly’s time acting was seen as a dirty trade. When Dickens goes backstage at "School for Scandal", she's sitting in her underclothes with a wig-cap on. All actors have to get used to the lack of dignity in the profession. As David Mamet said: "Show business is and always has been a depraved carnival"—it can be glorious, but there are moments when you are exposed, and vulnerable. That must have been hard for Nelly, the prideful, careful dresser. But I felt that that was something Dickens liked about the Ternans: they knew about both sides of society. He always had an eye for the grotesque.

The night before filming begins is always a sleepless one. You spend hours running lines in your head, worrying that you haven't done enough preparation. Fortunately, my first day as Nelly was spent walking along the beach: Camber Sands in East Sussex, standing in for Margate. Walking alone was Nelly's way of exorcising her past. She is no longer the invisible mistress, waiting for visits from Dickens, but the respectable wife of a teacher, George, who was 25. Nelly was 37, claiming to be 23, to support her fib that she'd been a child when she knew Dickens. The camera was miles away, and there was no dialogue to worry about, only the ferocious weather. I was walking in a dress with an enormous bustle, two petticoats and cage beneath, and as the rain dragged down the hem, the wind pushed the whole creation to the side. I lost my balance and plunged head first into the sand. 

Playing Nelly was tough. Ralph was unrelenting about getting an authentic performance from me. I'd never been directed by an actor before, and felt I couldn't cheat, or reproduce an overworked emotion. As filming went on, I felt more and more that Dickens couldn't quite work Nelly out. He could see most things sharply. But she was an enigma, perhaps the one thing that eluded him. And yet there was great empathy between them; as our producer said one day, "You know, sometimes they really got each other." She was right: I believe Nelly loved Dickens deeply, but she was proud. It was those moments when they did understand each other that helped the affair endure. 

My guess is that Dickens's adoration was fanned by Nelly’s initial resistance. She was discovering her sexuality with a much older man and I think she was ashamed and frightened of these intense feelings. There was no language of female desire then and she certainly couldn't have discussed it with anyone. Was that why she became so closed? She reminded me of Isabelle Huppert in "The Piano Teacher"—very sexual and yet deeply repressed. 

Nelly's most crucial moment comes near the end of the film, when a local clergyman and Dickens expert has guessed her story and offers himself as a confidant. Ralph and I rehearsed the scene for hours; if we were travelling we'd say the lines over and over again. There were times when it felt overwhelming, but I used it to my advantage: it's a way of making the words part of you. For Nelly, so terrified of exposure, opening up to the clergyman meant risking everything. Her confession is like modern-day therapy—someone claiming their identity, and saying "This is who I was." It was Nelly's resurrection.

Preparing to play a role is a process of slowly losing yourself. You use earrings, wigs and petticoats to change yourself externally, but internally other changes go on. Bits of yourself get bound up with bits of the woman you're playing; other bits get pushed under 

altogether. For the duration, you are in hiding, so when the job's over, you have to find yourself again.

Nelly's elusiveness, which had so struck me at first, was now long gone. Quite the opposite: she has stayed with me. I like her. I like her pride, the way she wasn’t too girly or flippant. I like her introversion. But mostly I like her for being such a survivor. When I think of her, I can feel her strength. Now, if I have to make a difficult decision, I look for the traces of her in me, and wonder, "What would Nelly have done?"

The Invisible Woman opens in Britain February 7th

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