Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman is enjoyable enough, in the way costume dramas always are. It gives the greatest pleasure when Fiennes, as Dickens, is re-enacting the lucrative readings Dickens gave of his own works. I would pay Fiennes, I am saying, to come to my house and read Great Expectations to me. Also, Felicity Jones is pretty good as the woman in question. If you go in for this kind of poncey British stuff, overall you will not regret having spent two hours watching the film. In fact, possibly the worst thing you can say about this movie in isolation is that all the compliments you can give it are so mild.
More interesting is that the story the film tells is something of a fantasia. Although the screenplay is in theory based on Claire Tomalin’s 1990 biography of the same title, very few of the events the film depicts about Charles Dickens and his mistress, Nell Ternan, are either as reported in the book, or verifiable. The timing’s been reorganized in places, certain aspects of the story exaggerated, and others presented as fact when Tomalin herself called them guesses. It is fairly clear that Dickens and Ternan were involved, and also fairly clear that their involvement eventually extended to his giving her money and probably even buying properties for her. It is also fairly clear that Ternan, who survived Dickens by several decades, never wanted to tell the family she had afterwards about her long association with “Boz.” All the money and the property-buying suggests that their involvement was sexual, and we know by hearsay from Dickens’ children that there was likely even a child born to the couple, a child who was either stillborn or died in infancy. Beyond that, everything is speculation.
And I guess my question was, after I left the film: why not be upfront as to the uncertainties of what you are showing? Of course this is fiction, and fact-checking movies can be a dreary thing. But what I found myself objecting to is not that the film deviates from the historical record in small respects. It’s that maybe the entire idea of taking a story that remained a mystery and turning it into the kind of blunt, unqualified romance Fiennes and company have here makes no sense at all. The title, after all, is The Invisible Woman.
It might seem like what I am suggesting is an impossibility: that the only way to respect this story is not to tell it, to keep it hidden. That’s not quite what I’m saying. But the entire matter of the Dickens/Ternan affair is reminiscent of the great A.S. Byatt novel Possession. Possession is a literary detective story, really, an account of the occasionally ridiculous world of the study of English literature today, though it’s intensely romantic. It’s intensely romantic because the love story of a couple of nineteenth-century poets turns out to be the kind of thing that people in the present – in Byatt’s novel, academics, but it really goes for all of us – can’t reconstruct. The last five pages or so of the novel make that rapturously, wonderfully clear.
I mean, the thing about it is: what’s romantic about the story of The Invisible Woman is that how all these years later we still don’t know what happened. We don’t even know for sure that she loved him, though the film speculated that she must have. That ultimate kind of secret-holding is the thing that makes this whole affair something more than sordid. Dickens was a man who, decades before anyone dreamed of the word paparazzi, constantly saw his personal affairs written up in the paper. And yet here he had this one thing he was able to keep to himself.
There’s some better, more romantic ideal in the ability to take things to the grave than The Invisible Woman was prepared to admit. A little more hazy uncertainty would have made it all that much easier to get swept up.