The Invisible Woman is the story of the teenage girl for whose charms Charles Dickens broke up his family.
This painstaking, respectful film nonetheless shows what issues may arise when people of one era presume to judge the shortcomings of another. Still, fans of 19th-century literature, and Anglophiles in general, should appreciate this often appealing portrait of Dickens, the most celebrated English-language writer of his day. Ralph Fiennes, who also directs, invests the author with the manic energy he must have possessed in order to produce his many volumes of plays, lectures, poetry, short stories and long novels, all while indulging his passion for acting—and making reading tours of America. And, by the way, he fathered 10 children with his wife, Catherine (sensitively played by Joanna Scanlan).
The film starts, however, not with the Dickens family but with a schoolteacher on the eastern coast of England. She is Nelly Robinson, née Ternan, employed as a drama teacher and married to a kind, respectable man. But Nelly (glumly played by Felicity Jones) has a secret past; one that sends her on long, urgent walks on the beach. A church parson is persistent in his inquiries, and thus the film unfolds in a series of flashbacks. The problem is that Nelly's secret past isn't that shocking: She was the young mistress of Dickens, an affair that began when she was hired to act in a play that the author was staging in Manchester.
To the credit of screenwriter Abi Morgan, the best scenes explore the subtle and not-so-subtle limitations of women's lives. Nelly comes from a working family of women, all actors. While their means are modest, they manage in their threadbare way (nicely rendered by the film's design team). But Nelly, though bright and curious, isn't a particularly talented performer, so when she catches Dickens' eye, her mother (a hawk-like Kristin Scott Thomas) encourages the attention. "Our profession is hard enough even if you have talent," she says. Many tears follow, and the aspirations of a bright young teenager are brought to an end as she becomes Dickens' unacknowledged mistress—the invisible woman of the title.
While I appreciate the film's historicity and attention to feminism and class politics, I find its contemporary point of view to be a tad conventional and confining. Here's an alternate version: What if Nelly actually kind of loved the old goat? What if she readily consented to the relationship with him because he valued her intelligence as well as her youth, and because he would keep her in material comfort? It's a less satisfying story, and it certainly speaks to the imbalance of power and privilege between men and women (then and now), but it could also be the truth. And in this alternate reading, our modern tendency to cluck at this relationship is little different from the 19th-century societal judgment that threatened to expose and humiliate Dickens, his wife and Ternan. (The film is adapted from a book of the same title written by Claire Tomalin.)
I rather wish that the film had ditched the flashback structure and instead included greater treatment of Wilkie Collins, a close friend and collaborator of Dickens. Collins (played here by Tom Hollander) opposed the institution of marriage while maintaining domestic relationships with more than one woman. His personal life is noted in a single scene, which unfortunately is used to show Nelly's disgust at its scandalousness. Later, she lashes out at Dickens for making her sit down with such disreputable people, and by implication, treating her as a whore.
Some of us, at this moment, might find ourselves wishing we were back in the bohemian company of Collins and his lady.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Diminished expectations."