Nelly Ternan, Dickens mistress for the final 13 years of his life, is an enigma. A woman who’s existence was concealed by Dickens during his lifetime, and effectively whitewashed by his estate after his death. Tomalin’s task was not an easy one, to reconstruct the life of a figure who clearly had a profound impact on Dickens, yet history and respectability would rather remained in the shadows. It is a task she manages with expert skill, piecing together a life from playbills and covert references in the few letters and papers which escaped the bonfire. She presents a woman both pulled along a path by powers and wills stronger then hers, but also a deeply resourceful woman who through everything life threw at her found a way to survive and at times thrive. Inevitably we also gain an insight into Dickens. A man of contradictions who bares little resemblance to the personal persona he wished the public to see. On the one hand he had an interest in helping “fallen women” and others in need, on the other was a man with an indomitable will who could bully those into getting what he wished, cruelly and unceremoniously separated from his wife, and took a mistress. Not exactly the personification of the respectable Victorian gentleman.
Ultimately the book raises as many questions as it tries answer. With such little information to go on, the truth will likely never be known about Nelly Ternan and her relationship with Dickens, but Tomalin goes some distance in at least presenting a hypothesis based on what little information exists.