Nelly Ternan

Actress Nelly Ternan was the mistress of author Charles Dickens. Their affair is the subject of the film The Invisible Woman, in which Felicity Jones plays Nelly.


Nelly Ternan was born on March 3, 1839, in Rochester, England. When Ternan was 18, Charles Dickens hired her to act in his Manchester production of The Frozen Deep. Although Dickens was married, the two embarked on a 13-year long affair, until his death in 1870. Ternan married in 1876. In her later years, she was active in the Anti-Suffrage League. Ternan died on April 25, 1914, in Southsea, England.

Early Life

Ellen Lawless Ternan was born to a family of second-generation theater actors in Rochester, England, on March 3, 1839. She adopted the nickname "Nelly" as a young child. Ternan had two older sisters, Frances Eleanor and Maria Susanna. She also had a younger brother who died as a baby.

Nelly's father died at a Bethnal Green mental asylum in 1846. She was just 7 years old at the time.

Acting Career

Following her father's death, Nelly and her sisters continued to tour as an acting troupe with their mother, Frances Jarman Ternan. Nelly had debuted on the stage in Sheffield, England, when she was just 3 years old.

In 1855, Nelly and her family moved to London, England, where Charles Kean employed them at the Princess's Theatre. Two years later, Nelly took her first adult acting gig in a burlesque show at the Haymarket Theatre.

When Nelly was 18 years old, Charles Dickens hired her, along with her mother and sisters, to act in his Manchester production of The Frozen Deep. Nelly took the role that was originally played by Dickens's daughter, Kelly. The Ternan family acting troupe gave three performances of The Frozen Deep in the Free Trade Hall. Quite taken with Nelly and her family alike, Dickens became their theatrical patron. With Dickens's financial support, Nelly Ternan was able to retire from the stage in 1860.

Affair with Charles Dickens

Although the 45-year-old novelist Dickens was married to Catherine Dickens when he met Ternan, their marriage was reportedly rocky. The father of nine was immediately smitten with the young actress. The two soon embarked upon an affair that would last the next 13 years, and which allegedly resulted in Ternan giving birth to Dickens's stillborn child.

On June 7, 1870, Dickens collapsed while having dinner with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, at Gad's Hill Place. He died 24 hours later of an "effusion on the brain," according to his doctor. That July, Dickens's last will and testament was read. It bequeathed a sum of 1,000 pounds (equivalent to approximately $5,590 at the time) to Nelly Ternan.


By 1876, Ternan had moved on from the loss of her lover. She married George Wharton Robinson that year, and the couple went on to have two children, a son named Geoffrey and a daughter called Gladys. Together, Ternan and Robinson operated a boys' school in Margate. In 1886, they had to sell the school when financial trouble pushed Robinson to the point of a mental breakdown.

In 1907, Nelly had breast cancer surgery and recovered fully, only to watch her husband pass away soon after.

Later Life

In her later years, Ternan was active in the Anti-Suffrage League. She died of cancer on April 25, 1914, in Southsea, England.

Author Claire Tomalin's biography about Ternan and her affair with Dickens, entitled The Invisible Woman, was published in 1990. In September 2013, a film adaptation of the same name—starring Felicity Jones as Nelly—was screened at the Toronto Film Festival.

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