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The High Priestess II Ellen Ternan

Roman à Clef:

Ellen 'Nelly' Lawless Ternan

alias The Patient alias the Riddle

alias the Doncaster Unhappiness


Lucie Mannette; Estella;

Bella Wilfer; Helena Landless.

         For the last 13 years of Charles Dickens' life, he kept an extraordinary secret. This secret was shared and kept by a select coterie of people loyal to Dickens - John Forster, for example, who makes no mention of it in his landmark biography. This secret was also kept by his faithful sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and by his many children. It was also kept by the secret herself, whom Dickens' - in inimitable style - had many pet names for, including his “magic circle of one”. Kept, that is, for the most part, since no secret can go completely unknown and hidden from view, especially a crucial piece of a man whose life and even posterity was immoderately public. Fifty years after his death, whisperings of his secret were heard, but people's reverence for the man was such that by and large they turned a deaf ear, thereby helping to keep Dickens' secret for him. Over a hundred years after the author's death, the truth began finally to see the unfiltered light of day. But as with the light from a distant star, its emanation is so far away now that the whole truth concerning Dickens' magic circle of one can never fully be seen.


 Ellen Ternan's beginnings are both somewhat common and somewhat exceptional, and curious coincidences with Charles Dickens life and psyche are unmistakable. Nelly, as she was known, was born into Dickens' first love: the theatre. Her mother and her mother's mother were both respected actresses. The role of actress in the 19th Century was a twilight one for women; of the few potentially self-supporting professions open to women, it was barely tolerated at best by society, and most female actors after the age of 40 – those who didn't marry a man of wealth and status – ended their lives in dire poverty and dishonour. Nelly's father was also an actor, and in a coincidence straight out of a Dickens novel, the young Charles quite likely saw Nelly's parents act during the boy's halcyon days in Rochester. Years later, Nelly was born in Dickens' beloved Rochester, at just the same time the author was killing one of his dearest creations: Little Nell. The fictional girl's name, Nell Trent, is remarkably similar to Nelly Ternan. Appropriate to the High Priestess card, Nelly was born March 3rd, a Pisces. She was the youngest of 3 daughters, her sisters also actresses. When she was 3 she made her stage debut, where she and her sisters were presented as “infant phenomena” - a la the “Infant Phenomenon” of Dickens' 3rd novel, Nicholas Nickleby. When her father died, insane, her mother continued to raise and tour with the girls theatrically.


 As an actress, Nelly knew far more about the written word and the real world than most girls of her age and era. An actress was given a special dispensation to bend the rules of society with a specific and qualified brand of guilt – one in which they didn't believe in, unlike most “fallen women” epitomized by Nancy, but which nevertheless they bore. When Nelly met Dickens, she was the same age as the daughter named after his wife, Kate, and he was 2 1/2 times her age. It was Kate's role Nelly took over in Dickens' farce Uncle John, which saw the author playing an old man ludicrously in love with the young girl he has educated. In the Dickens-Collins play The Frozen Deep, Nelly took over the role played by Georgina Hogarth. Both these substitutions are of symbolic significance with Kate, Georgina, and Nelly forming for Dickens a powerful triumvirate.


 The middle-aged Charles Dickens, whose marital affairs had driven him to despair for years and whose paradigm of affection had grown decidedly paternal in aspect, fell passionately in love with Ellen Ternan. He moved into a room beside Catherine, building a wall between him and his wife both figuratively and literally. He argued, he lied, he became self-righteous and a madman in the words of his daughter, Kate. He desired to be as good and pure as a boy and became as cruel and devious as one. A man famous for his goodness and sincere inclination toward domestic values became morally suspect and adrift. He wrote semi-confessional letters to admiring women friends, in language romantic and oblique concerning vestal maidens and heroic feats. His chronic restlessness redoubled. He couldn't write. He couldn't sleep. He walked 30 miles from Tavistock to Gad's Hill one night in despair. He undertook public speaking engagements to help assuage his disquiet. His actions were decried by many, including E.B. Browning, Mrs. Gaskell, Mary Boyle, and Phiz. He broke off his friendship with Thackeray, quarrelled with Mark Lemon, fell out with his publishers. He separated from Catherine and decreed their children should not only stay with him but never speak to their mother again. So many people were discussing his affairs, inventing details, assuming, and getting things wrong, that Dickens took out a full-page ad in the Times and Household Words defiantly denying his relations with Nelly were anything less than honourable. Many Victorians found this public statement shameful, and though self-deluding and tasteless as they undoubtedly were, it was a direct address in print of an issue not unlike Dickens' address of housing conditions or the sewer system. The primary fault was it may have been true to the letter but it certainly was untrue to the spirit. As clear indicator of Dickens' denial, he planned to call his newly formed periodical Household Harmony.


 Nelly continued acting for a time, her last performance being in the aptly named Out of Sight, Out of Mind. From here, she effectively disappeared, living in a kind of limbo. Even her sister Fanny, who had herself married a man old enough to be her father - Anthony Trollope's brother, Thomas - and who wrote novels published in Dickens' periodical All The Year Round, didn't know the full extent of Nelly's relationship with the great author. Or, perhaps, like many who knew Dickens intimately and those who came across inconsistencies and odd facts while investigating his life long after his death, she both knew and didn't know and saw but didn't see. This is after all the other side of what's hidden: what people themselves refuse to believe.


 Nelly, then, didn't so much retire from acting as she did slip into a role of anonymity. Dickens, a fervent admirer of French candour and a self-styled citoyen, established a home for Nelly in France. He, meantime, was only hours away by train at Gad's Hill. Between 1862 and 1865, Dickens made over 70 recorded Channel crossings. At some point, unrecorded, Nelly gave birth to a son by Dickens, but the boy – according to Kate Dickens – didn't live long. Returning from France with Nelly and her mother, Dickens and the two women were involved in the Staplehurst train crash which killed 10 people and injured 40. Dickens kept Nelly out of public scrutiny, maintaining the facade his involvement with the girl was strictly virtuous and avuncular. She suffered physical injury from the accident, spending some months in convalescence during which Dickens doted on her and nicknamed her “the patient”. A fitting name, as Nelly was patient in more ways than one – the derailment had threatened their privacy and injured Dickens psychologically and Nelly physically, but it also brought home the hopeless and humiliating aspects of her position. The gaping hole in the tracks that traversed the bridge at Staplehurst was akin the interstice in which Nelly was compelled, sub rosa, to live; in that gap somewhere between what was seen and said and felt and been.


 While in France, Dickens had seen a performance of Faust by his friend Macready which affected him profoundly. Macready was a respected actor who, in his 60s, had remarried a girl in her twenties who, at the time of Faust's performance, was pregnant with his child. Like Pip, who attends a play about a murderer and worries about his own morality and fate, or his friend the ex-church clerk Wopsle's turn as Hamlet presenting in turn his play The Mousetrap, the Faustian story of an older man who seduces a young girl who gives birth to a child that dies, is ostracized, accused of infanticide, and herself dies, not only caught Dickens' conscience, but was almost too much for him to bear. Yet, howsoever much his words flew up, his thoughts remained below. The show, as even Claudius knew, must go on. So Dickens settled Nelly in Slough for a time, then permanently in Peckham, where he paid for her lodgings under his own stage name: Chas Tringham. The name of the Peckham house was Windsor Lodge - odd comment on Dickens' production of The Merry Wives of Windsor to benefit Miss Coutts' Home for Homeless Women, in which he made a star turn as the doddering Master Shallow. 


 When Dickens died, he had requested to be buried in Rochester in the simplest manner possible. Instead, he was buried in Poet's Corner at Winchester Abbey. Aside from Georgina and a few of his children, only men were invited – Collins, Forster, Ouvry, and Beard. Needless to say, Nelly was not in attendance. She was, however, the first person named in Dickens' will – an unusual act of defiance by Dickens from the safety of the grave. And by chance, on the day of Dickens' internment, a clergyman with business at the Abbey observed the small procession of mourners as thousands outside amassed to pay their last respects. His name was William Benham, an amateur Dickens scholar who later became what could be called a father-confessor to Nelly Ternan.


 After Dickens' death, Nelly's whereabouts are nebulous. Six years later she resurfaces, having reinvented herself as the wife of Oxford graduate and clergyman George Wharton Robinson. He not only knows nothing of her amorous relationship with Dickens, but Nelly has passed herself off as 13 years younger than she really is – 24 rather than 37 – when in actuality she is 13 years George's senior. The couple moved to Margate and opened a boys school where Nelly taught drama and put on theatrical productions, often for local charities. Chairman of the Margate School Board was William Benham - the same clergyman of literary tastes who had glimpsed Dickens' private funeral service. He inveigled himself into the confidence of Nelly, who, feeling remorse and shame at the thought of her intimacy with Dickens, confessed as much to Benham. Not long after, Nelly's husband George had a break-down from which he never recovered. The widowed Nelly spent her last years in Southsea, living quietly with her sister Frances, herself now widowed. She remained strong friends with both Georgina Hogarth and Dickens' daughter Kate. When she died in the year of the Great War, she was buried without ado in Portsmouth, the town of Charles Dickens' birth.


 What Nelly was like as a person is almost impossible to say. Yet we know from second-hand accounts and inference that she was charming, clever, and forceful of character. Her reading was extensive and included history, essays, sociology, and biography. She read Carlyle, Bickley, Macaulay, M. Arnold, Froude, T.H. Huxley, Lecky, Crabb Robinson, and Lockhart. As for fiction, we know she read Schiller and Goethe (in German), Hugo, de Musset, Berenger, Beaumarchais, Rousseau, Michelet, George Sand, and of course Dickens – all of whose work from the time of their meeting he had her vet. Also from the time of their meeting, many of Dickens' female protagonists take on a number of Nelly's attributes and reflect something of the author's relationship – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually – with her. The most salient examples reflect this allegorical root in their similarity of name to Ellen - Estella, Bella, and Helena Landless. But in what must be the most poignant blurring of fact and fiction sees Charles Dickens – the great author of the plight of marginalized children paying unfairly for the assumed sins of their parents – father a love-child with Ellen Lawless Ternan and rear it, during its short life, in shame. In a sense, then, Dickens is Nemo, his lady Lady Dedlock, the child his own real-life Esther Summerson.



 As curious end note, unlike the son she had with Dickens, Nelly by her husband George had a son who lived. A sensitive boy, Geoffrey Robinson, with his mother's nurturing, showed a special skill in the dramatic arts. With money scarce after his father's break-down, and his clergyman father's newfound disdain of all things literary, he abandoned theatre for a respectable career in the military. When his mother died, Geoffrey found among her personal items some startling indications she was not the woman he knew her to be. After meeting with one of Dickens' last surviving children, Sir Henry Dickens, Geoffrey destroyed every last memento he had of the mother he'd loved. In a strange final twist, though he refused to ever speak of his mother, Geoffrey tried late in life to resuscitate a career on the stage. He took the pseudonym Terence Tibburn and, meeting little success, he retired to the country. He became something of a recluse, insisting what people he saw refer to him by his stage name. Coincidentally, in typical Dickensian fashion, Tibbs was one of Dickens' own pseudonyms for himself.


 Perhaps if Geoffrey's parents hadn't been made to feel ashamed of Nelly's past, his mother could've encouraged her son to follow in the footsteps of his aunts and grandparents - or perhaps even of his mother's "uncle". Instead, the martial world of men's making, which felt compelled to live a lie about its own true nature just as it buried and whitewashed Nelly's, did the very same to her respectable son Geoffrey. The hush-money for sin being even lower than its wages - a fate worse than death - a kind of living death.


Notes for General Circulation


  •  The 2nd card of the Major Arcana represents the passive side of humanity. The first card is active, male, outward-moving; the second card is female, reflective, inward revealing. She signifies the conditions necessary for the development of the spiritual.

  •  Blue dominates – the colour of sensitive passivity. The 3 frames create a strong triadic force. They indicate the rigid boundaries imposed by society; here, the Victorian era's behavioural dictates. The loose flowing sheets enveloping a woman's naked body indicate the nature and reality that society would outlaw and conceal. The book the High Priestess holds may signify esoteric knowledge; it may symbolize the cherished works of a great author; it may be a book as yet unwritten. The ring she holds is one she cannot wear. The key is a skeleton key and may fit just about any door. The card's usual double wimple is replaced by the unfurling sheets of a courtesan, or are they wings? Or a settling shroud? Whatever they may be, they intimate cold receptivity.

  •  The High Priestess would be looking directly out at the reader if she could. The Magician of the previous card, with his back to her, is doing what he can to look the other way. The Empress, meantime, is oblivious.

  •  In a formal pattern, The High Priestess suggests the development of the contemplative life, spiritual profundity, a heretofore unknown sensitivity, and an epiphany of man's place with woman and within the world. Yet the card often implies disengagement. It may indicate an ideal or dream woman, the anima, or soul-mate.

  •  She alludes to what is hidden, intuition, perhaps even language itself. Yet she is silent.

  •  There is something sacred about her, something scared; something strange and estranged. She suggests a home of her making into which she cannot enter, a mouth without a tongue. She may be linked with the true expression of the Law.

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