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'The Invisible Woman': Charles Dickens' Muse And Mistress

By NPR Staff | NPR
Saturday, December 21, 2013

Charles Dickens was a celebrity of the Victorian era. His books and plays continue to be celebrated around the world, particularly around Christmas. The new film, The Invisible Woman, focuses on a lesser-known part of his life — his relationship with a young woman named Nelly Ternan.

Felicity Jones plays the young mistress and muse, and Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film, plays Dickens.

"He was extremely successful. He was one of the great sort of celebrities of his day, and he was a sort of forerunner of today's mad cult of celebrity possibly," Fiennes tells host Arun Rath. "He was ferociously protective of his reputation, and Nelly Turnan was the secret."

The film is based on biographer Claire Tomalin's 1990 book, The Invisible Woman.

"I think people don't know much about Dickens' life unless they have decided specifically to read a biography, and so they have this perception of him as the sort of upstanding Victorian father figure," says Fiennes.

Jones and Fiennes discuss the process of getting into the mind of their characters and how their relationship with the writer evolved during the film.


Interview Highlights

On the contrast between Dickens and Ternan

Fiennes: I get a sense of a man of ferocious energy and a furious imagination, an unstoppable imagination. And at the time we meet him in the story of this film, he's 45 years old, he's a father of nine children, he's at the height of his fame and into his life walks this woman. I think in his private life, his marriage was frustrating to him, and one other extreme we see in the film is the cruel and possibly brutal way in which he exits his marriage.

Jones: He's a man who uses words all the time, obsessed with words, obsessed with understanding the world through literature, through words. And Nelly is very careful when she speaks. You know, she chooses her words carefully. And it was quite a challenge playing a character where so much has to be shown nonverbally.

On Jones' interest in Dickens before the film

Jones: In England, Dickens is so ubiquitous, so, you know, you're surrounded by him from a really young age. But I have to say I wasn't a huge fan before. So it was only since being involved in the film that I started to really investigate him and appreciate him. And have since become completely obsessed with Great Expectations, as was Nelly, and really appreciated his incredible writing.

On what they've taken away from the film

Fiennes: I feel very still connected. Sometimes you do a film and you just sort of move on from it. I get a sense of an extraordinary man with an amazing imagination and potency, with many, many flaws, but the sense of a man that never wasted a second of his life. And I find that kind of very inspiring.

Jones: I feel like Nelly: I have a bit of a love-hate relationship for Dickens. He was this extraordinary genius. But at the same time, I think he was deeply flawed and could be a very cruel man. So I find my feelings toward him constantly fluctuating between those extremes.

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