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Originally published Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 5:15 AM

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Ralph Fiennes embraces Dickens’ ‘frightening side’

An interview with Ralph Fiennes, who talks about playing author Charles Dickens in the upcoming motion picture “The Invisible Woman.”

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie interview

‘The Invisible Woman’

Opens Friday, Jan., 24, at the Seven Gables and Lincoln Square. Rated R for some sexual content.

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A century and a half ago, one of the most famous men in England hid a secret. Charles Dickens, the beloved author of “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations” and numerous other novels, had a much-younger mistress at the height of his fame.

She was an actress from a theatrical family, her name was Nelly Ternan, and history has almost erased her from existence, though she spent many years with Dickens and may have given birth to his child. No letters between the two survive, no mention of her appears in a Dickens biography published a few years after his death — and Ternan, who survived Dickens by 44 years, never wrote a word about him.

“The Invisible Woman,” a quiet, elegant new film directed by Ralph Fiennes (based on the book of the same title, by biographer Claire Tomalin), explores the story of their time together. In 1857, Dickens cast 18-year-old Ternan in a production of his play “The Frozen Deep.” By the following year, he had separated from his wife (announcing it, most unusually, in the London Times); soon after, Ternan’s acting career ended and she moved into a London house apparently purchased for her by Dickens. If she had a child it was in the shadows, and it soon died; only whispers remained.

Fiennes, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, finds it persuasive that, decades later, two of Dickens’ children (from his marriage) acknowledged Ternan’s pregnancy. “That’s enough for me to believe there was. All this period, in the early 1860s, Dickens’ movements are unaccounted for and he was thought to have been spending lots of time in France (where Ternan apparently was). Claire can’t prove it, but I think the way she aligns her facts and presents her case, it’s very persuasive.”

It’s fascinating to think of a time when such a relationship could be so completely hidden away, and Fiennes — who plays Dickens in the film — was irresistibly drawn to the story. Although Dickens, he said, was one of the few recognizable men in England then (engravings of him frequently appeared in newspapers), he easily would have been able to move about London, and to France, undetected. “There just wasn’t enough of that ability to have your face reproduced,” he said.

No stranger to Dickens (having played Magwitch in a film version of “Great Expectations,” just before “The Invisible Woman”), Fiennes depicts him as a big, boisterous personality, as if perpetually on stage. “He wanted to be an actor, initially — he had a fascination with actors and the theater,” said Fiennes, noting that Dickens frequently staged amateur theatrical productions in his home.

But behind that zesty exterior lay something more complex — something that came into play when his relationship with Ternan began. “He was beloved by the public and I think he was sort of manically in control, or wanted to be in control, of how people perceived him. He was a very strong man and had a kind of frightening side to him. If he felt he was being slighted or judged negatively, he would be fiercely protective of his own reputation — in a way that challenges you to like him at that time.”

Swept under Dickens’ control, Ternan virtually disappeared — there are years, Tomalin points out in her book, with no evidence that Ternan even existed. (The book, a wonderful read, is both literary biography and detective story, meticulously tracing the line of a barely documented life.) After Dickens’ death, Ternan began anew: Subtracting years from her age, she married a clergyman and raised two children who knew nothing of her past, not even that she’d been an actress. But her secret lingered.

The film doesn’t tell us this, but Fiennes relates an ironic postscript to Ternan’s story, told in Tomalin’s book: After Ternan’s 1913 death, her son Geoffrey pieced together her story. After Henry Dickens, the author’s son, confirmed it, Geoffrey was devastated and destroyed any evidence of his mother — and then, years later, attempted a career as a professional actor. Ternan went to her grave with her secrets, but her legacy lived on.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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