Early in “The Invisible Woman,” Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) introduces actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) to his brood of ten children, a dizzying swirl of faces ranging from teenage daughters down to cherubic little boys. “And that is it…I think,” he says—then takes a beat before concluding, “And…of course, my wife.” The camera lands, with a thud, on the wide girth of Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan). Her face, as flat as a pug’s, is the punch line and the audience chuckles. There’s a collective relief in the air. Oh, so that’s why he’s cheating.
Directed by Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan, “The Invisible Woman” is based on Dickens’s decade-long affair with Ternan, whom he met when she was just eighteen. The film’s statement about stifling Victorian double standards is overt. While the affair could cost Dickens a little bad press, it could cost Ternan her livelihood and reputation—her very identity. The sexual politics are familiar, but what’s more interesting to me, a 21st century viewer, is the demand for female perfection.
From the first moment we see Catherine, her body defines her role, giving us license to root for the mistress. In a later scene, Dickens opens his wife’s door to find her half-dressed and the camera, like the husband, darts back, embarrassed by the intimacy. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, movie heroines come in one size—Felicity Jones’s. And she is undeniably exquisite in the role; all the rose bud and snow white metaphors so popular in Victorian literature apply.
The “angel in the house” ideal, a pillar of Dickens’s time, has of course been pilloried in ours. Contemporary critics have often called Dickens’s heroines his one weakness: Amy Dorrit and Little Nell are patently sweet and selfless, but they won’t make you laugh like Mr. Pickwick does or make your skin crawl like Fagin will. It’s the quirks and warts that make his characters memorable.
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Joanna Scanlan gives one of the film’s most nuanced performances. Her Catherine is initially played for laughs, but ultimately shows as much grace as her younger counterpart. The scene in which Catherine confronts Nelly about her relationship with Dickens is doubly painful because we feel each woman’s humiliation acutely. When Catherine warns, “you will find, you must share him with his public. They will be the constant and in truth you will never absolutely know which one he loves the most,” she shows a sharp human sensibility, even if she does not possess a literary one.
In the film’s interpretation, it is Catherine’s ambivalence to literature and Nelly’s love of it that distinguishes the women in Dickens’s heart—as much as their physicalities. Yet, he also expects an emotional perfection that even the bright and lovely Nelly cannot, in the end, deliver. Fiennes’s Dickens is warm-hearted, but not emotionally generous. He is too caught up in the delights of a perfect narrative to face the imperfections of a real woman.
As the audience, we’re not confronted with this distinction. Nelly’s emotional turmoil, which in real life could be difficult to navigate, only adds to her beauty on screen. The sight of Felicity Jones striding down the stark coastline, the grey waves rolling in, and the wind whipping her cheeks pink is one of the great pleasures of “The Invisible Woman.” The pain that plays on her face is near perfect.
The film’s title comes from the notion that Nelly is defined by her relationship with Dickens, a relationship that can never be acknowledged or seen. In life, she may have been an invisible woman, but in the context of the film, Nelly is the heroine—not an angel, but a more troubled, more deeply layered heroine than the characters Dickens wrote in her likeness.
Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.