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New fanfares for Claire Tomalin’s invisible woman ahead of her arrival at Marlborough’s lit festival

Claire TomalinClaire Tomalin

More plaudits at 80 – that’s not bad going after a lifetime of winning acclaim and awards for a remarkable series of biographies that have, notably, included Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys.

And Claire Tomalin, who is coming to the Marlborough Literary Festival at the end of the month to talk about her bi-centenary tribute to Dickens, will no doubt find a moment to mention her early 1990 biography entitled The Invisible Woman.

This told the remarkable story of Dickens secret love affair with the actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan when he was a married man of 45 with 10 children and she was just 18.

And a new film version of the saga, retaining The Invisible Woman title, directed and starring Ralph Fiennes as the author of Great Expectations – Dickens was writing it when he fell in love – has just had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Modest as ever, Claire is nevertheless enamoured with the end result but told Marlborough News Online:  “A triumph at 80? I think not.  They still make films about Shakespeare.”

She was approached three years ago by Ralph Fiennes after numerous attempts to film The Invisible Woman fell by the wayside, but this time she played a consultancy role in its production and has already seen the end result several times.

“Ralph is wonderful, a perfect Dickens,” she declared.  “He was born to play Dickens and was so determined to make it work.

“The whole thing is beautifully done.  Felicity Jones is marvellous as Nelly and the film has had such generous reviews.  They have all done a terrific job.”

The movie, unlike Claire’s biography, provides a part for Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, played by Tom Hollander, at an appropriate moment as a major new biography by Andrew Lycett of the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone was published last week.

“Of course Wilkie was there and it is perfectly legitimate for them to do so,” said Claire.  "He went off on trips to Paris with Dickens."

Scriptwriter Abi Morgan continually consulted Claire, who revealed:  “I was allowed to criticise as she went along.  At one stage I was asked to help her write it.  But that was not for me.

“Writing a film is very different to a biography.  A film is fiction.  What I wrote is fact.”

Meanwhile she is looking forward to the Marlborough Lit Festival.  “I’m a bit worn out at the moment,” she admitted.  “But I shall enjoy coming to Marlborough.  Everyone there is so nice.”

Although the UK release date for the movie is not until next year, the film has already enjoyed critical approval, the Telegraph’s Tim Robey declaring: “Fluid, handsome and confidently contained, it benefits from the actor-manager air of Fiennes's presence as Charles Dickens, which is bustling and authoritative but frequently offstage.

“The film's main character is the altogether sadder Nelly Ternan, the young, aspiring actress whose affair with Dickens in his later years Claire Tomalin handled in her book of the same name.

“Felicity Jones takes the role, and very accomplished she is too.  Abi Morgan's script – better, for my money, than her work on either Shame or The Iron Lady – elegantly straddles two timelines to illuminate a deliberately obscured life, opening the book at both ends on this other woman and her divided state of being.”

Tobey adds: “Dickens's relationship to the theatre world, rarely explored on screen, is a major asset here, giving Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O'Connor (The Duchess) plenty of scope to flex his imagination.

“The milieu plays to Fiennes's strengths, too – his film's splendid on both the shonky, hurried artifice of period staging and the evanescent magic that's still capable of bursting through.

“There's dry comedy in these scenes, thanks to a reliably mischievous Tom Hollander cameo as the floppy-haired Wilkie Collins, but it's also, exactly as any portrait of the performing arts should be - a world of tactful phoniness, smiling lies….

“The film's tough enough to ponder the irony of a famously compassionate novelist turning a blind eye to the upsets his own life caused – on top of its overall class, this gives it a needed edge of controversy, too.”

Claire Tomalin will be appearing at the Marlborough Literary Festival, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, on Saturday, September 28.

For tickets phone 01249 701628.

How Dickens was torn between love and social suicide

Ralph Fiennes has presented his own very different – and disturbing -- view of the remarkable Charles Dickens in the new movie The Invisible Woman, in an interview he gave at the Toronto Film Festival.

"Dickens was tormented, he had huge extremes of emotion,” he said.  “We tend to get the sort of Christmas card Dickens – the smiling, jolly father-figure, entertaining the family.  But when you read about him, you can identify this very disturbed man: a man in anguish."

He sees him as a complex character torn between love and social suicide, which has reverberations in the novelist's work, and added:  “Great Expectations was written when we know he was involved with Ellen Ternan (played by Felicity Jones).

“And Felicity and I had a lot of conversations about the degree to which Estella might be inspired by Nelly.  It's very interesting the extent to which you can identify elements of Nelly in many of his female characters, especially in his later books.”

Though Claire Tomalin's biography stops short of declaring the couple definitely suffered a miscarriage, 50-year-old Fiennes is confident in his film's changed version of events between him and Ellen Ternan.

"Claire argues that although there is no absolute proof, she believes there was certainly consummation,” he revealed.  “And absolutely she believes there was a child, even possibly two.  Other biographers have started to acknowledge that this is probably the best bet."

The couple also spent time in France, and great chunks of time are unaccounted for in Dickens's diaries.  "France was the place people went to in England when they had to deal with illegitimate births,” Fiennes explains.  “So I just followed the hints and the leads that Claire writes."

But Fiennes also felt it was important not to sensationalise the story of passion and infidelity.

"I was wary of the quick leap to judgment – 'Dickens was a scoundrel.'  An Irish friend of mine said, 'Oh he was a bit of a bollocks, wasn't he.'

“But there's a whole spectrum of Dickens.  He was very loyal to his friends, incredibly generous, devoted to social causes that he really delivered on, wrote these amazing books, and then at home possibly was a very difficult father figure."

Fiennes in fact had barely any contact with the immortalised novelist until he started work on the film.

"It's true that I was pretty ignorant about Dickens,” he admitted.  “I'd read Little Dorritt and seen some films, but Dickens had never been prescribed to me and I had never chosen to go through the canon of his work.

“And in a way that may have been a plus, I came open, and became completely fascinated."





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