(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
* Contains spoilers *
This is a follow-up piece to a review of The Invisible Woman (2013), and a question asked of actor / director Ralph Fiennes, partly about Dickens’ wife Catherine’s motives.
In Manchester, during the after-play party near the start of the film, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) is sitting next to Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), and the former says how she had not expected anything to be so lasting in her memory as Bleak House, but is finding a rival in what she is now reading [David Copperfield ?]. One must judge with what motive, but the latter retorts ‘Tis a fiction, designed to entertain, with which opinion Nelly briefly, but strenuously, states her disagreement.
Freed from the plot development on rewatching The Invisible Woman (2013), it was possible to concentrate on how finely Felicity Jones acts.
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) February 11, 2014
When the women meet again, Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) has sent his wife to Nelly’s mother’s house, and she asks Nelly if she is fond of Dickens. She scarcely allows Nelly to answer before she intervenes to say Silly question – he is Mr Charles Dickens !. The question arises (as it did in the Q&A with Fiennes) whether what she goes on to say to Nelly is out of any sort of envy or desire to put her off, or just from the simple motive of telling the truth, how it is with Dickens and her :
Essentially, she reports her own experience, that Dickens has an extra-marital devotion to his readership / audience that makes her uncertain to say which he cares more for, them or her. In saying what she does, she suggests that it is not easy to find his affections divided, and that may merely be a statement of fact.
But why express it to Nelly ? Out of sheer feminine feeling and a desire to be helpful ? The context is as follows :
* Some time before at the Dickens' home, Charles expresses his defiance in the garden at what his sister-in-law and Catherine are urging about the rumours, and declares that he will not stop seeing Nelly* – he then goes back to playing with the children
* At some other point that summer, it is Nelly's twentieth birthday, and we are at the Ternans' house – this is when Catherine calls, with the redirected present from Charles
* When, later that day, Charles and Wilkie (Tom Hollander) whisk Nelly away to Wilkie's home, and she leaves, she confronts Charles on the steps of her family home (just before a policeman intervenes), criticizing him for sending the mother of his children to her – he says that he wanted Catherine to see what he sees in Nelly, and says that Catherine has no understanding
* There is the ambiguous scene of proximity indoors, then the next thing is the boarding-up to partition the Dickens house, a very quick scene
* After the awkward meeting between Charles and Nelly and Charley, Charley reads the letter in The Times about the separation to Catherine
It indicates what Catherine thinks of Charles, he of her, in these clues : as early as sending Catherine around with the gift that he had intended to have delivered to Nelly, he wanted Catherine to see that it was over between her and him, and why (he tells Nelly so that day). Catherine is not stupid. She knows herself to have been humiliated by being told to call on Nelly, but she can use the call to her advantage :
Doubtless, there is truth in what she says about Charles being torn away from her by his public, and that one will never know which he cares for more, but, if one watches the scene closely, she has a subtle way of laying it on thick, and does hope to discourage Nelly, if she cannot discourage Charles, but with the subtext I've seen it all before, and let me tell you, as a friend, how it is....
What Catherine does not reckon on is that ambiguous scene of near-kisses, and that Nelly then seeks out advice from her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and from Wilkie, before making an entry, dressed and framed as a Pre-Raphaelite subject, in Charles' rooms. There, she gets close to him, in an energetic meeting of minds over the galley-proofs, through the closing chapters to Great Expectations – until then, taken to see Wilkie living unmarried with a woman, she thinks that Charles sees her as his whore.
Catherine had her own agenda, but was prudent enough to act the part of the woman on the way out looking after the new one.
At the end of the film, hurt and anxious Nelly uses the words shadow / parting / haunting to describe being separated from Charles in the life that she lives now, where she cannot admit how she knew him. As her husband says :
The memories of a child, Nelly
Or, then again, 180 years since Charles Dickens sneezed publicly in Cardiff - to great acclaim...
* Catherine says 'More gossip in The London Diary', as Dickens sits down with the newspaper. After comments around the table about not having kept it a secret, and denying it, she says 'You must stop this', to which Dickens replies, 'What if I do not wish to ?'. She retorts, 'Do not be foolish - you cannot keep her a secret', and a challenge to which - then and later - he rises.
If you want to Tweet, Tweet away here
Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)