How I persuaded Ralph Fiennes to play Charles Dickens
As the film of her biography of The Invisible Woman comes to the big screen, Claire Tomalin reveals what it feels like to have your book adapted
Most writers can tell stories of how their books failed to be made into films. I had forgotten until I looked up old notes that I sold the film rights of my first book, a life of Mary Wollstonecraft: there was a lunch, a contract, a small sum of money, then nothing. Much the same happened with Mrs Jordan’s Profession: a lot of interest and excitement, then it fizzled out (twice). And again with my life of Pepys. For yearsThe Invisible Woman seemed destined to be yet another unmade film.
Biographies are, in their nature, far more difficult to make into films than novels, because novels come with plots constructed and dialogue written, whereas I don’t invent dialogue for my subjects or plot their lives for them. Biographers search for traces, for evidence of activity, for signs of movement, for letters, for diaries, for photographs. You can’t make a film out of that. And, as the title of The Invisible Woman tells us, its subject was an obscure person. She lived from 1839 to 1914, and it is not possible even to be sure about where she was and what she was doing for some of that time. Even in the diary of her lover she was no more than a letter ‘N’. Her name, Ellen Lawless Ternan – Nelly – has no resonance. And in 1876, when she married, that name disappeared.
When it surfaced again, it was only for the fact that she caught the attention of a great writer, Charles Dickens. And since their relationship was a secret one, and remained a carefully guarded secret for decades after his death, there was not much material to play with.
But when I researched my book, I found the experiences of Nelly, and her grandmother, mother and sisters, intensely interesting. They opened up a world quite unknown to me, and illuminated Dickens in a new way. They were all professional actors, hard workers, serious in pursuing their careers, ill rewarded and never considered respectable because the theatre itself was disreputable. It happened that Dickens, who also grew up in poverty and with little education, loved the theatre passionately and cherished its reliance on imagination and spontaneity, allied to discipline and self-reliance. He saw the Ternans – widowed mother and three daughters – as embodiments of these values. So the story became how he gave the Ternans practical help and changed his own way of living altogether as he pursued the magically attractive Nelly. In the process he rejected his wife, cruelly and without compunction. His public readings became supremely important to him, and he wrote two of his greatest novels during these years, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. Nelly was sent proofs and seems to have discussed his work with him. She was hidden in France for several years, and a child was born and died. Dickens never considered divorce.
Nelly was financially supported by Dickens but paid a price in loneliness. He could not acknowledge her as his companion in public. Theirs was a romance with harsh constraints. From Dickens, Nelly learned how to deceive. Just as he had tricked the world by using false names and installing her as Mrs Tringham in the houses he shared with her, so after his death she used the simple trick of taking 10 years off her age to protect herself from questions. She reinvented herself.
She relied on her sisters Fanny and Maria to collude with her in becoming 21 rather than 31. Both were by then married, and ready to blot out their years in the theatre. But Nelly, once married to the young clergyman who fell in love with her, had to lie for the rest of her life to him and to their children. This was, for me, the crux of the story. Only after her death did her son discover, on his return from the first world war, that his mother had given him a false account of her life. He was shattered by the discovery and hated the name of Dickens thereafter.
The Invisible Woman was published in 1990. In the mid-90s, the BBC invited me to write a four-part television serial based on the story. I toiled away, writing and rewriting, only to have it turned down by senior BBC executives.
Ten years passed. Then, out of the blue, in 2006, three new proposals for adaptations came. One was from a playwright I greatly admired,Simon Gray. We talked at length and he went on to write a play, lit with his intelligence and enthusiasm for Dickens. It is brilliant, but very short: he was ill and had not long to live. His play, Little Nell, was broadcast and played in Bath in a production by Peter Hall with a fine cast in 2007, but for a few performances only. I have no doubt it will be seen again.
The two further proposals came from a film company, Mark Shivas's Headline Pictures, and a television company. It was a difficult choice, but I opted for Headline, won over by the enthusiasm of a young script writer, Abi Morgan. After this heady moment, silence fell for two years. Shivas died, and Morgan was on a rising wave of success. I sometimes felt like a jealous lover – it seemed to me that every time I opened a newspaper I saw she was engaged on a script for someone else’s book.
Then, in January 2011, Headline told me that Ralph Fiennes was interested in directing a film of The Invisible Woman. A lunch was arranged with Fiennes and Morgan. I had met Fiennes once before and found him charming, funny and modest. Now I was struck by his physical resemblance to Dickens. “You were born to play Dickens,” I told him – but his plan was to direct.
Fiennes read Dickens, and about Dickens, absorbing his exuberance, his goodness and his capacity for cruelty. Tales of great men and women should include the other tales of those around them who pay the price for their greatness, and this one was no exception. Fiennes insisted that the central figure must be Nelly – and he found in Felicity Jones an actor of great intelligence, as well as beauty, to play her, and, in Joanna Scanlan, a wondrously good Mrs Dickens.
I went on thinking he must play Dickens. The more we talked about the man, the writer and the script, the more I wanted to see him in the part. At last I heard that he was growing his beard – a good sign. He had agreed to do it.
Seeing the shooting was a dreamlike experience. I spent a day in a City mansion (representing the Free Trade Hall in Manchester) where I was faced with a troop of familiar figures: Wilkie Collins, Catherine Dickens, Charley (the eldest son), Mrs Ternan, Nelly and Maria Ternan. The settings and background were immaculate, the costumes, flawless.
Next, I was invited to the Bluebell railway to see the climactic scene of the train crash at Staplehurst and its aftermath – bloodied extras stumbled about, Nelly lay prone in the wet grass with a grazed face and Dickens extricated himself from the wrecked train to look for her. The crash was big news when it happened in 1865, and pictures of the scene appeared in newspapers, along with stories of the heroism of Dickens in ministering to the wounded. Meanwhile, Nelly was smuggled away, an anonymous young woman.
In my book I say the crash threatened Dickens’s privacy and brought home to Nelly the humiliation of her position – that it showed her she had to live “in the gap between what could be said and what really happened”. The film seizes this moment to make the point without a word of explanation – a triumph.
It is not the same story as the one I tell. The film portrays a love story and is given a happy ending. It leaves out Nelly’s deviousness and suggests that she finds resolution by confessing to a benevolent clergyman, but this is not what happened. The Margate life, and the school, failed. Her husband George had a breakdown. The clergyman betrayed Nelly’s confidence. Never mind. It shows us Dickens in all his ambivalence, wreaking havoc on his wife and family – also blessedly good as he tries to help the lowest and poorest in society. It is not a simple-minded film – it allows for people being complex, changeable, human.
When Dickens met Dostoevsky
Late in 2011, Michiko Kakutani opened her New York Times review of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens with “a remarkable account” she had found in its pages. In London for a few days in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky had dropped in on Dickens’s editorial offices and found the writer in an expansive mood. In a letter written by Dostoevsky to an old friend sixteen years later, the writer of so many great confession scenes depicted Dickens baring his creative soul:
“All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. ‘Only two people?’ I asked.”
I have been teaching courses on Dostoevsky for over two decades, but I had never come across any mention of this encounter. Although Dostoevsky is known to have visited London for a week in 1862, neither his published letters nor any of the numerous biographies contain any hint of such a meeting. Dostoevsky would have been a virtual unknown to Dickens. It isn’t clear why Dickens would have opened up to his Russian colleague in this manner, and even if he had wanted to, in what language would the two men have conversed? (It could only have been French, which should lead one to wonder about the eloquence of a remembered remark filtered through two foreign tongues.) Moreover, Dostoevsky was a prickly, often rude interlocutor. He and Turgenev hated each other. He never even met Tolstoy. Would he have sought Dickens out? Would he then have been silent about the encounter for so many years, when it would have provided such wonderful fodder for his polemical journalism?
Several American professors of Russian literature wrote to the New York Times in protest, and eventually a half-hearted online retraction was made, informing readers that the authenticity of the encounter had been called into question, but in the meantime a second review of Tomalin’s biography had appeared in the Times, citing the same passage. Now it was the novelist David Gates gushing that he would trade a pile of Dickens biographies for footage of that tête-à-tête. While agreeing with Tomalin’s characterization of this quotation as “Dickens’s most profound statement about his inner life”, he found its content less astonishing than she: “it’s only amazing because it’s the image-conscious Dickens himself coming out and saying what anybody familiar with his work and his life has always intuited”.
Shortly thereafter, the Times website appended to the online version of Gates’s review the same cautionary note that had already been attached to Kakutani’s. But on January 15, 2012, the paper’s “Sunday Observer” section published yet a third article on Dickens that quoted from Dostoevsky’s letter. (The same online disclaimer was soon appended to this piece as well.) The newspaper’s collective unconscious was unable to give the story up. It demands retelling, and by now Dickens and Dostoevsky can be found meeting all over the web. Their conversation appeals to our fancy while, as Gates realized, comforting us with a reaffirmation of what we already know. Moreover, this reassuring familiarity applies not only to Dickens, but also to Dostoevsky. The man who asks “Only two?” is a writer who already knows what Mikhail Bakhtin would eventually write about him, who is presciently aware of his late-twentieth-century canonization as the inventor of literary polyphony.
Apparently, not everyone at the New York Times was indifferent to the authenticity of the episode recounted by Tomalin. Queried by that paper about it, Tomalin returned to her research notes and soon admitted that she might have been the victim of a hoax. Responding to charges of unbecoming gullibility levelled at her by Deborah Friedell in the London Review of Books (“She might have been less susceptible had she not so badly wanted it to be true”), Tomalin defended herself by saying that she had found the account “irresistible” and had relied on the scholarship of others.
The meeting of the two novelists had first been described – at least, in English – by one Stephanie Harvey, in a short article published in 2002 in the Dickensian, the organ of the Dickens Fellowship, a society founded in London in 1902 with a very large brief: to combat social evils, to spread the love of humanity, “to assist in the preservation and purchase of objects and buildings associated with Dickens or mentioned in his work”, and “to knit together in a common bond of friendship lovers of the great master of humour and pathos”. Tomalin regarded publication of the article in the Dickensian as an authentication of the encounter; moreover, the meeting had subsequently been mentioned in monographs by two leading Dickens scholars, Malcolm Andrews and Michael Slater. “We were all caught out”, Tomalin wrote. “The hoax was a clever one precisely because it convinced so many Dickens scholars.”
This is odd, backwards logic. The hoax wasn’t clever because it convinced so many Dickens scholars; rather, it was clever for the same reason it convinced them: because it was modest. The title of Stephanie Harvey’s three-page contribution to the Dickensian contained no mention of Dostoevsky. “Dickens’s Villains: A Confession and a Suggestion” began with a restatement of an established interpretive position – “Since Edmund Wilson’s essay ‘Dickens: The Two Scrooges’ … it has been something of a commonplace that Dickens drew on what he suspected about his own character and disposition for his villains”. Then, in its second paragraph, Harvey’s article offers Dickens’s “confession” to Dostoevsky as an “unexpected confirmation” of this truism. The excerpt from Dostoevsky’s letter itself opens with a less than earth-shaking declaration: “Obviously”, he is supposed to have written, “a writer cannot escape from what he has seen and felt in his own life. It is his own senses that tell him that the sky is blue in summer, that rain is wet, that ice is cold”. After quoting from the letter, Stephanie Harvey’s short article concludes with a few paragraphs of standard biographical sentimentality before reaching an ending characterized by stylistic kitsch:
“By the time Dostoyevsky met Dickens, the latter’s father was dead, his wife had been abandoned, his older children were adults, and all but two of his novels had been written and published to great acclaim, but Dostoyevsky’s reminiscence of Dickens’s words indicates that, even after two decades, some sort of conflict of feeling regarding family obligations was still vivid in Dickens’s memory.”
Cue the violins.
Although Christopher Hitchens, in a sceptical piece written just before his death, would with a decade’s hindsight call Stephanie Harvey’s revelation a “bombshell”, her article actually seems designed to muffle its contribution to Dickens scholarship. Nothing about it screams “Dickens met Dostoevsky!”. The author is concerned entirely with demonstrating that Dickens drew on his own experience in his creation of characters. A competent writer of expository prose, Stephanie Harvey would not appear to have an acute interpretive faculty. “Poor thing”, a more ambitious scholar might think, preparing a work designed to have wider scholarly or popular impact; “she didn’t know what she had.”
Stephanie Harvey’s article probably would not have been published had it not included the description of the Dostoevsky–Dickens encounter. What else, in truth, would it have had to offer? Stephanie Harvey made sure, if only in passing, that the editors would know – if they didn’t realize it instantly – that she was offering a discovery. She provided what looked like adequate documentation, attributing the discovery to a Soviet scholar, K. K. Shaiakhmetov, who had purportedly published it in “Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakskoi SSR: Institut Istorii, Filologii i Filosofii vol.45 (Alma Ata 1987), pp.49–55 at 53–4”. This title – which translates as “News of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic: the Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy” – is an entirely plausible mouthful for anyone who has worked with Russian materials, even if that first word – Vedomosti – tended to be out of use in Soviet times. The title of the article, “Dva Pis’ma 1878” (Two Letters of 1878) was as unassuming as Stephanie Harvey’s own.
Without Dostoevsky’s name in its title, her article was unlikely to attract the attention of Russianists. And so it lurked, a scholarly sleeper cell, as Dickens experts began to draw on it. Michael Slater included it in his biography (2009), but only when reviews of that book appeared did specialists in Russian literature begin questioning the authenticity of the encounter. Sarah J. Young, a lecturer in Russian at University College London, mentioned it in her blog, “Russians in London”, where she pointed out that after its purported publication in the Soviet Union the letter had not been included in the standard Russian edition of Dostoevsky’s collected works, the epistolary volumes of which began appearing in 1988. It would have been impossible for Soviet scholars to miss the Soviet publication, even one from Alma Ata, of two newly discovered letters by Dostoevsky. “One can only conclude”, Young wrote, “that the letter isn’t genuine, which is rather sad, because the idea of the two men meeting is so wonderful.”
It was about this time that Michael Hollington, a professor of English at the University of New South Wales, became suspicious of Stephanie Harvey’s article. It had come to his attention only when he read Slater’s biography, and he asked Malcolm Andrews, the Editor of theDickensian and the Professor of Victorian and Visual Studies at the University of Kent, if he might ask the author for more documentation. When Professor Andrews wrote to Ms Harvey, she responded that she had lost her notes, had a poor memory and had moved on to other topics. The letter was written in a shaky hand, reminding Andrews of a child’s scrawl or the penmanship one might expect from a correspondent who was mentally ill. Hollington asked a Russianist at Cambridge to investigate the Kazakh journal, and the latter reported that he could find no evidence of its existence. Hollington then conveyed this information to Slater, who removed the reference to the meeting from the 2011 reprinting of his biography. (Malcolm Andrews also deleted it from the second edition of his own Dickens monograph.) Meanwhile, Andrews had again contacted Ms Harvey and in reply received an email from her sister informing him that Stephanie Harvey had been severely injured in a car accident, had suffered brain damage, and only intermittently recognized members of her family.
Professor Hollington reported on his investigation in a letter he relayed to me earlier this year for posting on SEELANGS, the LISTSERV used by specialists in Slavic and East European Languages. The list had been buzzing about the Dickens–Dostoevsky meetings since the publication of Kakutani’s review, and I had put out a call for help locating the sources. Cassio de Oliveira, a graduate student at Yale then conducting research in Moscow, was the first to respond. He looked for the elusive “Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakhskoi SSR” in the Russian State Library. He found no record of the journal’s existence, and a subsequent inquiry at the Center for Eastern Literature in Moscow also failed to turn up such a title. Similar Kazakh Academy of Sciences titles did exist (not “Vedomosti” but the virtually synonymous “Vestnik” and “Izvestiia”), although none of these contained letters by Dostoevsky. The librarians at the Russian State Library became interested in de Oliveira’s inquiries; customary indifference melted away and they decided to extend him their full help because, after all, this was a matter that related to “our Dostoevsky”. They searched the website of the National Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan and reported that not only was there no trace of Vedomosti’s existence, but the article’s author, K. K. Shaiakhmetov, didn’t seem to exist either.
So who was Stephanie Harvey, and why had she written her article? Had she perhaps, as Malcolm Andrews charitably suggested, herself been the victim of a hoax? Ms Harvey was not included in the List of Contributors of the issue of the Dickensian in which her article appeared. (She was the only contributor that entire year to remain undescribed.) Her self-descriptive note had arrived much too late for inclusion, and it stated only that she was a freelance writer. In his SEELANGS posting Michael Hollington had urged those wishing to investigate this matter any further to exercise restraint and caution in referring to Ms Harvey. Given her serious injuries, inquiries might cause unnecessary distress to her and to members of her family.
Professor Andrews was understandably reluctant to disclose her address. An editor owes a duty to his contributors as well as to his readers, and this is particularly true where a journal’s sponsoring organization includes both professionals and amateurs. The Dickens Fellowship is a home for both scholars and enthusiasts; in the year that Ms Harvey’s article was published, the Dickensian’s contributors included retired administrators, a local historian, a horticulturalist, a member of the staff of the National Maritime Museum, and a participant in the Warsaw Uprising. There would be something ignoble about exposing individual contributors to international attention, especially when the author was prevented by illness or injury from responding robustly. Although at some point this duty to protect contributors must yield to the duty not to countenance misleading a journal’s readers, the injuries apparently suffered by Stephanie Harvey brought pity and compassion into the equation. Responding to a request for more information about Ms Harvey’s whereabouts, Andrews declined, noting that ultimately it was he who had to take responsibility for what he had published.
“Stephanie Harvey” is a fairly common name. Googling it produces over 95,000 results. There are nearly 300 Stephanie Harveys on Facebook. The most famous is a literacy and writing consultant based in Denver. She disclaimed authorship of “Dickens’s Villains” and in an email signed “The Other Stephanie Harvey” told me I wasn’t the first to ask.
The article in the Dickensian had no loose ends at which one could tug. If the editors of the Dickensian were unwilling to track Stephanie Harvey down, how might someone else do it? Having read my share of crime fiction, I suspected that the hoax in the Dickensian might not be her first scholarly crime. Perhaps at an earlier stage she would not have been so careful? Nearly all the publications I could find by Stephanie Harvey were clearly by her American namesake. One, however, stood out as falling within the range of interests and stylistic register of the author of “Dickens’s Villains”.
Published in 1993 in the English journal Critical Survey, this article – “Doris Lessing’s ‘One off the Short List’ and Leo Bellingham’s ‘In for the Kill’” – has a title reminiscent of high school compositions lacking a thesis. The article’s raison d’être is a straightforward comparison between two stories that deal with a man’s forcing sex on a woman; in each case the woman afterwards disappoints her assailant by being unfazed by the encounter. The article presents authorial gender as the most important distinction between the two treatments of this theme. It never raises the question of the stakes involved in comparing a well-known writer with one who would not be familiar to many readers of Critical Survey. Leo who? Stephanie Harvey provides no background for Bellingham’s career; indeed, it is as though he, like Lessing, requires no introduction. At several points she makes clear that she believes Bellingham to be the better artist.
Coincidentally, I had already come across Leo Bellingham’s name, in a discussion of university novels. Moonlighting from my teaching of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I had been putting together a new seminar on campus fictions; Bellingham’s name had just crossed my radar, initially in an article written by an independent, Cambridge-based scholar named John Schellenberger. In 1980 Bellingham had published Oxford: The novel. Plodding, with stilted dialogue and tiresome, archly constructed scenes of eavesdropping and retelling, the book chronicles the student hero’s pursuit – some might say stalking – of the elusive woman who will eventually become his wife. I could not find any other book Bellingham had written, nor, on reading Stephanie Harvey’s article, could I locate the journal, New Beginning, that had supposedly published Bellingham’s story, “In for the Kill”, in 1986. (As with the Kazakh title, a few similarly named journals did turn up. New Beginnings proved to be a periodical devoted to lactation; A New Beginning was intended for the recently widowed and the newly divorced.) In fact the only references I could find to the story appeared in subsequent citations of Stephanie Harvey’s article, mostly from bibliographies of scholarship about Doris Lessing’s work – which just shows how often scholars include an article in a bibliography without really thinking about it.
“In for the Kill” could not be found in any journal, and scarcely seemed to exist outside Stephanie Harvey’s article. Yet that article quoted liberally from it. She also cited the work of several scholars working on Bellingham, expressing particular gratitude towards “Ludovico Parra, who is currently working on a full-length study of Bellingham, for advice and access to unpublished materials”, and referring to his article “Oxford: The novel come romanzo storico”, from the Annuario dell’Università degli Studi di Bari (1983). This is a difficult issue to find; unlike the Kazakh Vedomosti, the University of Bari’s Annuario did indeed exist at one time, but neither I nor any of SEELANGS’s far-flung detectives could locate an issue published after 1970. Searches of international and Italian databases revealed no trace of a scholar named Ludovico Parra.
So now the meeting between two literary giants had led me to two names with very little behind them: Stephanie Harvey, who had written only these two articles, and Leo Bellingham, whose chief claim to fame may be that he was once compared by Stephanie Harvey to Doris Lessing. Moreover, this barely existent scholar writing about a less-than-prolific writer seemed to be making him more productive by inventing extracts from a work that nobody else could be found ever to have read. What was clear was Stephanie Harvey’s penchant for a distinct modus operandi. Both of her articles were comparative, both owed a debt to defunct or seemingly non-existent foreign journals, and both introduced material that might well have been invented specifically for inclusion in her chosen scholarly publication.