PLAYING DICKENS'S MISTRESS

Ralph Fiennes's new movie is about Nelly Ternan, Dickens's mistress and an elusive character. Felicity Jones writes about how she found her

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2014

MY JOURNEY INTO Dickensian London began in a hotel lobby in Beverly Hills. It was March 2011. I was in LA promoting "Like Crazy", and Ralph Fiennes was there with "Coriolanus". After I'd blustered in, apologising for being late, we ordered pancakes and discussed the script he'd sent me, an adaptation of Claire Tomalin's book about Dickens's long affair with an actress, Nelly Ternan, which began when he was 45 and she was 18. Ralph was directing the film, probably not playing Dickens himself ("it can be difficult trying to do both"), and considering me for the role of Nelly.

I had met Ralph on the set of "Cemetery Junction"; he played a chauvinist 1970s tycoon and I was his daughter. I watched him closely, fascinated by his precision. There was a musicality in his delivery, a measure of theatricality, yet he was entirely believable. Once, I took hold of his arm to pull him from his chair in the first rehearsal and then didn't do it in the second—and Ralph said he thought the first time worked better. Even then there was a director at work in the actor.

I had read English at Oxford, but the course included only one measly week on Dickens. I remembered that he’d had ten children and a slightly bizarre closeness with his sister-in-law, but knew nothing of his 13-year affair with Nelly. I learnt from Abi Morgan’s script that she was one of three sisters raised by a widowed mother, all of them actresses. I was fascinated by this family of women struggling to make ends meet: I felt an instinctive rapport with Nelly, perhaps because my mother raised my brother and me on her own.

Claire called Nelly invisible because her role in Dickens's life was hidden, even after his death. Her father had died of syphilis in a mental asylum and I felt this disgrace, together with the taint of immorality attached to her profession, had made Nelly fiendish about preserving her dignity. More than that, I told Ralph, there was something closed and oblique about her; she didn’t spring from the page as a fully formed romantic heroine. He agreed, saying their story could not be read as a straightforward love affair. They were two complex individuals, and part of the process of playing them would be to honour these idiosyncrasies.

Back in London, Ralph came to see me in Schiller's "Luise Miller" at the Donmar. He was now considering playing Dickens, and I could see it in him—his face fuller and ruddier, his manner more expansive. We joked that it was like Dickens coming to see Nelly in "School for Scandal" at the Haymarket. It's the first moment in the script when he is more than a benevolent uncle figure, and you can feel the transgression.

The audition in September was in an office off Leicester Square. We read some scenes with Nelly in her teens and others from her 30s, when she is a headmaster's wife in Margate. For the older Nelly, Ralph wanted me to be more contained, but also to search for something fundamental, "as if you're in a Greek tragedy…more visceral than cerebral". We tried a few approaches as he asked for precise adjustments. I left the audition knowing that I had to play Nelly, but I wasn't sure if Ralph felt the same. A few weeks later, he called. "I'd love it if you’d play her," he said.

THE SEARCH FOR Nelly began on my bookshelf. First I re-read "David Copperfield", then "Great Expectations", to see if there had been a shift in his writing—Dickens met Nelly between the two. I wondered, too, if the relationship between Miss Havisham and Estella had been inspired by Nelly and her mother, as Mrs Ternan was protective of her youngest daughter and often acted as chaperone when Nelly was with Dickens. 

When Pip describes meeting Estella, it could be Dickens talking: "I, trembling in spirit and worshipping the very hem of her dress; she, quite composed and most decidedly not worshipping the hem of mine." Pip's account of Estella as "proud and wilful" seemed likely to be true of Nelly, too, and the contrast he describes—"the air of completeness and superiority with which she walked at my side, and the air of youthfulness and submission with which I walked at hers"—was something Dickens had felt himself. 

I immersed myself in Nelly's world. A Dickens exhibition at the Museum of London used soundscapes that gave a real sense of Victorian times. I retraced the sisters' regular 90-minute walk back from the theatre to their house in Islington, Park Cottage, which still exists. Wandering in and out of the little rooms, I pictured Nelly carrying her hooped skirt up and down the narrow stairs, pushing past the equally huge skirts of her mother and sisters. I saw her in the small room in the basement with its tiny high window. It was very dark, and would have been darker then, full of smoke from the range. It impressed me how these women carved out an independent existence, provided for by the acting—they were poor, but they were educated and resourceful. It was interesting too that all the sisters eventually gave up acting. I wondered if it was, for them, a means to an end, a way of making money.

Top Felicity Jones as herself, shot at the house in Spitalfields which stood in for the Ternans' home in Islington

Above "It was a tough job": Jones as Nelly Ternan, with Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

Pages