Ellen Lawless Robinson

Ellen Lawless Robinson

3, The Grove, Margate, Kent


Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

George Wharton Robinson




Private Schoolmaster, MA Oxford

Liverpool, Lancashire

Ellen Lawless Robinson




Schoolmaster's Wife

Rochester, Kent

Geoffrey Wharton Robinson





Marylebone, Middlesex

Leonard Thomas Lake




Medical Student, Middlesex Hospital

Islington, Middlesex

Eliza Burden





Melksham, Wiltshire

Mary Hill





Enfield, Middlesex


Her words are perfectly pronounced; each syllable measured, like a spectacular comfit, on her tongue; her sentences are faultlessly enunciated, cheerfully grammatical. Her health, once fragile, has become robust, thanks to a careful itinerary with caring relatives in France, in Italy. She speaks the languages of each with modest precision. The pony which draws her trap along is well-groomed. Her hair still yellow-golden, she sits confidently in the seat, dressed in black, upright and respectable, petite, nodding to her new acquaintances as she travels along the cliff road, above the sandy beaches where seaside history was once modestly made. This is Margate, where the bathing machine was first in use, where donkey rides along the sands were first introduced. She drives on, under the shadow of the newly-planted trees. There is some pain in her upper left arm, and she grimaces. Young Mrs. Robinson is married to the schoolmaster, soon to be sole proprietor indeed, of Margate High School, a most respectable young man, interested in rowing like all Oxford men, and a writer of Latin verse. She smiles politely at all; she has already impressed the town with her most excellent charitable works. Her kindness to the orphans - her care for the working mothers - whom death has tragically deprived of their fathers - all most reputable. Her teaching of French and elocution - excellent. She glitters at tea parties, and shines on school sports-days. She is forever describing the latest book she has devoured - serious books - Schiller, Hume, Arnold. And such a vivacious young woman, too, with her bazaars, her love of the local band, her delight in games, her clear and tuneful voice, her devotion to her young son (so attractive a boy!). Occasionally there is a sharp and sudden shaft of irritation: she reads a riot act if she so desires. Perhaps most particular of all - her tableaux, her concerts, her recitations, of her own words, of passages from Dickens; she does not blush before an audience; she enjoys amateur theatricals. She could have been a professional actress herself, the pretty young woman.

But Mrs. Ellen Lawless Robinson is actually Nelly Ternan, and she had indeed been an actress, a professional one, since infancy. So had her sisters; so was her mother, who had recently died. And, although she has declared to the enumerator that she is two years younger than her husband, which is a decent interval of time, she is in reality fourteen years older than she claims. For more than ten years, she had been the mistress of the most famous man in Britain, the writer, Charles Dickens. She had even had a child by him, a son who died after four days. She was present at his death in June, 1870, although not at his burial. Her existence had been hole-in-corner; it had been increasingly miserable; for, although she had remained faithful to her famous patron, had followed him when and where she could in the final years of his feverish life, she had been unable, eventually, to return the sentiments he had attached to her. Now, the secret is locked in her heart, perhaps even from her husband, as it most certainly will be from her son, and from the daughter, Gladys, who will soon be born. What remained were memories; and the income from the legacies Dickens had arranged for - and thank heavens, for the school was not such a going concern as she and her new young husband had hoped.

Nelly Ternan was born in Rochester, in Kent, on March 3rd 1839, although her actor parents were only in Rochester for about eight months - her father Thomas had a brother there who owned a barge business. She was the third of three sisters - Fanny and Maria were the elder pair; a fourth child, Thomas, born in 1842, died before his first birthday. Nelly's mother, Fanny (Frances) Jarman had followed her own mother on to the stage, and had played several lead roles, including some Shakespearean performances opposite leading actors of the day - Portia to Edmund Kean's Shylock; Juliet to Charles Kemble's Romeo - although she was more popular and successful in Newcastle, Edinburgh and Dublin than in London, which she never cracked. Her husband, Thomas Ternan, whom she married in 1834, was an Irish actor with a more limited reputation. Shortly after they returned from a successful American trip, in 1837, Thomas played Iago to Charles Kean's Othello; Fanny was Desdemona. The notices were poor. The Ternans retreated to Newcastle, where Ternan, bald-headed and bombastic, was sure of a better reception. And it was to Newcastle that Ternan and his family returned after Nelly's birth, having sunk the profits from the American trip into a company - with Ternan as actor-manager, and his wife the star. It did not work out. The family decamped to Sheffield, where Nelly made her professional debut, aged two, in a melodramatic tragedy by August von Kotzbue called The Stranger: a Sheridan-translated tearjerker in which a mother is seduced by a friend. He convinces her falsely that her husband has been unfaithful. It ends with a remorseful sob-storm, which kept audiences reliably weeping in the aisles.

But the Ternans suffered real-life calamity. Back in Newcastle for Christmas 1844, Thomas Ternan collapsed after attempting to eject some drunken Geordie brawlers. It rapidly became apparent that he was more seriously ill; in a few weeks, he was chained up in the Insane Asylum in Bethnal Green. He died there (the cause of his insanity was syphilis) in October 1846. Nelly was seven. The family had meanwhile rescued themselves by work - Nelly's mother's reputation secured her work with the stage's most bankable actor of the day, William Macready. Her elder two daughters had also begun their adult acting careers.

By the early 1850s, the four women were able to rent a home of their own in Islington. Nelly too returned to the stage in a farce called Atalanta, singing, dancing, earning about £4 a week. And now, in 1857, Maria Ternan found herself engaged to perform in a Wilkie Collins play,The Frozen Deep. Its leading performer was an amateur, a friend both of Collins and the late William Macready. It was Charles Dickens. His dazzling reputation and showmanship ensured good audiences. Soon the whole Ternan family was involved in the enterprise. Equally soon, Dickens fell for Nelly, who was then just eighteen. Like The Stranger, The Frozen Deep finishes with an emotional death (the Dickens role), which duly filled the audience's eyes; overflowed them, even.

The Ternans moved on to an engagement in Doncaster; Dickens followed their progress. In his home life, he was busy sealing off his dressing room from the bedroom which was now to be his wife's alone. A bracelet intended for Nelly was accidentally presented by the goldsmith to Dickens' wife. She made a vociferous complaint; he forced her to apologise to the Ternans. And then, in 1858, he disconnected himself from the mother of his nine children, and tried to sever their connection, too. He began to behave in an almost demented fashion. "My father was like a madman," commented his daughter Kate, who was Nelly's age. Rumours flew; they attached themselves to Dickens; they seemed to concern his sister-in-law Georgina rather more than Nelly (Georgina underwent an examination to prove she was a virgin, in order to scotch the stories).

Nelly Ternan, c. 1875

Nelly was coming to the end of her professional career (in which, to be truthful, she had never shone). She and Maria had had a taste of how the world regarded actresses when a policeman stopped them near the theatre, and intimated they were prostitutes (Dickens, infuriated, used all his Scotland Yard contacts to communicate his outrage). In the meantime, he helped provide the Ternans with new lodgings, and the musical arranger of The Frozen Deep,Francisco Berger found Dickens playing cards there, and singing duets with Nelly. The Ternans, thanks to their new patron, were able to travel, and did: to Italy, to France. On her twenty-first birthday, Nelly became the owner of a house in Ampthill Square.

From now on, as the 1860s commenced, Nelly vanished from view, and Dickens began to visit France on a regular basis. Between 1861 and 1863, Dickens was also surprisingly uninvolved in work on a major novel, or giving many readings. Nelly and her mother had been installed in a house in Condette. Their presence in France was confirmed, however, in June 1865, when Dickens was working on Our Mutual Friend. The train on which he was travelling back from France was de-railed at Staplehurst; with him in the last carriage not to tumble off a bridge were Nelly and her mother. Dickens - easily recognised - helped the Ternans out; helped the dying and the injured; returned to rescue the manuscript he had left in his coat pocket. Nelly's arm was injured; her injury never fully healed. Dickens went to considerable lengths to hush up the identity of the Ternans.

It is tempting to look for Nelly in Dickens' novels, but his women are often cyphers. Estella (Great Expectations) and Bella Wilfer (Our Mutual Friend) are often optimistically cited. It is easier to find Dickens, whose frustrated longing for Nelly, and frantic search for identity may be glimpsed in Bradley Headstone, Eugene Wrayburn and John Harmon/Rokesmith in Our Mutual Friend. The plot of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood certainly owes something to the Ternans: one of Nelly's father's many brothers is said to have set out for a walk and never returned. Dickens must also have enjoyed the curiosity of Nelly's birth in Rochester, the source of many of his imaginings.

By now, Maria and Fanny were married - Fanny to Thomas Trollope (Anthony's brother), a friend of Dickens. Mrs. Ternan and Nelly were provided with new addresses in Slough, and the number of his private visits is attested to by the one volume of his diaries which survives. There is no certain proof that Nelly's relationship with Dickens was sexual; unless the destruction of so much potential evidence is proof. It is clear that Henry Dickens, the last surviving son, believed that a son had been born and died, and that he tried to suppress this. Some believe that this happened in France; there is a more concrete piece of evidence of an event in Slough in April 1867, when the words Arrival and Loss appear in Dickens' diary. There may have been more than one pregnancy. That there was a lost child was later admitted by Nelly, although the story is third-hand. What we also know is this: that Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens placed their relationship on a different footing in the last few years of his life. That this caused him misery. That she faithfully attended his last, agonising lecture tour. That her sister Fanny (Trollope) expressed some hostility to Dickens. That Nelly was summoned to see him die, unconscious after a stroke, on a couch at Gad's Hill, in 1870. And that he provided for her in his will.

Nelly's sentimental and dandified genius had died. After a year abroad, she met George Wharton Robinson, then an Oxford student aged 20, and destined for the church. She claimed to have been twice bereaved of men friends; hence her black clothes. He broke an engagement; in 1876, five years later, they were married, and he relinquished his ambitions to be a clergyman in favour - her plan - of running a boys' school. This they found in Margate, where Nelly and her extravagantly bearded husband settled in 1878. Seven or eight years of happiness ended with the failure of the school, George's breakdown, financial loss, and a succession of new addresses in suburban London. Nelly's son Geoffrey gained a commission in the army in 1898; she sold the house in Ampthill Square to keep the family afloat. She and George had had a brief, failed attempt at running a market garden near Oxford; Fanny and Maria settled in Southsea. When Maria, long estranged from her husband, died in 1903, George tagged along with Nelly to be with Fanny. Both earned a pittance teaching English to French students and visitors. There George died in 1911; he was sixty.

The sisters wrote plays; excoriated the Liberals; joined an anti-suffrage union. Both died of cancer - Fanny in 1913, Nelly on April 25th 1914. During the last years of her life, suggestions of her liaison with Dickens began to seep out, but were brushed aside by the efficient machine which supervised Dickens' heritage. Her son Geoffrey somehow survived the Western Front. He began to look through the papers bequeathed him by his mother and aunt. Only now did he find out that his mother had been a decade older than he imagined; that she had known Dickens well;even that she had been an actress. He visited Harry Dickens, who spilled the beans. Geoffrey never allowed the word Dickens over his threshhold again; he even switched off the wireless if there was a reference. He died in 1959; his sister Gladys died in 1973. Neither had any children to excavate the almost - almost - perfect silence of Nelly Robinson, the actress who accidentally snaffled Charles Dickens' heart.


The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin, Viking, 1990

Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990

Bright Particular Star: The Life And Times of Charlotte Cushman by Joseph Leach,

Yale University Press 1970