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Ellen Ternan.
Ellen Ternan is sometimes confused with her near contemporary, the Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry, whose career was more distinguished, but who did not have an affair with Dickens.
Ellen Lawless Ternan (3 March 1839 - 25 April 1914), also known as Nelly Ternan or Nelly Robinson, was an Englishmarker actress who is mainly known as the woman for whom Charles Dickens separated from his wife Catherine.


Ellen Lawless Ternan was born in Rochester, Kentmarker. She was the third of four children, including a brother who died in infancy and a sister called Frances (later the second wife of Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the brother of Anthony Trollope), born to her parents who were both actors of some distinction. Ternan made her stage debut in Sheffieldmarker at the age of three, and she and her two sisters were presented as "infant phenomena". Ternan was considered the least gifted of the three sisters, but she worked extensively in the provinces and in 1857 she was spotted by Dickens performing at Londonmarker's Haymarket Theatremarker. He cast her, along with her mother and one of her sisters, in a performance of The Frozen Deep in Manchestermarker.

Dickens was forty-five when he met Ellen Ternan, and she was eighteen. He became passionately attached to her, but the relationship was kept secret from the general public, who would have been shocked. At that time the British press could be relied upon not to pay close attention to such matters. Dickens had become disillusioned with his wife, who lacked his energy and intellect. Ternan, in contrast, was clever and charming, forceful of character, undomesticated, and interested in literature, the theatre, and politics. Matters came to a head in 1858, when Catherine Dickens accidentally received a bracelet meant for Ternan, and the Dickenses separated that May.

Ternan left the stage in 1860, and was supported by Dickens from then on. She sometimes travelled with him, though he abandoned a plan to take her on his visit to Americamarker in 1867 for fear that their relationship would be publicised by the American press. She lived in houses he took under false names at Sloughmarker and later at Nunheadmarker, and may have had a son by Dickens who died in infancy, although this isn't certain (neither Dickens, Ternan, nor Ternan's sisters left any account of the relationship, and most correspondence relevant to the relationship was destroyed). At his death Dickens provided her with a £1,000 legacy and sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again.

In 1876 Ternan married an Oxford graduate called George Wharton Robinson, who was twelve years her junior. She presented herself as 14 years younger (18 years old rather than 32) to cancel out her years with Dickens. The couple had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys, and ran a boys' school in Margatemarker. Ternan spent her last years in Southseamarker, and died in Fulhammarker, Londonmarker.

Ternan was the subject of a biography by Claire Tomalin in 1990. Some records relating to Ellen Ternan and her family are held by Senate House Library, University of London

In theatre and television

Simon Gray's play about her life, Little Nell had its world premiere in 2007 at the Theatre Royal, Bathmarker. It was directed by Sir Peter Hall and starred Loo Brealey as Ternan. The affair was featured in the docudramas Dickens (BBC, 2002) and Dickens' Secret Lover (2008, Channel 4 - it was the main subject of this programme, presented by Charles Dance and with Ternan played by Amy Shiels and Dickens by David Haig). Ternan is also featured in the novel "Drood " by Dan Simmons.


  1. Description of Ternan family papers


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