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Ellen Lawless Ternan was born in Rochester, Kent. She was the third of four children, including a brother who died in infancy and a sister named Frances (later the second wife of Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the brother of Anthony Trollope). Her parents, Thomas Lawless Ternan and Frances Eleanor Ternan (née Jarman), were both actors of some distinction. Ternan made her stage debut in Sheffield at the age of three, and she and her two sisters were presented as "infant phenomena". Ternan was considered the least theatrically gifted of the three sisters, but she worked extensively in the provinces, particularly after her father died in 1846. In 1857, she was spotted by Dickens performing at London's Haymarket Theatre. He cast her, along with her mother and one of her sisters, in a performance of The Frozen Deep in Manchester.
Dickens was forty-five when he met Ellen Ternan, and she was eighteen, slightly older than his daughter Katey. Dickens began an affair with Ternan, but the relationship was kept secret from the general public. 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. Dickens referred to Ternan as his "magic circle of one". Matters came to a head in 1858 when Catherine Dickens opened a packet delivered by a London jeweller which contained a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband. The Dickenses separated that May 1858 after 22 years of marriage.
Ternan left the stage in 1860, and was supported by Dickens from then on. She sometimes travelled with him, and Dickens was travelling with Ternan and her mother back from a visit to France when they were both involved in the Staplehurst rail crash on 9 June 1865. He abandoned a plan to take her on his visit to America in 1867 for fear that their relationship would be publicised by the American press. She lived in houses he took under false names at Slough and later at Nunhead, 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). Dickens is thought by many scholars and commentators to have named several of his female characters in his later works after Ternan, including Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend and Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and others may have been inspired by her, particularly Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens left a legacy of £1,000 to Ternan in his will on his death in 1870, and sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again.
In 1876, six years after Dickens' death, Ternan married George Wharton Robinson, an Oxford graduate, who was twelve years her junior. She presented herself as 14 years younger (23 years old rather than 37). The couple had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys, and ran a boys' school in Margate. Ternan's husband died in 1910, and she spent her last years in Southsea with her sister Frances. She died of cancer in Fulham, London.
The Dickens Fellowship and the surviving close family members of Charles Dickens maintained a facade of silence and denial about the affair from the time of Charles Dickens' death in 1870 until the death in December 1933 of his last surviving child, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens. Several Dickens researchers wrote about various aspects of the relationship between Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens in the ensuing years, including Gladys Story in 1939, Ada Nisbet in 1952, Sir Felix Aylmer in 1959 and Katherine M Longley in 1985. Ellen Ternan was the subject of a best selling biography by Claire Tomalin in 1990, which brought the relationship to a broader general audience. A summary of the story of the discovery of the relationship has been published in 2012 by Professor Michael Slater.
Some records relating to Ellen Ternan and her family are held by Senate House Library, University of London.
Simon Gray's play about her life, Little Nell had its world premiere in 2007 at the Theatre Royal, Bath. 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 Lovers (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.
A feature film about Ternan's relationship with Dickens is in currently in production, titled The Invisible Woman. Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes have been cast in the lead roles (with a twenty-one year age difference between them, similar to the real-life twenty-seven year difference). The rail crash is being restaged at The Bluebell Railway in Sussex.