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Ternan [married name Robinson], Ellen Lawless [Nelly]locked

  • Claire Tomalin

Ellen Lawless Ternan (1839–1914)

by unknown photographer

Ternan [married name Robinson], Ellen Lawless [Nelly] (1839–1914), actress, but chiefly remembered as the inamorata of Charles Dickens, was born on 3 March 1839 at 11 Upper Clarence Place, Maidstone Road, Rochester, Kent, the third of four children of the actors Thomas Lawless Ternan (1790–1846) [see under Jarman, Frances Eleanor] and his wife, Frances Eleanor, née Jarman (1802–1873). Ellen (usually known as Nelly) had two elder sisters, Frances Eleanor and Maria Susanna, and a younger brother who died in infancy. The three girls were put on the stage as 'infant phenomena', Frances with outstanding success, Nelly making her first appearance in Sheffield at the age of three; she was the least theatrically gifted of the sisters. After the early death of their father in 1846 they were obliged to earn their living, touring the north of England, Ireland, and Scotland with their mother. W. C. Macready, who acted with Mrs Ternan, took an interest in the family and gave some assistance. Nelly's first adult engagement was in a burlesque at the Haymarket in 1857, and it was after this that she was engaged by Charles Dickens, with her mother and Maria, to perform with his amateur company in The Frozen Deep in Manchester.

Nelly was eighteen, Dickens forty-five. The history of their relationship remains obscure in some respects, but there is no doubt that he fell passionately in love with her and changed the pattern of his life to accommodate this passion. He separated from his wife and gave substantial financial support to the Ternan family; and according to Kate, his clear-eyed daughter, who was the same age as Nelly, his attentions were at first a source of elation and pride to the Ternans. He trusted Nelly's judgement, sometimes showing her his work at proof stage. He praised her pride and self-reliance, and referred to her as his 'magic circle of one' and his Darling, 'drearily missed' during a separation. He used variants of her name in his novels: Estella, Bella, and Helena Landless. The relationship was known to a small group of intimates, but kept profoundly secret from the public on whose favour Dickens depended.

Nelly Ternan left the stage in 1860, and either lived in France or travelled there with Dickens over a period of several years. In 1865 she and her mother were returning from abroad with him when their train was derailed; although Nelly was injured, Dickens was at pains to conceal her presence. He joined her frequently at Slough, and later at Nunhead, both places where he had taken houses under a false name. He also made plans to take her to the United States with him in 1867, but was dissuaded by the fear of scandal. It is believed, though not proven, that a son was born to them, who died in infancy; and that Nelly's situation caused her some pain and guilt.

Dickens left Nelly £1000 in his will and set up a private trust fund which freed her from the necessity of working again after his death in 1870. She travelled abroad, then on 31 January 1876, in the parish church at Kensington, she married a clergyman twelve years her junior, George Wharton Robinson (1850–1910); she presented herself as much younger than her real age, thereby cancelling out the years of her association with Dickens. She helped her husband to run a boys' school in Margate, and gave birth to a son and a daughter. Her last years were spent at Southsea, where she was reunited with her sisters. It is notable that, although all three sisters knew Dickens intimately, they were neither asked for nor gave any account of their relations with him, and that no letters survive. For many years his admirers denied the fact of his attachment to Nelly Ternan, and, even when the weight of evidence made this position untenable, some continue to insist that the affair was unconsummated: a view that hardly fits with what is known of Dickens or of Victorian mores, or with her own silence on the subject. Nelly Ternan was remembered as a clever and charming person, forceful of character, undomesticated, and interested in literature, the theatre, and politics; but she remains an enigmatic figure. She died from cancer at 18 Guion Road, Fulham, London, on 25 April 1914 and was buried in the Highland Road cemetery, Southsea, in her husband's grave. There are no living descendants.

Her eldest sister, Frances Eleanor Trollope (1835–1913), was born in August 1835 on a paddle-steamer in Delaware Bay during her parents' tour of America. After a successful career on the stage she went to Florence to study opera singing, and became governess to Bice (Beatrice), the daughter of the widowed Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810–1892). On 29 October 1866 she married her employer. They lived in Italy for many years. She wrote a number of novels, several of which, including Aunt Margaret's Trouble (1866) and Mabel's Progress (1867), were serialized anonymously by Dickens in All the Year Round. After her husband's death in 1892 she wrote the life of her mother-in-law, Frances (Fanny) Trollope (1779–1863). During her last years her sister Nelly lived with her in Southsea, and she died there on 14 August 1913.

The third Ternan sister, Maria Susanna Taylor (1837–1904), also appeared on the stage until her marriage, on 9 June 1863, to William Rowland Taylor, the son of a prosperous Oxford brewer. Shortly after her mother's death she left her husband, and at the age of forty enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art to learn to paint. She made her home in Rome and travelled adventurously in north Africa; and she worked as an artist and journalist, writing for the London Standard for more than twelve years. She returned to England in 1898 and died in Southsea on 12 March 1904.


  • C. Tomalin, The invisible woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (1990)
  • The letters of Charles Dickens, ed. M. House, G. Storey, and others, 8 (1995)
  • m. cert. [Frances Eleanor Trollope]
  • m. cert. [Maria Susanna Taylor]
  • J. Sutherland, The Longman companion to Victorian fiction (1988)
  • d. cert. [Frances Eleanor Trollope]
  • UCL, Katharine Longley archive


  • priv. coll.
  • Princeton University, New Jersey, Trollope MSS
  • University of Illinois, Trollope MSS
  • V&A, theatre collections, Morley MSS
  • V&A, theatre collections, Trollope MSS


  • photograph, 1858, priv. coll.; repro. in Tomalin, Invisible woman; priv. coll.
  • drawing, UCL, Katharine Longley archive
  • group portrait, photograph (with sisters), V&A; repro. in Tomalin, Invisible woman
  • photograph, V&A [see illus.]
  • photographs, UCL, Katharine Longley archive

Wealth at Death

£1241 5s. 10d.: probate, 2 June 1914, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£1264 1s. 1d.—Frances Eleanor Trollope: probate, 13 Oct 1913, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£530 14s. 9d.—Maria Susanna Taylor: probate, 16 May 1904, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University College, London
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]