Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love's tragedies ~ Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Little Nell by Simon Gray and directed by Sir Peter Hall is a controversial play. After the first preview performance, a member of the audience told Michael Pennington, who plays the part of Charles Dickens, that she would never read a novel by Dickens again. And my wife and I have been arguing about the play ever since we saw it at the Bath Theatre Royal, where it had its debut in advance of a tour with the Peter Hall Company's 2007 season.
The story is that of Dickens 13-year secret affair with a young actress Nelly Ternan. He met and fell in love with her when she, her mother and one of her sisters were performing in one of his plays. After she left the stage, he set her up as a "kept woman" in a house in Slough. He then sent his wife away (claiming she was mad) and installed his sister-in-law as his housekeeper and carer for his ten children.
The play is based on Claire Tomalin's appropriately titled book, The Invisible Woman. It is structured around a meeting between Nelly's son, Geoffrey Robinson (played convincingly by Tim Pigott-Smith) and Dickens's son, a meeting which took place several years after Nelly's death. Geoffrey's life was blighted by the lies which Nelly used to cover up her scandalous past and preserve her lover's reputation, a deceit which enabled her to rebuild her life, marry a schoolmaster and have two children, with no-one knowing the truth of her past life.
The controversy is this: who was to blame? The facts are:
- Dickens seduced a 17 year old girl from a family of actresses and installed her as his mistress while he continued his life in the public eye as a celebrity who occupied the moral high ground.
- Nelly had to maintain a low profile, both as a kept woman and in order protect her lover's status, and so sacrificed her freedom to live a normal life.
Who was at fault? Dickens for taking advantage of Nelly's youth with his fame and charisma? Nelly for allowing it to happen? Society which put such great store on sexual propriety?
Was Nelly a victim? Did she make the sacrifice willingly because she enjoyed Dickens's attentions? And finally, why did no-one mentioned Dickens's one undeniable victim: his wife Catherine?
Peter Hall, in answering my wife's question about Nelly's invisibility in a talk at Bath's Royal Crescent Hotel, said that he had tried to balance the argument. The result is an intriguing play, directed and staged impeccably and blessed with a breathtaking performance by Loo Brealey, so far best know as "shake me up Judy" Smallweed in the television adaptation of Bleak House. See it if you can.