With Ralph Fiennes’s big-screen adaptation of Clare Tomalin’s biography of Ellen Ternan set to premiere this month, it seemed an appropriate time to consider the question of Ellen’s role in Drood. Given the great lengths Dickens went to to keep his mystery lady out of the public eye, it is difficult to assess the influence of her upon his later works; yet despite Dickens’s efforts to suppress public awareness of Ternan there have been a number of suggestions of echoes of Ellen in his work: Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities has been widely discussed for her physical similarities with Ellen, while a number of critics have noted the assonance of Ellen’s name in heroines of the last novels. Bella, (Our Mutual Friend), Estella (Great Expectations) and Helena in Drood.
Of the three, it is Helena who is the most direct linguistic reference: Ellen’s full name is Ellen Lawless Ternan, hence Helena Landless seems much more closely linked in sound. Whether this consciously or not, if Dickens is basing these names upon Ternan, the temptation is to see the characters themselves as based on Ternan too, but there’s the curious point. Bella and Estella can be argued to be similar to a degree; there is in each one an honest lover in pursuit who is thwarted by the heroine’s mercenary, cold focus – not a flattering portrayal of Ellen. Now, had Rosa Bud been named after Ellen we might be able to carry the theme through, using it as the basis to depict a frustrated Dickens throwing himself at this young, bewitching figure who either thwarts his advances or else uses his romantic interests to her own financial gain. But Helena Landless has little in common with these other characters. She is strong, independent, noble, fearless, admirable, protective. Her relationship with Crisparkle, and his growing interest in her, is altogether more innocent, despite the potential disapproval of Crisparkle’s mother.
There is further temptation here to draw a timeline of Dickens’s attitudes to Ellen from beautiful puppet in A Tale of Two Cities, through cruel, tempting, ice-maiden in Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, before finally reaching admired companion in Drood. But we all know where temptation leads, and while biographical studies can be illuminating on our understanding of a writer’s works, we need to be cautious in assuming either the life or work must inform us of the other: just because there can be a link doesn’t mean there has to be a link. In particular I think the very different personalities of these characters serves to illustrate that, whatever conscious/subconscious echoes of Ellen’s name might be found, we may struggle to find Ternan herself in Dickens’s fiction. Or at the very least, perhaps we could prioritise finding Drood first before looking for the invisible woman.