Intimate friend of Dickens from 1857 who may also have become his lover during the 1860s. Nelly was born at her uncle William Ternan's home in Rochester, Kent, on 3 March 1839, the third child (also third daughter) of Thomas and Frances Ternan, actors, and christened Ellen Lawless, the latter name deriving from the family name of her paternal grandmother's father, a Dublin brewer. During her early years her parents were going through difficult times (see Ternan family) and she was early enlisted in their struggle to keep afloat, being only 3 years old when she made her stage debut at Sheffield in Kotzebue's The Stranger (15 November 1842). Both before and after her father's death in 1846 she toured with the rest of the family, making what contributions she could as regards stage appearances (she shared a benefit night with her sister Maria at York in May 1845 and, together with both her sisters, supported Mrs Ternan at her benefit night at Newcastle in March 1849—playbills reproduced in Tomalin 1990, pp. 49 and 56), but not, apparently, showing any of the precocious theatrical talents manifested by her older sisters. By 1855 the family were settled in London with Mrs Ternan and the two older girls all in work.
From Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens in Oxford Reference.
Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century).