In the 1850s, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) is a minimally talented actress who catches the eye of the hailed British author, Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes). Bored with his intellectually unstimulating wife, Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), Charles takes the educated Nelly as his mistress with the cooperation of her mother, Mrs. Frances Ternan (Dame Kristin Scott Thomas). What follows is a stormy relationship with this literary giant who provides her with a life few women of her time can enjoy. Yet, Nelly is equally revolted by Charles' emotional cruelty and determination to keep her secret. In that conflict, Nelly must judge her own role in her life and decide if the price she pays is bearable.