I chose this to review purely by the appeal of the title, knowing nothing of the novel or author. It proved an excellent choice: a novel about the ageing Thomas Hardy and his much-younger but fast-ageing second wife Florence, and based on an incident from true life, which I remembered coming across in Claire Tomalin’s biography.
It revolved around a young amateur actress, Gertrude Bugler, who, having played in several local productions of Hardy adaptations in Dorchester, has been chosen to play Tess in a production of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. To Hardy, Gertrude is Tess; there is a suggestion that she is the daughter of the milkmaid who was the original, unwitting, model for the character. Hardy, now eighty-four, becomes friends with Gertrude – Gertie – intimate to the point of infatuation, in Florence’s eyes.
There are plans for a London production of the play, at the Haymarket, with a youngish Sybil Thorndike in the running for the lead part; Hardy is set, however, on Gertrude playing it, and Florence equally set on thwarting that.
I’m always uneasy about novels about real people, living or dead (especially dead), but if it is going to be done, there are ways of doing so sensitively, and Nicholson has found such a way. The novel tells the story from all three perspectives: Hardy’s, Florence’s and Gertrude’s. But while Florence and Gertie tell theirs in the first person, Hardy’s is told by a third person authorial narrator, and using a style of dated circumlocution to convey Hardy’s own style and character.
This is a clever solution, but sometimes overdone, to the point of parody:
A fire had been lit some time before, and was even now down to its last coals. Dozing before it on a small rug lay an elderly dog of the terrier variety, with brown ears and pale fur, the matted and dirty condition of which inescapably led to the conclusion that it had lately been engaged in some private agricultural activity, possibly involving the pursuit of rats or rabbits or the burial of bones…
Hardy was never that clodhopping, and besides, we are not nineteenth-century readers; it could have been done more economically, and indeed when there is more substance to those chapters – as with Hardy’s musings on mortality, enacting his funeral as its observer for example – it normalizes in tone.
The technique does, however, work stragetically to two ends: our exasperation with it has a purpose, which I will return to; and it reminds us that Hardy imaginatively never entered the twentieth century. This is subtly reinforced in the novel by Hardy’s long initial resistance to installing a telephone, and his adamant refusal to own a car.
So successful is the technique that we are brought up with a jolt when we realize from the other two narratives that we are now in the mid-twenties, with Gertie at one point remarking on a new dress with a hemline just below the knee, daring for Dorchester but conservative in London.
But the other strategy served by the superannuated style is to direct our exasperation onto Hardy himself, not just on account of his age-set ways and melancholic nostalgic thought but more importantly his self-obsession. It reminds us of the harm writers are capable of, spreading through the lives of others.
For the novel is as much about the perpetual winter of Florence’s marriage as a specific winter in Hardy’s old age. It is beautifully captured by Nicholson in his sustained metaphor of the trees surrounding the house, Max Gate. Planted by Hardy decades before, mainly to shield the grounds from the winds in its exposed location, they are now in need of pruning, encroaching on the house and blocking windows and gutters. To Hardy, trees have a mystically pagan significance, living things; to Florence, they symbolise the encroaching darkness, and Hardy’s obstinacy in refusing to discuss their pruning typifies their marriage, accentuates her loneliness, even, she believes, contributes to her ill health.
As we read Florence’s chapters, her situation is delicately evoked, and our sympathy and understanding grow, even of her actions in denying Gertrude her dream of acting on a London stage. We are equally sympathetic to Gertrude – the great strength of the novel is our difficulty in apportioning blame, in sympathising with each person involved. But fittingly, Gertrude, as the youngest, has the last chapter. She describes a spontaneous visit to the now-deserted house forty years later (and we are shocked again to realise this would place it in the mid-sixties!) when she, and we, are able to gain a longer perspective, a more settled judgement of Florence, of Hardy, of Hardy’s authorial stature.
There are also many incidental subtleties to enjoy through the novel’s journey: the dog’s name – always the formal Wessex to Hardy, and by extension, Gertie, but Wessie to Florence, who looks to him for warmth and devotion; the use of the term doolally by Gertrude’s husband, a decorated soldier with experience of service in India, where the slang originated; Gertie’s description of the burial in Dorset of Hardy’s heart, cut from his body – which was interred in London – as a butcher would cut out offal, particularly apt as her husband was a reluctant butcher with dreams of becoming a farmer – another thwarted ambition.
And not least, the detailed and delicate nature descriptions. Nicholson, according to his biography, lives on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, and is as intimate with the countryside as Hardy himself, who would, I believe, relish the little ironies of this novel as much as we do.