At the end of May this year I finally visited Max Gate, the house that the great English writer Thomas Hardy designed and had built in Dorchester for himself and his wife, Emma. I suppose I should confess that I went there primarily to see the attic. I should, of course, have really wanted to soak up the room where Hardy created Tess and Jude, to see the bedroom where the great man died (and where they savagely cut out his heart and put it in a biscuit tin) and to look out of that window in his final study just as he would have done when (in his stocking feet and shawl) he sat and wrote his wonderful poetry. But I’ll own up. I really wanted to have a look at the attic.
Some (though not the Hardy-smitten) may ask – “why so?” And the answer, of course, is that it is in this attic that his wife, Emma, spent pretty much the last ten plus years of her life. The National Trust volunteer at the Hardy birthplace cottage in Brockhampton had said: “well it’s not really an attic.” But you know what? It is.
Emma wasn’t confined there, like the crazy Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre (though some did question Emma’s sanity). Far from it. It was a painful voluntary separation. But, heck, what can you do to get yourself some sort of life when you are eclipsed by the great man of English literature with his constant train of visitors, with folk peering over the garden wall trying to get a glimpse of him, and with the various literary groupies paying calls and trying to catch his eye? It would not be surprising for anyone to become a little paranoid, particularly given her husband’s well known flirtations.
I suppose that being a veteran of a long marriage myself, I can allow myself the privilege of looking at how other folk have coped. And for the Victorian celebs like Hardy (and, one might add, Charles Dickens) it seems a fair cop since their marital travails were (like those of the much less interesting celebs of today) more or less public property.
When the Hardys moved in to the house in 1885, Tom was approaching the top of his game as a novelist. Far from the Madding Crowd had propelled him to stardom and he’d recently completed the marvellous Mayor of Casterbridge. The house (subsequently expanded) was a substantial residence for a man of substance. A little dowdy, may be, but he was in this respect, it seems, a man of his time and he had a soft spot for the solid Victorian villa, despite Charles Harper – one of Hardy’s early topographers – having extolled the virtues of quaint Dorset thatch and noting that only “foolish folk” – “seek to be… ‘up to date'”.
And in his up-to-date house, periodically being modernised and extended, Hardy seems to have had peripatetic studies. First writing in one room, then another and then another, where Emma (unless Tom wasn’t there) feared to tread. He seems to have been so curmudgeonly towards her that she wasn’t even allowed to borrow his books. For Emma, I guess, there was nowhere to go, and once there was the attic she was up there like a shot (though she must have struggled with the steep narrow stairs). A single bed in one little room, a space to think and work in another little room. The great man could have the rest of the house and she would appear on occasion when protocol required. But one still can’t ignore the fact that the lady of the house had to live (and die) in the attic.
It wasn’t always doom and gloom and they must have had some fun on their frequent cycling trips together (though they didn’t have a tandem), but the troubled marriage now had its physical separation. As Emma herself had advised – “keeping separate a good deal was a way of dealing with crises.” But this physical manifestation of keeping separate was routine, not a crisis.
So, living in the same house, Emma and Tom saw each other intermittently, and, as one memoir noted, in the later stages they did not speak, even when together at meals, and Tom was often eating in his study anyway. Second wife-in-waiting Florence Dugdale – insidiously, it seems, in the confidence of Emma as well as Tom – visited frequently in the final years of Emma’s life and Tom was on occasion heading off to the Suffolk coast and elsewhere to be with her. Florence even had a friend’s flat available in London for her and Tom to pursue their liaison.
To add to the marital strife there was serious angry bitterness between Emma and Hardy’s family and in the last years of her life Emma was composing her “black” diaries full of bile about her spouse which the anguished Tom found after her death and burnt. The atmosphere in the house must have become pretty dire. Emma’s behaviour was regarded as increasingly eccentric and she became the butt of many disparaging comments. How could she be such an embarrassment to the great man? Denys Kay-Robinson in his well-researched book on the marriage (The First Mrs Thomas Hardy) is more sympathetic to Emma than many and he doesn’t mince his words about Max Gate describing it at the outset as “the gaol he [Tom] had specially built” for Emma.
Emma struggled to cope with life as the wife of a celebrity and to establish her own integrity and identity in the marital melee. It can’t have been easy for her and the troubled state of her mind was hardly surprising. Physically she had the attic, but mentally, where could she go for refuge? And then, of course, to crown the difficulties for her there were the great man’s dalliances and infatuations. He seemed to have done what he could – sometimes beyond what he should – to further the literary ambitions of his young paramours, but steadfastly ignored poor old Emma’s scribblings.
His novels and stories tell tales of marital and sexual strife and disharmony, with predatory males taking advantage of innocent maids, and hapless males like Jude succumbing to feminine wiles. Curiously in the 1890s Tom shaved off his respectable Victorian beard and took to sporting a waxed moustache like his own character, Alec d’Urbeville, the cad who preyed on Tess, with his moustachio’d stage villain appearance. Photographs of Emma show her middle-aged and thoroughly buttoned up, while Tom’s attentions wandered to Rosamund Tomson, to Florence Henniker, to Agnes Grove and ultimately to Florence Dugdale. Serial dalliances. No wonder Emma, roundly criticised for not supporting her great man, was driven mentally to distraction and physically to the attic.
One view is that she should have gritted her teeth and rejoiced at the privilege of being the great man’s wife. A rather naive view, I think. Humiliated at times by Tom’s carryings-on, she was not loth in turn inexpertly to try to humiliate him. And the last of the dalliances, Florence Dugdale, had her comeuppance in the end since once Emma died, Tom drove Florence spare by devoting much of his energy to recovering his love for Emma and revering her memory. Emma was “his late espoused saint”, as the unremittingly hostile Florence scathingly put it.
So what on earth possessed the great man to pursue his late-life infatuations? Was he really so hopelessly flattered as younger women beat a path to his door? Jude-like did he lay down his books unable to resist? I prefer to look at this in the round. Anyone reading a biography of Hardy’s life will be struck how, even as a young man, he was driven to pursue affairs with women. There were a series of relationships or attempted relationships (some very evident, some less so) before he met and fell in love with Emma. The older Hardy’s infatuations simply followed in the wake of the younger Hardy’s flirtations. Denys Kay-Robinson – in his book on Emma – even goes so far as to hint that one motive for Hardy moving to London as a young man might well have been that it was there he could experience the thrills of the seamier side of the metropolis and he asks – are we really to believe he never sampled the wares?
There are intriguing questions yet to be answered and perhaps best left alone. After all, even these days we begrudgingly acknowledge that celebrities are entitled to a bit of private life. For one, such as I, blown over by this great man’s work, it seems almost sacreligious – (I know, it is not the right word for Hardy) – to intrude so much into the private affairs of his marriage with Emma. And I fear to step. But, of course, his writing invites us there. The poems that he wrote about women, about love, and the outpouring of verse after Emma’s death, take us deep into the private life he lived. So with the tiny attic now empty, its small single bed without an occupant, the stricken Tom sat in his study below and discovered how much he was bereft; and how he now had to steel himself to face the “dark undying pain” of his lost love.
The main book I’ve referred to in this blog is The First Mrs Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson, published by Macmillan, London 1979
I’ve also mentioned The Hardy Country by Charles G. Harper, published by Adam and Charles Black, London 1904