In November 1912, a remorseful widower ordered his seventy-two-year-old wife’s coffin to be carried down the stairs from her attic eyrie at Max Gate: the house constructed to Thomas Hardy’s own design and built by his father and brother. After instructing that Emma Gifford’s wooden casket be placed within his own spacious bedroom, the bereaved husband slip beside it for three nights.
Hardy wrote no more novels after Gifford’s death – unless we choose to classify as a work of fiction his biography of himself that appeared under the name of his second wife, Florence Dugdale, in two volumes, in 1928 and 1930. Conscious of posterity, Hardy swiftly removed from Max Gate all material evidence of an unhappy first marriage. Dugdale, his loyal assistant in this task, continued the exorcism after her husband’s death in 1928, even destroying letters written to Gifford by her own family and friends. By 1937, the year of Dugdale’s death, no trace of her predecessor remained at Hardy’s home.
Today, many regard Hardy as a greater poet than a novelist. The question addressed by Elizabeth Lowry in her perceptive and eloquent novel, The Chosen, is why it took Emma Gifford’s death to release, in an outpouring of passionate regret and self-accusation, a sequence of eighteen exquisite poems dedicated to the memory of a woman with whom Hardy had scarcely been on speaking terms for the past twenty years. Central to Lowry’s approach are the voluminous diaries Gifford kept throughout her marriage, which Hardy read after her death. Dugdale, writing to a male friend early in 1913, confided that the entries made by Gifford during the twenty, and possibly deranged angry, years she spent holed up in an attic – Hardy had added two small upper rooms to Max Gate at his wife’s own request – contained “bitter denunciations” of her husband. “I think”, Dugdale added, “he will end by believing them.”
Further painful discoveries were made when Hardy read a pair of private essays his wife had written about their marriage, one of them ominously entitled: “What I Think of My Husband”. Both were burned. Another, much blander manuscript, filled with pleasant memories of Emma’s early life in Cornwall, was allowed to survive, although Some Recollections would have to wait until 1979 to be published.
Drawing on that one surviving memoir for a sense of Emma’s personality, Lowry also makes sensitive use of Hardy’s revealing poems about lost love to imagine the vanished episodes from the destroyed essays and diaries that may have provided their inspiration. In “The Last Performance” (1912), the nameless narrator recalls his wife’s impulsive decision to play for one last time “all the old tunes I know” on her harpsichord. Fingering that same harpsichord’s keys shortly after Emma’s death, Lowry’s Hardy experiences a moment of eerie connection and regret – in his poem, an indifferent husband had not stayed to listen – that Hardy would express in another late verse, “Penance” (1922):
… the chill old keys,
Like a skull’s brown teeth
Loose in their sheath,
Freeze my touch…
Lowry’s previous novels have demonstrated her considerable skill as a weaver of literary fictions. Her first, The Bellini Madonna (2008) winked at Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in its narrative of a creepily Nabokovian art historian’s search for a lost painting. Dark Water (2018) glided into Herman Melville’s storied seas through the tale of a Boston psychiatrist’s encounter with a former shipmate: a mutineer, survivor and — as it transpires — an enthusiastic cannibal. The Chosen‘s predecessors made no pretence of telling the exact truth. In them, Lowry embedded imaginary events and characters in substantial research. Recreating a mysterious episode in the life of a famous novelist offers different challenges. Wherever she can, Lowry remains faithful to the known facts. Gifford and Hardy were as blissful as she intimates during their earlier married years, when Emma – always proudly conscious of her social superiority as a clergyman’s daughter to a mere stonemason’s son – advised Hardy on how to handle Tess’s notes about the past grandeur of the Durbeyfields . Lowry reminds readers that Gifford had, at first, welcomed the usurping Dugdale to Max Gate as a woman who appreciated her own literary gift. And the author emphasizes that Hardy – an intensely shy man who concealed his new home behind dense plants of conifers – shared none of Gifford’s passion for rose-growing.
A strict need for accuracy often places frustrating restraints on the imaginative dreaming of biographers. But, in her chosen medium, a writer of Lowry’s caliber might have risked something more boldly speculative, especially about the mysterious and seemingly abrupt breakdown of the Hardys’ marriage. Gifford lovingly nursed her husband through a serious illness in 1890; was it a less easily recognized mental illness of her own that inspired Hardy’s ageing wife to take refuge upstairs, safe from public view, in 1892? Was Gifford herself a madwoman in the attic, rather than the disdained and usurped wife of Lowry’s novel?
If Lowry’s version of Emma is disappointing, her creator compensates for that deficiency with a marvelously sensitive interpretation of Hardy himself as a self-tormenting ghost, “a drap little man who must creep from his solitary bed at dawn to haunt his own home”. Later, in this same striking passage, Lowry forces Hardy to look into the glass once again, and to flinch at what he sees:
Who is Tom Hardy? He is a man who dreams while he’s awake. He’s a man without children, or grandchildren, and now without a wife. He has a mistress he hardly wants. He’s a man without power, only words.
A love story and a ghost story, The Chosen succeeds in leading readers back, with renewed curiosity and a glimmer of fresh understanding, to what many consider to be some of the greatest love poems written in English – and to wish all over again that Emma Gifford somehow could have known in life what passionate regret she would inspire in death.
Miranda Seymour‘s I Used to Live Here Once: The haunted life of Jean Rhys is published this month
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