|Thomas Hardy's cousin and mythical baby mama Tryphena Sparks|
There is much to be said about Hardy's relationship with women during his public life as a writer, whether in how he portrayed women in his work or how he dealt with women in his actual life. We will, however, defer those issues for another day and focus on his interaction with women as a child and as a young man, perhaps in hope of identifying some archetypal relationships that will shed light on his adult attitudes.
Hardy's mother Jemima exercised a profound influence over her husband and children. In other circumstances, a statement like that might serve as a preview for a horror story of a childhood. There is considerable evidence supporting the narrative that she was, in fact, beloved of her children. She inculcated the children with a profound sense of obligation to family above all other things. Though all four children had careers, none of them escaped the orbit of the family cottage in Upper Bockhampton until Jemima died at the age of 1904 at the age of 90. This is exceptional because Thomas, foremost among them, had the means and even the motive, due to his fame, to move away but chose, instead, to build his own home within walking distance.
The children were born in two groups: Thomas and Mary, the elders and Katherine and Henry, the younger. Their mother intended that the children should all pursue careers, never marry and live together like platonic couples. All but Thomas remained unmarried until their death. As one might expect, Thomas and Mary were very close and, as we will see, she appears, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, in his writing. It is probably no exaggeration to say that Mary was Thomas's first confidante and, in that sense, his archetype for the deep friendship and intellectual rapport he sought in his eventual wife.
However deep seated his urge to please his mother and remain legally and emotionally unattached from women who were not members of his family may have been, Thomas Hardy does not appear to have been of the temperament to carry those attitudes beyond the onset of puberty. He was inclined to become deeply infatuated with young women to whom he'd never or barely spoken and, in some cases, only seen from a distance. Even viewed through a lens of Victorian morality, poor Tom was just bad at courting behaviors and hitched the wagon of his affections too often to women who, in some cases, barely knew he was interested.
And then there is the enigma of Tryphena Sparks.
When Thomas returned to Dorchester after his time in London, he was suffering from the double indignity of a broken "understanding" (kind of a preliminary engagement) with a young woman named Eliza Nicholls and the public perception that he'd failed in his ambitions to make it in the big city. While he returned to his work with Hicks, the local architect, he appears to have grown very close to Tryphena, his sixteen year old cousin.
Partially due to his own later tendency to obscure his own biography, a tragic mythology sprung up regarding Tryphena among Hardy speculators. Some insisted that they had produced a child. Others suggested that they were to marry but, at the last moment, it was revealed that Tryphena was not his cousin but his niece!
Millgate throws cold water on the more extreme of these speculations but acknowledges that the pair did engage in some mild courting behavior and that the union was probably deep-sixed by both Jemima and Tryphena's mother on the grounds that a marriage would improve neither of their social situations.
After the romance between them dissipated for whatever reason, Hardy would take a job working to restore a church at St. Juliot, in Cornwall, about 140 miles away. It was there that he met Emma Gifford, who would, in time, become his first wife. But there does seem to be little doubt that Tryphena was the archetype for some of Hardy's protagonistas, including the tragic Sue Bridehead from Jude the Obscure as well as the subject of several of his poems.
It's tempting of course to play armchair psychoanalyst and see Hardy's early courting behaviors as, essentially, self-sabotaging in order to avoid openly disobeying his mother's wishes. It's even more tempting to treat that as fact rather than conjecture when considered against the reality that none of his family attended Tom's wedding to Emma. Emma, who as we'll see, had her own set of personality issues she brought to the table but there is little doubt that Jemima viewed and treated her as she would have any outsider - with barely veiled hostility as a threat to her son's success and happiness.