Saturday, April 2, 2016

Emma and Tom

Emma Gifford Hardy
Given Thomas Hardy's propensity for modeling his fictional characters and circumstances on people and events in his own life, positing that his first wife Emma casts an oversized shadow on his work borders on hyperbole. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the influence she exerts from within his work is unlike any other person in his life. She served as the direct model for his fictional heroines far fewer times than one might suspect and, no doubt, than she might have preferred. Hardy invoked her most often in his poems after her death. Her greatest presence in his fiction appears obliquely in his relentless exploration of marriage as a manifold burden on the human animal.

The Hardy's marriage was not a happy one for either of them but most of that unpleasantness lies just beyond the scope of this post. I want to explore who Emma Gifford was and how she and Tom became a couple because, as usual, elements of that reappear in ways minor and major in his fiction and poetry.

They met at St. Juliot, home to a church in Cornwall nearly 150 miles to the south and west of Dorset, that Hardy had been sent to restore (ie mostly demolish and build again). Emma's sister was married to the reverend attached to the church and Emma lived with them as a general helper. This may have been more a title of convenience as both sisters had been forced to rely upon one another for support (financial, emotional etc) after a downturn in their family's fortunes.

Emma's father was a solicitor (like a barrister but of a slightly lower social status as they could not argue cases in court) but retired early in his career to live off of his mother's holdings. When she died, the family moved into more meagre dwellings and sent Emma and Helen out into the world to secure some kind of gainful employment and, we must assume, husbands. While Hardy's fascination with his possible lineal ties to better positioned 'Hardye's of generations past may have ignited his penchant for stories that hinged on the idea of "fallen blood," Emma's own family had taken this tumble within her lifetime and Hardy would have been well-positioned to see how their social demeanor was totally at odds with their contemporary accommodations because of it.

When Hardy arrived in St. Juliot, he had completed the manuscript for his first novel The Poor Man and the Lady (which was never published) and, having finally given up on finding a suitable publishing home for it, had followed up with Desperate Remedies. He was having success taking architecture jobs on his own terms even while nursing the wounds of his realization that he was now too old and too educationally disadvantaged to ever reach his goal of attending university in order to join the clergy. He was also coming off the definitive end to an ambiguous "agreement" (like a precursor to an actual engagement) with a young lady named Eliza Nicholls that had gone on for several years.

I offer this as evidence that Thomas, three months before his 30th birthday, was primed for a romantic adventure away from home and that's just what he found. They pair appears to have kissed for the first time at the end of his week-long visit to make sketches and then engaged in a romance, sometimes in person, sometimes by correspondence over the next four years. Emma took an active role in Hardy's emerging career as a writer by copying his manuscripts for final submission to publishers. He write Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far from the Madding Crowd before they finally married in 1874.

We'll close out our look with an acknowledgment that the Hardys' marriage was frowned upon by both of their families. Emma's father seems to have rejected Hardy as a possible partner to his daughter because of his relative lower social position. The Hardys seem to have rejected her because she was an outsider and an open threat to Jemima's plans to have the children remain unmarried. The Hardys, as I've mentioned before, did not attend the ceremony.

There's considerable biographical and textual evidence that the engagement and reservations on both sides of the family were overcome by a pregnancy scare and that it may have been a deliberate deception in which Thomas was not an inside player. This incident and the lack of children to emerge from their union cast its own pall upon their relationship and seems to mark a definite line in time between their courtship, a source of great inspiration to Hardy's work, and their marriage, a source of great turmoil to both participants.


  1. Hi Rob.

    I assume you've read both Peter Tait volumes about Hardy's wives, "Emma, West of Wessex Girl" and "Florence, Mistress of Max Gate"?

    In the great scheme, I'm not sure how vital they are, but as someone who knew little about his personal life, I found them both informative and insightful.

    Thanks for the blog. It's very enjoyable.

    1. I haven't read them yet. One of the functions of the blog is to give me an excuse to read everything written about Hardy that I can put my hands on, so I'm building up a bibliography...and you've just contributed to it. Thanks for the recommendation and for reading!