Winter retells the story of Hardy's late life infatuation with Gertrude Bugler, an actress local to Dorset who played in a number of his stories adapted for stage with local amateur players. Nicholson uses three points of view (Florence Hardy, Bugler and Hardy himself) to tell this rather maudlin tale that also serves as a snapshot of the final years of Hardy's life. Nicholson adopts Hardy's magisterial tone throughout the book, a rather postmodern conceit that traps Hardy inside of one of his own plots.
While Nicholson is far from apathetic to how Florence was slowly eroded by her marriage, he manages to keep Hardy a sympathetic if slightly frustrating player in this beautiful novel mostly at her expense. The reader is similarly grateful for the spare moment spent alone with Gertrude, just as Hardy must have been, if only for the contrast with Florence's relentless neuroses and complaints. As one might expect, Gertrude comes across the most sympathetically, something of a helpless pawn caught between an elderly man with a blurred sense of the line between fact and fantasy and his jealous wife who understands her husband's weaknesses all too well.
Winter is something of a wish fulfillment for the Hardy admirer as it offers one more chance to slip into a credible facsimile of Hardy's Wessex to experience a tragic love story. Nicholson doesn't skimp on the physical details that makes so much of Hardy's best work a pleasure to read. My only criticism of the novel was also one of its saving graces in that Nicholson spares us the worst tragedies that might have happened in an actual Hardy novel. Hardy's inevitable death (spoiler warning!) happens well off-stage and after the conclusion of the novel proper, in a denouement delivered by Gertrude Bugler. The execution is a little bloodless but I was grateful for his restraint.
Wilkins really carves out his own voice for this book and it's a little dizzying at times. Much of it works on basic blocking and dialogue inside of fixed spaces, not unlike a stage production. Nellie Titterington, the narrator, provides us with our rare forays outside of the vigil, usually in the form of flashbacks (and forwards). Hardy comes across as less sympathetic in the book as Florence manages our insights into his character as her husband and, less often, as a poet and writer.
The book is divided into two parts with (spoiler warning!) Hardy's death being the line of demarcation between them. Wilkins seems fascinated by the almost Byzantine maneuverings that led to the double burial and calls Sir Sydney Cockerell and Sir J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) out for orchestrating Hardy's admittance into the Poet's Corner without resolving either the issue of whether Hardy would have objected or if it was a good thing that they did comfortably for the reader.
Max Gate doesn't give the Hardy admirer as much to love but, as a novel, it seemed to meet its own goals in a stylish and thoughtful manner. There was one glaring historical inaccuracy that bugged me through the whole book and Wilkins turns it around at the end to make an important statement about the difference between history and narrative in a fashion that impressed me.
In conclusion, both novels were enjoyable and represent a rich moment for Hardy enthusiasts to get a Wessex fix of a new and unexpected kind.