Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Two Novels about Thomas Hardy

One of the many synchronicities that contributed to my starting this reading and writing journey was what seemed like a tiny explosion of novels written about Thomas Hardy - and by tiny explosion, I mean, two: Christopher Nicholson's Winter (January 2016) and Damien Wilkins's Max Gate (due in July of 2016). I was lucky enough to pull an advanced review copy of Max Gate, which I just finished today and it left me full of enough feels that I thought I might share my impressions of both books with you.

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.

Max Gate, from New Zealand's Damien Wilkins, is a very different kind of novel but no less compelling. Told from the perspective of a housekeeper at Hardy's home, Max Gate, the book captures the last days of the author's life with Hardy himself kept all but off-screen throughout. Its central concern is how it came to be that Hardy's ashes were interred in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey while his heart was buried in the cemetery at Stinsford, with his family and late wife, Emma.

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.


  1. Thanks, Rob.

    Even more to add to the reading pile!


  2. Thanks for your review of Winter. I have it on my TBR pile and maybe I will get to it this summer.

  3. Replies
    1. Winter was definitely the more charming of the two as Nicholson captures the "voice" of a Hardy novel but I almost respect Wilkins more for taking some chances and finding his own voice on Max Gate.

  4. I thought Winter one of the best books I read in 2016, part of background research I was doing for a seminar I'm leading right now on Under the Greenwood Tree and Tess (I'm re-reading the Skloot book right now--he's a fellow Portlandian, although I have not met him yet). I felt as if I got a very clear sense of the elderly Hardy and Florence, less of Gertrude, but then she is less interesting to me, and it's perhaps the characterization of her ordinariness that makes her so compelling, when contrasted with the energy that Hardy and Florence each engage in on Gertrude's behalf. Gertrude's picture in the Pite biography came as quite a surprise to me--Pite calls her an extraordinarily good-looking woman; I don't see that at all, nor do I see in her large overbite the eroticized mouth that Hardy practically trips over in his fetishistic description of it (along with Tess's amplitude). I have recommended Winter to several of my friends as an outstanding limited characters study; it feels so true to the man, so intimate, so petty, yet so real.

    I just found your blog because of your review of Skloot's book (I haven't posted my review yet) so I'm going to enjoy spending some time getting to know you, particularly your thoughts about Under the Greenwood Tree.

    I have written several Dickens-themed mystery novels under my pen name, Christopher Lord. You can learn more about me at www.dickensjunction.com

  5. Thank you so much for visiting and reading. I really loved Winter as well. It really humanized all the players in unexpected ways. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Under the Greenwood Tree as well. I found it to be a novel of curious construction that seemed to capture some of Jemima Hardy's distrust of marriage in a nutshell. Best, Rob