We seem to be in the midst of a resurgence of interest in Thomas Hardy, both at home and abroad.
The recent filming of a new version of ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ in Dorset has certainly stirred local interest while even further abroad there have been signs of a renaissance of interest in the writing of Thomas Hardy and, more significantly, in the man himself and his milieu. It is almost two years since my first novel, ‘Florence: Mistress of Max Gate’ was published and since that time, I have become aware of a number of books on or about Hardy appearing, some dealing with Hardy and landscape or the incidence of madness in Emma’s family, some works of fiction. Included amongst this latter group are a screenplay, ‘Loves Lies A’ Bleeding’ by Rosita Church, a play ‘She Opened the Door’ and a novel ‘Max Gate’ by Damian Wilkins, set in 1928, and written in New Zealand. Perhaps after a hundred years, writers feel confident enough to tread on once-hallowed ground; perhaps the centenary of Emma Hardy’s death last year and the various celebrations have once again cast a spotlight on Thomas Hardy and the relationships with his two wives – or perhaps, as Thomas Hardy would indubitably suggest, these things are mere chance.
In researching and writing ‘Florence’ and then ‘Emma’ (‘Emma: West of Wessex Girl’, published October 2013), I was constantly drawn to the impact of women upon his writing and the dichotomy between his sympathies for women in general contrasted with his relationships with both Florence and Emma. I was intrigued, therefore, on reading ‘Auto da Fay’ a volume of the autobiography of Fay Weldon to find a suggestion by way of explanation:
“I think novelists may be like other professionals: astute when it comes to others, hopeless when it comes to themselves. Quite blind. In the same way that the accountant is baffled by his own accounts, the doctor fails to diagnose his own illness, and the shoemaker’s children going shoeless, the writer, so clear about the conduct of others, misses some central part of the narrative while living through his own.’ Auto da Fay (p322) Fay Weldon.
It sounds true of Thomas Hardy. Indeed, it chimes in very closely with how Emma described her husband in observing, “(he) understands only the women he invents – the others not at all.”
It is hard to find a consistency in any appraisal of Hardy and the sentiment above might be as close as we can get. He was devoted to his mother and protective of her, but of the others, wives, sisters, muses, there was always an ambivalence about how far he would let them intrude upon the world he had created for himself.