Hardy Women: Mother, Sisters, Wives, Muses by Paula Byrne - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Sue Bridehead Revisited

Hardy Women: Mother, Sisters, Wives, Muses


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The title of Paula Byrne’s Hardy Women is a pun on Thomas Hardy’s name and a gesture to the enthusiasm that greeted Hardy’s fictional women. Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess Durbeyfield in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure were new kinds of women, and Hardy’s fame, which was immense and began with the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd, rested to a large extent on the heroines he created. One young reader wrote to him of Tess, ‘I wonder at your complete understanding of a woman’s soul.’ Hardy’s discontented wife Emma wondered at it too. She observed, ‘He understands only the women he invents – the others not at all.’

It is the ‘others’ that Byrne turns her attention to in this ambitious book, split, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, into three ‘phases’: ‘The women who made him’ (forty-six chapters, mostly named after different women), ‘The women he made’ (eight chapters) and ‘The women he loved and the women he lost’ (seventeen chapters). Stories told by women who knew Hardy or whose foremothers knew him ‘have often been ignored or simply not believed’, Byrne writes. There is also the fact that Hardy made a bonfire of many relevant documents, including the journal ‘What I Think of My Husband’ that Emma left for him to discover after her death in 1912. Real women ‘paid a large price’, Byrne argues, for the ‘magnificent fictional women he invented’. They ‘shaped his passions and his imagination’. 

The hardiest of Hardy women was his long-lived mother, Jemima. She and her sisters were strong-minded, straight-talking countrywomen – Jemima’s speech is described as ‘vernacular’ and ‘muscular’ – who valued oral tradition while negotiating the hard realities of sexual double standards. Plenty of them, including Jemima, became pregnant outside of wedlock. They knew poverty and domestic violence. Hardy was devoted to his mother and her sisters and enthralled by their stories. Although success took him to London, he chose to root himself close to his childhood home in Bockhampton by building a mansion, Max Gate, on the edge of Dorchester. Family and locale came first with him. He drew on people he knew for his characters, including his extended family. It’s no accident that he moved back temporarily to live with his mother while writing Far from the Madding Crowd. 

Tess, who is an innocent, was not based on any specific individual. She was all the seduced countrywomen Hardy knew, and none of them. The subtitle he chose was deliberately provocative: ‘A Pure Woman’. The novel blames men for the fate of ‘fallen’ women. It seems simple now, as does so much of what Hardy believed. For the reviewer in the Quarterly Review, the very idea that Tess could be described as pure ‘put a strain on the English language’.

Hardy felt for women and was excited by them. Pretty girls turned his head. Byrne emphasises (perhaps too much) of his tendency as a young man to fall in love and make promises, before changing his mind when another beauty crossed his path. Aesthetics, erotics and melodrama drove his writing – he understood yearning and passion, along with remorse and guilt, and needed them in his life. At sixteen he witnessed the public hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown, who had killed her husband. As an old man he recalled ‘what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back’. Byrne’s prologue gives us a vignette of the hanged woman, the fascinated boy and the troubled old man. This is followed by a description of Hardy burning notebooks and papers in 1918, determined that nobody should write about his personal life. Hoping to forestall would-be biographers, he prepared an account of his own life for posthumous publication, pretending it had been written by his second wife.

Fame brought many more women into Hardy’s life. It pleased him to be petted by aristocratic ladies. It isn’t clear how much he suffered a sense of disloyalty to class and kin – or felt himself to be a ‘deserter of your own lot’, as Berta in The Hand of Ethelberta is told by her brother when she marries an elderly aristocrat (thus rescuing her family from poverty). Family affection never failed. His unmarried sister Mary remained emotionally dependent on him until she died and he was a willing financial supporter of other family members too.

Married love, however, seems to have failed quite fast. Hardy married up, and his first wife, Emma Gifford, who was well read, funny and beautiful, with aspirations to become a writer, felt her social superiority. So too did her family: her father wrote of Hardy as ‘a low-born churl who has presumed to marry into my family’. Tensions quickly arose on both sides. Soon there was open hostility between Emma and her in-laws. Jemima, who in her late seventies still walked out in wintry weather to enjoy the beauties of nature, remained in old age ‘matchless in might’, as Hardy wrote in his poem ‘In Tenebris’, and succinct in expression. Emma, she declared, was ‘a thing of a ’ooman … She were wrong for I.’

She were wrong for Hardy too, and their unhappiness was no secret. At first she helped him with his work, acting as copyist and general amanuensis. But she was upset by some of his writing, particularly his love poems about other women (they were too ‘personal – moans, & fancies etc’), and thought he was getting at her with his ‘stabbings by pen’, especially in Jude the Obscure, which attacked marriage for being a wretched system that based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling. As his success grew, she felt more and more hurt and betrayed. Visitors recorded their observations of her and of them as a couple. She was mocked; he was pitied. Byrne works hard to be fair to the bright, active, disappointed wife. But even Emma’s ways of consoling herself seem a bit ridiculous. She decided that around the age of fifty ‘a man’s feelings too often take a new course altogether. Eastern ideas of matrimony secretly pervade his thoughts, & he wearies of the most perfect and suitable wife chosen in his earlier life.’ Hardy thought that his most perfect wife was mentally ill (her brother was in a madhouse) and Byrne eventually concurs (‘if there is to be a posthumous diagnosis – always a speculative venture’) and cites the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to suggest that she suffered from schizotypal personality disorder.

Hardy’s second wife, the much younger Florence Dugdale, had befriended Emma and later came to feel that she was becoming her. Florence struggled to reconcile her love for the man and admiration of the writer with the realities of Hardy’s writing life: long hours of silent absorption in his study from which emerged treacherous-seeming words. In Hardy’s imagination, Emma took on saintly qualities and inspired some of his best poems. Her ghost haunted Florence, who was also jealous of living rivals like the actress Gertrude Bugler, who played Tess, and with whom Hardy became infatuated. 

Paula Byrne’s decision to focus on the women produces a portrait of a guarded artist in his unguarded moments. She makes no claim to being comprehensive and yet it is perhaps a fuller picture than the standard ‘cradle to grave’ biographies. Liking women, being liked by them, suited Hardy. (There were many, and this is a long and fascinating book.) His mother and sisters adored him, he was happy with his muses, his wives paid the price.

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