It takes a brave novelist to write about the life of Thomas Hardy. Either they play it safe and produce nothing more than cut-price biography or they embroider facts boldly and in doing so run the risk of offending experts who do not wish to see their versions of Hardy dethroned. Happily, Elizabeth Lowry rises above these many difficulties, creating a novel which is both a fascinating analysis of Hardy and a powerful and exquisite work of art in its own right.
How exactly does Lowry achieve so much in this relatively slight book? First, she wisely keeps the focus tight, dramatising only the death of Hardy’s first wife, Emma, and the few days afterwards. Hardy has long wanted ‘to forget all about his wife’ and ‘hasn’t touched her in many years’. He admits that ‘at moments I even wished her dead’. He fails to notice that she is seriously ill and, the evening before she dies, they have ‘the worst falling-out’ they’ve ever had.
After Emma’s death, Hardy’s straight-spoken sister Kate says, ‘I daresay it’s a relief also.’ Hardy himself admits to ‘a savage sense of liberty’ but he is also devastated and disorientated. ‘Language has left him’ and ‘he can’t imagine ever writing again’. The situation becomes yet more painful when he discovers Emma’s diaries. They start with Emma’s account of their first meeting and their early days together exploring the Cornish coast. But soon they move on to her unvarnished views of her famous husband. ‘She knew. Emma knew.’
She writes of Hardy as ‘incapable of ordinary human affection’. He is a ‘paper husband’ who ‘understands only the women he invents – the others not at all’. He is humourless, vain and selfish and Emma is constantly fascinated by ‘his sheer ordinariness’. Hardy does not dispute these