By Laksiri Fernando –
This is a novel about a novelist, none other than Thomas Hardy. The author is Christopher Nicholson, not so well known, at least as far as I am concerned, except his previous novel, “The Elephant Keeper,” which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and the Encore. The book is a Fourth Estate publication from London, 2014, and what intrigued me first was its absence of a Preface or a Forward. It is a direct hit to the story even without a contents page. Nevertheless, the 247 paged novel is separated into four parts with neatly designed twelve chapters.
Thomas is the main character of the novel, at least at the beginning, who is introduced by the author in the first chapter in a third person narrative, along with his present or the second wife, Florence, 39 years younger to him and his secretary before. He is 84, but still active.
“On a blue November dawn, not long before the present time, an old man might have been observed walking down the short drive that led from the house to the gate. He walked slowly, with a slight stoop, and carried a stick in his right hand. A small dog, a wire-haired terrier, accompanied him, snuffling at the vegetation on either side of the drive.”
The old man is a poet, a novelist and a writer – perhaps the wealthiest writer in the entire country – who lives at his country villa, Max Gate, surrounded by a planted forest of pine trees as a wind-breaker and beeches for the colour. He himself has planted them many years ago. Thomas is a unique nature-lover who believes or romanticizes that trees could even feel. This was a matter of conflict between him and his wife, Florence.
The author, Nicholson, has an exceptional style of introducing the story and the characters, sometimes himself and other times through the characters themselves. However, one chapter has a single style of narrative, without confusing the reader. This is what Florence says about the ‘trees,’ in a first person narrative.
“He believes that the trees must not be touched for fear of wounding them. Can trees be wounded? Trees are not sentient creatures. He talks of mutilation and disfigurement. To care for the feelings of birds and animals is one thing, yet to believe that trees are capable of suffering as human beings suffer is quite another.”
“What of my suffering?” She asks. She believes that the growth on her neck has been due to the trees.
One of the celebrated novels that Thomas has written is “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” a long time ago. It is liked by many critics, and of course by him for a particular reason, and it has been staged as a Play in London several times before the War.
The setting of the “Winter” now is mid-1920s, in semi-fictional Wessex. Although this is the third decade of the 20th century, Wessex is not yet polluted by industrialism. The place even doesn’t have a proper railway line. Max Gate (the name of the villa, if you have forgotten it) does not have electricity; only oil lamps or candles are lit in the evenings. Telephone is only a recent arrival after much insistence of Florence, yet you have to call the operator for a connection. Thomas doesn’t like to have a motor car for themselves, to the disappointment of Florence.
A local (amateur) edition of ‘Tess’ is now decided upon to be performed and Gertie is selected as Tess to the much resentment of Florence. Yet it is the blossom of Thomas’ imagination, Gertie to act as ‘pure woman of beauty and splendor.’
The plot of the novel rotates around love, jealousy, romance, intrigue, vengeance, infatuation and old-age spousal conflict. Some predicaments of human behavior, old or young, engulfed between above traits could be gleaned through the story, characters and narratives. There are visions on such themes like environmentalism, romanticism and true nature of fiction or art. All cannot be explained in a review but some spotlights of the plot are as follows.
“The house had two maids, one called Nellie, the other Elsie, so similar in manner and appearance that he often mixed them up.
‘Mrs. Bugler has arrived, sir. And Mrs. Hardy told me to say that she is not well, sir. She hopes you can manage by yourself.’
The old man was neither displeased, nor very much surprised.”
That is how the whole matter starts. The old man is not particularly innocent. He is just 84, perhaps still full of testosterone or something else.
The ‘Tess’ is performed at the local Corn Exchange; a strange place to have a Play anyway. Gertie easily wins the glamour for her acts and looks. There are glowing reviews. To Thomas, she is always a remarkable woman. To Florence, she is just a ‘butcher’s wife.’ The class attitudes are also revealed. Gertie is anyhow selected to perform in London, to the fury of Florence. All are decided at a luncheon at Max Gate and it is almost the winter.
“I’ll walk you down,’ he said gruffly.
‘You’ll catch a cold,’ objected Florence.”
They anyhow walked to the gate slowly.
“He cleared his throat. ‘Mrs. Hardy would like the pine trees cut down. She feels they make the house too shady.’
‘I like them,’ she said.
“Gertie.’ He stopped. ‘If, in after-years, anyone should ask you – if anyone should ever ask you if you knew me, you must say, you were my friend.’ And then, unsure as to whether she understood his true meaning, which was more to do with love than friendship, he tried again: ‘If anyone asks, in times to come, what you knew of old Thomas Hardy – you were his friend. Remember that.”
Gertie finally could not perform in London. Why? And how? It is a long story. It was the Winter proper. Gertie never saw Mr. Hardy again. Thomas died three years’ later and was buried strangely. He had “two funerals at the same time, one in Westminster Abbey, where they buried his body, and the other in Stinsford, where they buried his heart,” Gertie noted.
Part four or the last chapter of the novel is a short one related by Gertie herself. It is like a postscript to the whole story. Gertie reminiscences back to the summer and winter, forty years ago. Gertie had been to the ‘heart funeral’ and this is what she said.
“I hated the thought that his heart had been cut out of him, it seemed such a barbaric act, and I hated Mrs. Hardy for agreeing to it. There wasn’t a proper coffin, only a little casket, and it was impossible when you saw the casket not to think what it contained.”
Fiction or Biography?
The way the story ends, and names and places of the novel, could leave one wonders whether this is a novel proper or a biography of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). It may be both. One clue for the mixture is what appears in the story itself.
Many readers of Thomas’ novels used to write letters and asked questions. One was quite persistent in asking about the exact species of the ‘amber-coloured butterflies’ in Egdon that Thomas has mentioned in one of his novels! The amber-coloured butterflies did not exist. As the story goes, “Doubtless the letter-writer would be disappointed by such information; well, but it was the truth. Just like the butterflies, Egdon itself, that vast expanse of heath described at the start of the novel, did not exist and probably never had; it was a piece of fiction that stood at a certain remove from reality.” Then it says,
“He [Thomas Hardy] hated these literary detectives, who failed to grasp the nature of art: that it was a shaping of reality, not reality itself.”
I have enjoyed the novel very much and could recommend to anyone. Although I am not from the field of English literature or any literature at all, I would recommend to any of Sri Lanka’s universities to incorporate it as a reader for the subject. It may expand students’ sensibility, critical appraisal and language competence. It could also be a good entry point to Thomas Hardy’s literature proper.