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The book "Hardy Women" by Paula Byrne explores the lives of women in the novels of Thomas Hardy. The author is praised for her writing skills in portraying female characters, but her portrayal of Hardy as a husband is severely criticized.

The book “Hardy Women” by Paula Byrne explores the lives of women in the novels of Thomas Hardy. The author is praised for her writing skills in portraying female characters, but her portrayal of Hardy as a husband is severely criticized.


If I possessed the skill, I would create the drama. The time: approximately 1910. The setting: a somber living room in a grand country estate, where the audience can glimpse the source of the darkness through the windows in the form of a dense forest of brooding conifers. The main roles are filled by three individuals: a renowned writer with white hair, a large head, and a prominent nose; his elderly wife, whose attire and demeanor are unconventional; and a much younger woman, a companion and typist whose outward warmth thinly veils her ruthlessness. Supporting characters include a devoted maid with a doll-like face, and two distinguished male writers, known for their gossip about the household that will one day be recorded for all to read.

I would call it Max Gate, which is the name of the house Thomas Hardy (our famous writer) designed and built in 1885, living there until his death in 1928. In 1910, the atmosphere inside this brick villa was intense and peculiar. Hardy and his wife, Emma, were by now deeply unhappy, a state they’d endured at least since the publication of his last great novel, Jude the Obscure, in 1895; secreted in an attic, Emma was busy writing the diaries that would provoke such guilt in Hardy once she was dead, an account of his badness as a husband. Whether this badness encompassed the fact that he’d recently fallen for yet another younger woman, our typist Florence Dugdale, is moot: rather cleverly, Florence had befriended Emma, which had given Hardy licence to install her in Max Gate as his secretary. But either way, the mood was pretty extraordinary. In 1912, by which time Florence had departed for a period after a terrible marital row, Edmund Gosse and AC Benson (my cast list’s literary figures) came to visit. By their telling, Hardy was silent and frail, and Emma was quite possibly mad.

The two men were surprised that a talented female writer could be in an unhappy marriage, which even Hardy himself seemed to share. One of the men, Gosse, remembered Hardy saying, “I wonder how I came to write like that.” Personally, I have always been surprised when people are bewildered by this aspect of Hardy. As a writer, one’s imagination is a powerful tool and allows them to explore things on the page that may not be possible in real life. However, biographer Paula Byrne, along with Gosse and Benson, believe that not everything can be attributed to imagination. In her new book, she delves into the question of why a female admirer could praise Hardy’s understanding of women in his novels, but his first wife could only criticize his lack of empathy for real women. Using Hardy’s correspondence, including previously unknown letters, Byrne examines all the women in his life – from his wives and lovers to his sisters and mother. It almost feels like every woman he ever encountered is mentioned in this book, from neighbors to schoolteachers to girls at a harvest supper.

I greatly admired Byrne’s previous work, a biography about author Barbara Pym. I had hoped to feel even more enthusiastic about this new book. As a teenager, I loved the novels of Hardy, but now in middle age, I find his life story, filled with longing and class struggles, to be fascinating. While Hardy Women is well-researched and well-written, it unfortunately falls into the trap of being too focused on its concept. The book moves quickly through all of Hardy’s female characters, with each chapter highlighting a different one. This results in a frustrating stop-and-go narrative, at times feeling repetitive. At certain points, Hardy himself seems to disappear and the book loses its focus. The middle section of the book further complicates things by solely focusing on the female characters.

The main issue lies in the fact that the most intriguing period of Hardy’s life in terms of his relationships with women is the one mentioned at the start of this review: the complex and deceitful situation he was in with Emma and Florence. It is disheartening to see how he manipulated his cousin Tryphena Sparks and a woman named Eliza Nicholls, who, like Miss Havisham, showed up at Max Gate after Emma’s death in 1912, still wearing the engagement ring he had given her 40 years prior. Byrne presents both stories beautifully, but the reader eagerly awaits for Florence to make an appearance and for the inevitable clash with Emma. However, this anticipation is met with a lengthy wait as Hardy Women is a lengthy book.

Is it worth waiting for? I am unsure. Even though I had read about it before, I found myself completely absorbed by the details once again. Before her death, Emma had feared she would meet the same fate as Dr. Crippen’s wife. Shortly after Florence became the second Mrs. Hardy in 1914, her 80-year-old husband developed feelings for a teenage actress named Gertrude Bugler, whom he believed to be a real-life version of his beloved Tess. Despite all this, Byrne is unable to unravel the mysteries of this tragic story. No one will ever be able to do so. Was Emma mentally unstable, or did the knowledge of Florence being her rival drive her mad? My inclination towards the latter explanation is not solely due to my feminism beliefs. I cannot help but think of the beautiful poems Hardy wrote about her after her passing. They are filled with such intense emotion. My heart tells me that his guilt was justified.

  • The book “Hardy Women: Mothers, Sisters, Wives, Muses” written by Paula Byrne is available from William Collins for £25. To support the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may apply.

Source: theguardian.com