Victoria University Press, $30.00,
Thomas Hardy often wrote about death’s little ironies. There’s a poem in the voice of a dead and forgotten woman whose dog, who has also forgotten her, is burying his bone in her grave. There are fictional scenes like Bathsheba Troy unscrewing the lid of Fanny Robin’s coffin to discover the secret dead baby in her arms, and the flowers on Fanny’s grave washed away by a gushing gargoyle. Often there is black humour, “a laugh from underground”, as another poem puts it. Only Hardy could make a great anti-war poem out of the comic cast of corpses in the village graveyard being astonished awake by the sound of naval gunnery practice.
We like to call Hardy pessimistic and tell how he carried a little wooden scraper on his bicycle trips to take the moss off gravestones. But he was a Dorset countryman who grew up in daily contact with the actuality of death, so made vivid literature of that actuality, just as he did of sexual love, or getting the gas out of the bellies of sheep, or the grasshoppers trapped in the muslin skirts of women going to church. To reach the church, the centre of communal life, you had to pass in every village through the graveyard, the centre of communal death. The two were much less separate than we make them. Hardy had picked his spot years before he died.
So it seemed that death imitated literature when he finally did die, aged 87, in 1928, at the house he called Max Gate (originally Mack’s Gate, a tollhouse, not a Roman arch). His will stated he should be buried in the plot in Stinsford Churchyard, in company with his ancestors, alongside Emma, his turbulent first wife. His literary admirers claimed him for the nation, for Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Hardy’s bereaved second wife Florence was pressured into a decision that she never fully believed was the right one, the compromise of removing his heart for burial at Stinsford, and cremating the body for ceremonial interment at the Abbey, with every big-name writer present.
That’s the scenario that has attracted Damien Wilkins to add Max Gate to the recent wave of – what shall we call them? – author biofics? David Lodge and Colm Tóibín did Henry James, Julian Barnes did Conan Doyle, Alberto Manguel did Stevenson, Lodge tried again with H G Wells, and at home C K Stead and Patrick Evans fictionally refashioned Mansfield and the Sargeson-Frame ménage. Wilkins stands pretty well in this company. Clearly there is an appeal and a market, though the genre has implicit problems. The novelist may feel free to manipulate and invent, as Wilkins cheerfully admits he did, but readers who are only curious for celebrity details, and seek them from fiction rather than formal biography, will be too credulous, and not appreciate the ingenuity of the fabrications. Others who care about the truth may be incensed by unsympathetic interpretations that seem to claim some biographical validity, as Evans has been discovering.
Can these writers shrug away that responsibility? Have they chosen a genre that is basically an act of second-hand recycling? Is it name exploitation, positioning a novel in the market that wouldn’t find readers if it was about an invented author instead of a real-life celebrity? These professedly biographical re-tellings set up different expectations from the kind of roguish game that Somerset Maugham played with Hardy as Driffield (get it? dry field?) in Cakes and Ale, or A S Byatt’s godlike creation of her own Victorian poets in Possession. The bionovelists no doubt enjoy their metafictional conjuring with the facts, as Wilkins does with some relish and success. The risk is that for most readers the variations end up as an extra layer of slipperiness on the greased pig, to borrow Barnes’s image for biography in Flaubert’s Parrot.
Wilkins has done some homework and gets many things right. He also invents much and omits more. There’s a clunky unconvincing episode when Hardy’s body is lugged out of Max Gate in a blanket over the shoulder of the housemaid’s admirer, and carted away towards Stinsford. Much fuss is made about the amateurish excision of Hardy’s heart by the local doctor, when in fact it was responsibly done by a specialist surgeon, Dr F L Nash-Wortham. Yes, it was put in a biscuit tin, but there was nothing unusual about that, in an age before sterilised plastic wrap. Tins were used in hospitals. Wilkins sometimes plays straight about having changed the facts, for instance when he keeps the Hardys’ cantankerous dog Wessex alive an extra two years. Pedants like me, protective of the exquisite-comic valedictory poem that Hardy wrote in the voice of the dead dog, mutter that Wilkins has been listening to Geoffrey Rush’s dictum in Shakespeare in Love, that the way to popular success is to have a dog in it. Then Wilkins’s part-narrator, Nellie Titterington, the housemaid, disarmingly admits two pages from the end that her narrative has been “Wrong in so many details too, I realise now. The dog of course didn’t wait for his master to go first … What else from this night was wrong?” Which I suppose excuses every error and omission. There are no rules.
Still, I was troubled when at one point, apparently in the voice of Nellie, Wilkins drops in a three-line assessment of Florence Hardy, with “the large sad lacklustre eyes of a childless woman”. This is lifted word for word from Virginia Woolf, with no hint anywhere that any such source exists. There are many such tacit inter-textual tributes. England’s great storm of 1988 blows through the final pages, just as Byatt used it in Possession. So I accepted that this is collectable collage as fiction, and relaxed and enjoyed the scattered borrowings, especially from Hardy, some overt, many buried in Wilkins’s text (like a heart in a graveyard, perhaps).
I offer no apologies therefore for writing here about Hardy as much as Wilkins. That is the whole point of the genre he has chosen. Reading Max Gate, a short novel, took me a long time, because I kept doddering off to my Hardy shelves and getting engrossed. More engrossed, I have to say, than by Max Gate. It’s enjoyably crafted but doesn’t assert itself as a vitally independent creation, as Anthony Burgess did with his exuberant pastiche of Elizabethan prose in his Shakespeare biofic Nothing Like the Sun, or Barnes with his virtuoso parade of biographical modes in Flaubert’s Parrot.
Wilkins’s manner is quieter, the prose modestly pleasing. It’s a Kiwi outsider’s book, with no attempt at the rhythms and idiom of Dorset, apart from a few self-conscious dialect words. A novel that uses “stay right where you are” in its first sentence and “okay” more than once has no embarrassment about language that would have sounded conspicuously American in Dorset in 1928 (or 2013). Nor did I ever recognise or feel the varied land around Max Gate, where you can get the terrain of a different Hardy novel on your shoes in every direction.
In typically Kiwi way, Wilkins includes one unobtrusive reference to New Zealand, in a miscellaneous news paragraph from the Yorkshire Evening Post. Equally Kiwi, he chooses a semi-detached narrator, the housemaid who is both observer and also living her separate life. The real Ellen Titterington published two books about Max Gate (not mentioned), and did indeed have an illegitimate child of unknown paternity soon after Hardy’s death. Her role here gives a mini-Downton Abbey flavour to the small Max Gate society of family, friends, distinguished visitors, and servants (and a dog). There are good Nellie moments, like her affectionate squabbling with her mum, but she remains half-obscure, no opinionated Wuthering Heights Nelly, if that narratorial connection is intended.
So it makes an engaging late Hardy scrapbook, teasingly oblique in its rendition of Hardy himself, sometimes evocative. I liked the little Hardyish nature passages, the lists of “inhabitants of all the nests, burrows, holes, paths. The moths, the ants …”, though there isn’t ever quite the perfect phrase, as when in his poem “Afterwards” Hardy’s hedgehog “travels furtively over the lawn”. It’s suggestive, too, on the problem of discrepancy between a writer’s celebrity reputation and the personal reality. As biography, however, it’s fiction. If you want the real thing, read Michael Millgate. Best of all, read Hardy.
Talking of biographical fictions, I’ll end with the juiciest, a Dorchester legend that Wilkins includes though admitting it’s a rumour, the inspired anecdote that outhardies Hardy for wicked black-comic irony – the story that after his heart was so carefully excised and ready for the burial, the cat ate it.
Roger Robinson has written often about Thomas Hardy, including several essays in the Oxford Readers’ Companion to Hardy.