Mistress of Max Gate
by PETER TAIT
by PETER TAIT
From the moment she first met Thomas Hardy in 1905, having written him an admiring letter, Florence Dugdale seemed destined for controversy. Her presence at Max Gate, both before and after the death of his first wife Emma, and her clandestine courtship with a man nearly forty years her senior sparked suspicion among the locals and scorn from the Gifford family. She had wanted to be a writer herself, but was drawn into Hardy’s life as his ‘secretary’ and companion, and within a year of their own marriage was humiliated by his publication of poems commemorating the late Emma and his painful relationship with her.
Yet in the posthumous biography of her husband that bore her name she would tell the ‘truth’ and at last achieve the acclaim she sought – or so she had imagined, until that fiction too began to unravel. After fourteen years of marriage, and despite her own gifts and her life thereafter, her fate was to be remembered by her obituary tag in a national newspaper – ‘helpmate to genius’. Her love life stunted, her literary ambitions thwarted, disowned by the Stoker family and satirized by Somerset Maugham – Florence’s lot was an unenviable one. Why did she put up with it all?
In his compelling recreation of Florence’s life, Peter Tait tells of a letter, one that Hardy had written to her on the eve of their wedding, which she kept until her death, when, under instructions, it was destroyed … ‘And with it died part of the secret, the secret that helped explain Florence. For, as Thomas found out to his cost, there was more to Florence than was evident from their first meeting. And so began their trail of deceptions, first of Emma, then of their friends and, finally, of us all.’
Price: £16.50 Hardback ISBN-13: 978-1-908274-08-3 Book Dimensions: 201 x 148 mm Publication date: 07 November 2011
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Peter Tait delivered a talk at this year’s Thomas Hardy Society Conference 2012
afterwards signing copies of 'FLORENCE Mistress of Max Gate'.
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Poor Florence. When she died the best she could do by way of an epitaph was that of 'helpmate of genius'. Her life had always been measured in relationship to that of her famous husband for whom, as she lamented, she was neither muse nor (as she complained to Siegfried Sassoon), the first-called. The only man she truly loved, so we are told, died when she was only thirty two. Throughout her friendship, courtship and marriage with Thomas, she was subjected to the taunts and animosity of the Gifford family and their coterie of servants, and the townsfolk of Dorchester suspicious of the nature of her relationship with their favoured son. When they eventually married, within the year she felt betrayed by her husband's public declaration of affection for his late wife. Dull, gloomy, dreary, neurotic, these were the epithets used to describe her. Why did she endure it? And continue to endure it. There was a letter. It was one Thomas had written to Florence on the eve of their wedding in 1914 after he had read the diaries. It remained with Florence until her death when, under instructions, it was burnt by her sister, Margaret. And with it died the part of the secret, the secret that helped explain Florence. For, as Thomas found out to his cost, there was more to Florence than was evident from their first meeting and began their trail of deceptions, first of Emma, then of their friends and, finally, of us all.
The novel opens with Florence Dugdale hearing the news of the death of Emma Hardy in November 1912. For the next seven chapters, the storyline focuses on the relationship between Florence and Thomas Hardy as it evolves over four tumultuous years including the major events of their lives, most notably their marriage on 10 February 1914, the publication of his elegiac sequence to Emma in November 1914 and their life at Max Gate during the early years of the First World War.
By 1916, when the relationship had reached an impasse, the story jumps back to 1905 and for the next seven chapters (Chapter 8 - 14) traces the life of Florence Dugdale throughout the time from when she first made the acquaintance of Thomas Hardy in 1905 until the death of Emma. In these chapters, Florence's relationships with two other men, Alfred Hyatt and Sir Thornley Stoker are inter-woven into the story alongside her relationship with Hardy.
The final three chapters focus on the state of the marriage in 1916 and events that allow for a truce of sorts - perhaps the closest Florence was ever to get to real happiness in the course of her marriage.
While the book is based on the chronology of events dating from 1905 - 1916, the story concentrates on the complex relationship between Florence and Thomas and, in particular, the psychological make-up of Florence, her attitudes, feelings and personality. In the course of the novel, a number of major and minor characters are introduced who influence the lives of Thomas and Florence, both singularly and collectively. The novel concludes at a time when there are still twelve years of married life ahead, but with the compact in place. Childless, often alone and isolated, her lot was not a happy one, yet she was resolute and determined in asserting her own ambitions, resisting the role that Hardy and others had apportioned to her as a "helpmate to genius.'
An excerpt from Chapter Two
ALL’S PAST AMEND
Florence need not have worried. As soon as the funeral was over, a letter arrived from Tom urging her to come back to Max Gate. She took little time in agreeing that she would do so, quickly packing her suitcase and making the necessary arrangements. It was early December and the journey to Dorchester was not straightforward, involving as it did two changes of train, first at Woking and then at Chichester. But when eventually she arrived at the station, he was there waiting for her. A cold wind was coming from the north-east and a damp fog was starting to settle in the air and he had, most sensibly she thought, wrapped himself in a long overcoat with a fawn tartan scarf wrapped tightly twice about his scraggy neck. She saw as she alighted that he was wearing his black hat that rode high on his temples, covering his thinning hair, with the effect – no doubt desired – of making him look taller than he was. She smiled inwardly at his vanity, and how his head was more like that of a petulant bird and how much older he seemed to be than she remembered. Death, even a welcome one, must age one, she thought. It was not an unkind observation although she knew she was not beyond harbouring ill-feeling, but only what she earnestly believed to be so.
‘Tom,’ she said. ‘You could have sent someone else.’
‘My dear,’ he answered holding both her hands, ‘I would not allow anyone else this privilege.’ He smiled weakly. ‘It is so kind of you to come to help an old man in his time of need.’
She looked at him. His hooded greenish-black eyes were dull, vulnerable, set, it seemed, deeper into his face than she remembered; his head appeared to have shrunk so that the skin that once fitted comfortably no longer did so, settling instead in loose folds around his jowls. He appeared limp and tired, in need of being looked after.
Much of the journey back to Max Gate was
silence although he held her hand tightly. Only as they neared the
house did he
tell her that Emma’s family had been meddling and that his sister Kate
Emma’s spinster niece Lilian Gifford were encamped inside, and that he
being driven to distraction by their constant interference and was
more fearful of the arrangements that they had in store for him. Grief,
was anywhere near the surface, was eclipsed by the impending domestic
and all the arrangements that had to be sorted out. He was irritable,
how to cope despite having ostensibly done so for so long. Emma had
hindrance, an impediment to his writing, and now he had someone who
the process of writing, who would work for him, not against him,
would allow him one last great hurrah, one final flourish, for at
years of age he felt it tempting the Immortals to plan too far ahead.
Back, Spine, inner flaps & Front cover of FLORENCE
From the FLORENCE Book Launch 05 Nov 2011 (more images here)
A Hardy way of life
PDF of a brief review in The Bournemouth Echo (23 Dec 2011). Click here to open.
Peter Tait was a guest speaker at the SHERBORNE LITERARY FESTIVAL (18 - 21 October 2012)
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