Tait will present a talk on the wives of Thomas Hardy at the Sherborne
Literary Festival on the evening of 19 September 2012
FLORENCE Mistress of Max Gate
TAIT — Questions
1. You’ve said your love of Hardy’s writings was a primary reason why you left New Zealand for England. Do you recall your first encounter with Hardy and was the effect of his writings on you instantaneous or more gradual?
It was taking a first year English paper at university, a survey paper on the English novel that really set the train in motion. The effect was fairly instantaneous and I proceeded to devour all the novels - and, in turn, the short stories. The poems came later - minus 'The Dynasts' which had no appeal whatsoever.
2. Why Hardy in particular? What was it about his works - as opposed to those of his contemporaries such as Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes, George Gissing or Arnold Bennett - that proved so seductive and compelling?
It was Hardy’s universe that first caught my attention, that and the towns and countryside of the old Kingdom of Wessex. Looking back, place and time were important, as was the lurking presence of an omnipotent fate and the loss and regret that lurks in his novels. I loved the contradictory themes of love and death set in a pastoral idyll, the pantomime characters, his portrayal of women and especially his depiction of nature, notably the brooding Egdon Heath and the Dorset countryside. It was all oddly captivating.
At the same time, I rediscovered Dickens and read most of his canon as well as a number of other authors amongst whom Eliot and James stood out, but it was Hardy that seduced me to read everything of his and I think it was linked inextricably with my desire to go to England at the time.
3. When did you first conceive the idea of writing a novel about Florence Dugdale? Was that your original idea or did it come about as a result of osmosis? What drew you to her?
I had long thought of writing a series of books about author’s spouses, for no other reason than I was always fascinated by the writer and the idea that most were bastards. I was fascinated by some of the muses – Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse, for instance and the warring spouse, of which Caitlin Thomas is the pre-eminent example.
More specifically, though, it was rediscovering Hardy’s poetry in recent years that led to the crucial question (in my mind), of how she coped with the success of the poems of 1912-1913. The more biography I read (or I could include any books on Hardy), the more I wondered about this shadowy figure who was dismissed with a few asides or summarized in a number of gloomy adjectives and then put to one side. The poems and the failure of other writers to say anything about her by way of mitigation drew me in as counsel for the defence, even if I end up prosecuting her as well.
4. How long did the novel take to write? Did you try to establish a daily work pattern, or did you just write whenever you were able to take time from your already busy schedule as headmaster of Sherborne Prep?
I find I cannot write at all during the term; the days and weekends are subsumed by all else and even the evenings are lost to me. Partly this is because you need to get up a head of steam if you are writing and that is just not possible. I think I started the novel in the July – August of 2009 while also working on two other manuscripts although it was only when I returned to it with a little more intent in 2010 that I wrote the first rough draft. It is not a long book and flowed quite easily although I was conscious how rough it was at the time. In July, having first read the three opening chapters, followed by the rather unpolished remainder, the publisher intimated he would like to publish the book for Christmas, 2011. To do so, meant some ruthless editing and significant re-writing by the end of August which was duly accomplished with the book coming out on 7th November. It was quite a rush!
5. The narrative is broadly in three parts, with the second section a kind of flashback to Florence’s earlier life. Did you plan it like this from the outset, or did the novel just evolve in this way? What suggested this structure to you?
I wanted to start at a point of some moment and having made that decision, of beginning in a mid-point, it was inevitable that the story would have to travel both forwards and backwards. I was not conscious of deciding when to break and revert back to the beginning other than the story eventually reached a point of impasse where such a decision seemed to make itself.
6. We know of Somerset Maugham's supposed caricature of Hardy and Florence as Edward Driffield and his second wife Amy in Cakes and Ale, which you mention in the Aftermath in Florence, but that aside (and of course, Maugham later denied it in print), is your novel, to your knowledge, the first representations of Hardy and Florence in fiction?
To my knowledge, yes, although there is no doubt much fiction in their portrayal by some of the biographers. I am old and gnarled enough to question the dangerous, unspoken fiction that resides in biography whereas one could argue the novelist’s hands are clearly held in the air.
7. One of the important ‘props’, as you call them, in the novel, indeed the pivotal one, is ‘The Letter’ that Hardy gives to Florence on the eve of their marriage. Unfortunately for the biographer, but happily for the novelist, it hasn’t survived. What gave you the idea for this?
This was clearly a letter of some significance. The propensity of Thomas and Florence for burning their letters and diaries and anything that might detract from the self-image they wanted to leave behind made it unusual for this letter to be held onto. It always seemed to have significance in their lives.
8. You don’t flinch from portraying Hardy, for all his obvious charm and generosity at times, as being somewhat cantankerous and self-centred - what we might today call a ‘control freak’. ‘The Letter’ bears this out to some degree. Did you intend this from the outset or did the character take on a life of its own as you proceeded?
It was not deliberate, but it was the picture I sub-consciously gleaned of Thomas Hardy, from reading him and reading about him. It was the sum of all the impressions I had of him from his books, poems, photos, habits, life and letters. No doubt biographers will say I have been unfair, but this is how he was in my mind’s eye. I felt I knew him before I started and didn’t have to try to ‘create’ the character as someone else.
9. Among the many intriguing relationships you delineate in the novel is that between Florence and Hardy’s first wife Emma Gifford. How much of your portrayal is based on evidence and how much on your own invention?
I think it is reasonably accurate in terms of biography (and I did try to weave the fiction upon a skein of fact). A lot of their letters were destroyed, but I feel my view is consistent with that of others, including the major biographers. It was an area I could have explored further.
10. Likewise with Florence’s tense and inimical relations with Lilian Gifford and her romantically suggestive relationship with Hardy’s doomed cousin Frank George. How much of this is pure fiction and how much based in fact?
Lilian was mad (she was later committed) and a major irritant to Florence who feared her presence and sanity (it has been said that one of least credible parts of the book was Florence buying a handgun for protection except it was true). She was a nemesis for Florence and a manipulative woman .
Both Thomas and Florence were inordinately fond of Frank, but there is no evidence of anything more than a fond friendship - a liberty taken here, but not completely out of character.
11. Max Gate itself is obviously the setting for many important scenes in the novel. How closely is your depiction of it - the descriptions of the rooms and the atmospheres they evoke - based on the real house? Did the house itself influence you in any way?
The house had a presence in the writing and becomes part-character in the book as does its gloomy and ponderous setting. The scenes of Emma’s room, for instance, and the drawing room are based on my observations of the house with the furnishings being assisted by old photos. The atmosphere remains and I wrote it as it seemed to me.
12. Novels often change in the process of composition from the author’s original intentions. How difficult was it to keep your characters under control, as it were? Did you have a firm idea of how you wanted them to be when you began?
I had a clear idea of the relationship, but did not have a linear route planned for either Florence or Thomas. Florence, in particular, had some room to roam and roam she did, especially when away from Max Gate whereas Thomas, not unnaturally given his age, was easy to manage.
13. To extend that question - Were you yourself surprised by the novel when you had finished it? Was the finished product as you had imagined it would be when you began?
I am not sure that I had imagined finishing it where I did, it just seemed that somewhere mid-way through the War there was a resolution of sorts, a Versailles moment which was significant. The novel could have gone on, but it would have become more diluted as each year passed. Hardy’s infatuation with Gertrude Bugler was probably the next tipping point, but that was some way ahead and by that time, the marriage had established its momentum based on a tacit understanding and so rode out the storm.
14. If you could meet Hardy, what questions would you ask him?
Difficult but being curious, I would delve into the relationship with Florence and his other women and possibly his preference for poetry. He would not be a favourite dinner guest. Some writers are more interesting than their work – not Thomas.
15. And if you could meet Florence? You ask in the Preamble to the novel why she put up with the humiliation that Hardy’s behaviour caused her, specifically the publication of Satires of Circumstance. Do you think she might have an answer that you don’t attempt to cover in the novel?
She might well do so. She might even say she loved him and that was enough (I wouldn’t necessarily believe her). I think she liked the idea of being Mrs Thomas Hardy and said as much, although she felt she never supplanted Emma in that role. She was insecure and Thomas was a bully, but by the time she realized quite how controlling he could be, it was too late and as with Thomas, divorce was never an option. Hence, the need to rationalize their relationship and establish a workable modus operandi.
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