Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press, 2013), 220 pp., $30.
The sub-genre of novels about Great Writers seems to be a growing one, but it is sometimes troubling. I find that such novels are always arguing a case about the Great Writer in question, and are implicitly asking readers to accept that case as authentic. Compare, for example, David Lodge’s Author! Author! (Henry James as likeable old buffer who wants a quiet life) with Colm Toibin’s The Master (Henry James as tragic proto-gay figure). Or look at C.K. Stead’s Mansfield and see what the guy wants KM to represent.
Novels about Great Writers also force reviewers to ask what their own views on the Great Writer are.
So what do I think of Thomas Hardy, given that he is (almost) at the centre of Damien Wilkins’ Max Gate? I remember once, to my shame, forcing Year 13 schoolboys, in two successive years, to study The Mayor of Casterbridge with me. I remember galloping through Tess of the D’Urbervilles and (much later) Jude the Obscure ahead of seeing movie versions of them (because I wanted to be able to write knowledgeable reviews of the movies). And I remember, purely for pleasure, reading The Return of the Native and some of Hardy’s short stories. But in all of them, I found plots which twisted characters towards tragic endings as artificially, and with as many improbable coincidences, as romance writers twist characters towards happy endings. There are genuine tragedians who build tragedy from character, and then there are writers who love to wallow in gloom for its own sake, like angry adolescents. Hardy, I concluded, was one of the latter. A pessimistic, gloomy old bugger who badly wanted God but could only see a big hole in the universe.
And yet what lush descriptions! What delightful melodrama! What woven (if improbable) plots! What memorable characters! What bucolic quaintness and customs and dialect! I liked him and deplored him in equal measure.
The laddish posing of Nick Hornby annoys me, but I find myself agreeing with Hornby’s view of Thomas Hardy, which he vented while reviewing Claire Tomalin’s biography of the man in 2010 (you’ll find it reprinted in the collection of Hornby’s Believer pieces called Stuff I’ve Been Reading, 2013):
Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of The Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding. When I was seventeen, the scene in Jude the Obscure where Jude’s children hang themselves “becos they are meny” provided much needed confirmation that adult life was going to be thrillingly, unimaginably, deliciously awful. Now I have too meny children myself, however, the appeal seems to have gone. I’m glad I have read Hardy’s novels and equally glad that I can go through the rest of my life without having to deal with his particular and peculiar gloom again.
A bit glib, maybe, but that’s approximately where I stand with Hardy too.
Okay, then, having squandered a third of this review not talking about the novel on hand, I have to ask – what’s the ‘case’ Damien Wilkins makes about Thomas Hardy in Max Gate?
Basically, Wilkins sees Hardy as self-absorbed, touchy about his public reputation and massively insensitive to the people around him. The dog Wessex and country bunny rabbits move his heart more than people do. He is an extreme version of the writer who is too consumed by his own fictions to be genuinely altruistic or charitable. And yet a Great Writer, withal. Perhaps enduring such egotism and conceit is the price we have to pay for Great Writers.
Plot: it’s 1928 and Thomas Hardy is on his deathbed at Max Gate, his Devon home. Literary bigwigs and vultures are gathering to see what they can pick up from his estate. Prominent among them is J.M. Barrie. The reporter from the local rag is also there, pumping one of the maidservants for information and hoping to get a scoop when the Great Man dies, so that he might build up his own career. Yes, it’s ironical that scribblers try to puff their own reputations in the humble world of local journalism as much as in the august world of literature.
Effectively head of the house is Hardy’s second wife, Florence, the secretary who married him shortly after his first wife, Emma, died. Florence is a sad and bitter woman. A degree of sexual frustration is involved (Florence is nearly 40 years younger than Hardy). More galling, however, is the fact that the octogenarian writer insists on writing love poems about his first wife and makes no acknowledgement of Florence at all in any of his work. If she hoped for some reflected literary glory in marrying him, Florence isn’t getting any. Worse, old Hardy dictates his autobiography to her in the third person, on the pretence that she is actually writing it. The aim is to protect his posthumous reputation by having his version trump any other biographies that might appear. His reputation comes before his commitment to his wife.
While this is the essential situation, it’s not the method.
Wilkins (whose end-note gives us the biographical sources he has plundered diligently) chooses to tell the story in the first-person as seen by the junior house-servant Nellie Titterington. There are some variations in the narrative voice (Nellie sometimes goes inexplicably omniscient), but essentially it means there’s a strong tinge of that Voltairean No man is a hero to his manservant approach. Mr and Mrs Hardy are seen in the context of their domestic routines and trivialities.
So, if Hardy is almost the centre of the novel, Nellie is really the centre. And some of her judgements can be tart. ‘I knew he was great, a great writer that is. Definitely he wasn’t a great man’, she says of Hardy. And on the same page (p. 46), speaking of Florence Hardy with her crush on the sickly J.M. Barrie, she characterises her as ‘married to a corpse and swooning over a bronchial eunuch’.
There is, however, a strong awareness of the class situation. Hardy wrote mainly about the peasantry and a country way of life that was well on the way to extinction even as he wrote. In his old age, he was seen as having recorded a dead world. But the domestic realities he took for granted were also dying ones – and they included being waited on by servants. As Nellie remarks, ‘The days of Service are coming to an end – we know it – but we must all pretend this is not the case, just as we must pretend there’s a chance Thomas Hardy will, any day now, sit up in his bed and feel better’ (p. 23). Much later, the class gulf is underlined when her narrative tells us that the mistress of the house confides a very personal anecdote to her on the assumption that it will remain secret ‘because I was nothing’ (p. 139). Servants don’t count.
The novel is bisected by the death of Thomas Hardy. Personally, I found the latter half more sympathetic because, having hitherto been seen mainly from the outside by Nellie Titterington, Florence Hardy is allowed to speak more freely in her own voice and we get a more nuanced portrait of her. Certainly she is angry, bitter, enamoured of J.M. Barrie in a foolish way and haughty to her servants. But we are also allowed to become more intimately acquainted with the long provocation she has suffered. And oddly, while she still resents her husband’s fixation on his first wife, Emma, she is able to see that in many respects Hardy treated Emma as offhandedly as he has treated her.
All of which brings me to one overwhelming question. Did Damien Wilkins expect us to read this novel in a spirit of sorrow or in a spirit of laughter? I confess that I laughed frequently, and I think I was meant to. The complicated scramblings over Hardy’s funeral are both funny and grotesque. The literati want him to have a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. The locals want to stick with his wish to be buried in the village churchyard. The ‘compromise’ that was reached strikes me as a perfectly reasonable one. There may be some people who think it was barbarous, but then I know how Catherine of Siena’s body was treated when she died, and I think the treatment of Hardy’s body was just as civilised.
In case I haven’t made it plain, I found this an absorbing, agreeable and entertaining novel, enjoyed Wilkins’ way with the regional words and am pleased to see that he can deflate pomposity with a plain tale.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland historian, poet, teacher and reviewer who holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. His works include the biography James Michael Liston, A Life (Victoria University Press 2006) and the poetry collection The Little Enemy (Steele Roberts, 2011). He has four times guest-edited Poetry New Zealand, and he runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.