Defence of the Housefly

Dinah Birch

  • Letters of Emma and Florence Hardy edited by Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 364 pp, £45.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 19 818609 6

Hardy’s wives were not inclined to be reticent about the trials of life at Max Gate. Florence was struck with uneasiness after one particularly edgy bout of discontent: ‘I hope you burn my letters. Some are, I fear, most horribly indiscreet.’ But her husband was by then the most famous literary man of his age, and Florence’s letters were not for burning. They might, after all, be worth something. Neither Emma nor Florence could come to terms with having the value of their lives measured by that of their husband. It is hard to know whether the first or second Mrs Hardy had the more doleful time. Emma is more mysterious. Already 33 when she married Hardy in 1874, she was a mature woman with decided opinions and a strong sense of self-esteem committing herself to a shy but ambitious novelist. Oddly, not one of the letters she wrote before her marriage, or for many years after it, has survived. She would have been far from pleased with Michael Millgate’s speculations on their disappearance. ‘In her later years she was often regarded as a faintly ludicrous figure, and in her earlier years her status as Miss Emma Gifford or even as Mrs Thomas Hardy might well have been insufficient to ensure that her letters would be kept and treasured.’ It was Emma herself who seems to have destroyed her early letters to her husband. Just two poignant scraps remain, transcribed by Hardy. In 1870, only months after they met, she wrote to him: ‘I take him (the reserved man) as I do the Bible; find out what I can, compare one text with another, & believe the rest in a lump of simple faith.’ Perhaps Emma was hurt to see such trusting intimacy transformed into grist for a literary mill. A revised version of what she had written appears in A Pair of Blue Eyes, published the year before her marriage to Hardy.

The earliest letters preserved in her own hand date from the 1890s, when Emma was a middle-aged woman unhappily installed amid the gloomy respectabilities of Max Gate. Disillusionment had long since clogged the marital atmosphere. In 1897, she explained with her usual directness why she had come to dislike authors: ‘I get irritated at their pride of intellect.’ She had plenty of that herself, but her disjointed and unformed letters are a constant reminder that she did not have the education to go with it. In 1899, the newly married Elspeth Grahame rashly asked Emma for advice on being a writer’s wife. She must have been taken aback by Emma’s reply.

Love interest – adoration, & all that kind of thing is usually a failure – complete – some one comes by & upsets your pail of milk in the end. If he belongs to the public in any way, years of devotion count for nothing. Influence can seldom be retained as years go by, and hundreds of wives go through a phase of disillusion – it is really a pity to have any ideals in the first place.

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