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.

Much of this despondency seems to have arisen from the childlessness that so troubled both the Hardys. ‘I do love children, greatly, even poor people’s lacking breeding etc,’ Emma observed charitably. Without the prospect of children or a career, she had no function other than that of maintaining the lugubrious routines of Max Gate. Hardy grew increasingly interested in younger women – more beautiful, better educated and of a higher social class. Some (such as Agnes Grove and Florence Henniker) were also published authors. In a pathetic effort to keep up, Emma resurrected her own earlier attempts at fiction, and began to produce some new stories and poems. She was especially hopeful about a tale called ‘The Inspirer’, about a wife who is the real inspiration for her husband’s successful fiction. Grievance and self-vindication were not sufficient to guarantee public success, however, though the weight of the Hardy name meant that one or two pieces did find their way into print.

Emma’s hostility to male assumptions of power made her an eager participant in work for women’s suffrage. ‘The time is ripe, women are capable, and their demands of momentous interest and importance,’ she roundly declared. Later she grew alarmed by the violence of the more aggressive members of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, and hastily withdrew. She escaped from Max Gate when she could, once daring to stay alone in Calais for several days. Millgate prints two brief postcards she sent Hardy from her hotel, her only surviving messages to him. ‘Just come to Calais straight from London because the channel very smooth I found on arriving at Dover.’ As a gesture of defiance, it hardly amounted to full-scale revolt. In her later years, animals seemed to have provided what affection was left in her bitter and diminished life. One of the saddest in the modest assortment of letters she left behind is a defence of the housefly, addressed to the Dorset County Chronicle: ‘Consider the careful brushing of head, legs and wings in a most curiously diligent manner by these little creatures. It must be remembered that minuteness of organism does not prevent agony, that size is of no account in the scheme of creation.’

Florence Hardy’s letters make up much the larger part of this collection. The secretarial help she began to give Hardy after their meeting in 1905 eventually extended to typing his wife’s fiction, and a number of her letters to Emma survive. She was evidently determined not to make an enemy of the touchy and eccentric woman. Her letters are resolutely friendly, sometimes ingratiating. ‘I fancy though that your great triumph will be with “The Inspirer”.’ The contrast between their deferential tone and what she was writing elsewhere makes uncomfortable reading. She joked with Edward Clodd:

Mrs Hardy seems to be queerer than ever. She has just asked me whether I have noticed how extremely like Crippen Mr T.H. is, in personal appearance. She added darkly that she would not be surprised to find herself in the cellar one morning. All this in deadly seriousness. I thought it was time to depart or she would be asking me if I didn’t think I resembled Miss Le Neve. Her latest idea is to go abroad for some months, because that would ‘have a good effect on T.H.’ I thought it might be an experiment worth trying until she told me that she wanted me to go with her.

At least Florence could see the absurdity of the situation (‘The “Max Gate ménage” always does wear an aspect of comedy to me’). Nor was she blind to Hardy’s role:

Mr T.H. has been in the depths of despair at the death of a pet cat. ‘Providence’ he wrote, ‘has dealt me an entirely gratuitous & unlooked for blow.’ But his last letter shows that he is very pleasurably excited over the forthcoming play: ‘Mellstock Choir’ & he is also finding a melancholy pleasure in writing an appropriate inscription for ‘Kitsey’s’ headstone, so that Providence has not done all the harm it intended, this time.

But Florence’s own position was not funny. The second of a junior school headmaster’s five daughters, she was poor, unmarried, in her thirties and finding it hard to earn her own living. She had tried teaching and failed, discovered that she was not cut out for journalism (‘the most degrading work anybody could take up’), and was struggling to make her way as a companion, secretary or literary drudge (The Book of Baby Beasts is more or less representative of her output at the time). Hardy’s attention and admiration must have seemed the entry into another world, more secure and glamorous than anything she could have hoped for.

After Emma’s death in 1912, Florence found Hardy’s abundant remorse exasperating.

I must say that the good lady’s virtues are beginning to weigh heavily on my shoulders. I had three pages of them this morning. Chief among the virtues now seems to rank her strict Evangelical views – her religious tendencies, her humanitarianism (to cats I suppose he means) ... I feel as if I can hardly keep back my true opinion much longer.

She must have managed to hold her tongue. On 10 February 1914, hardly more than a year after becoming a widower, Hardy made Florence his second wife. The marriage was, from the first, primarily a working arrangement. Florence was 35, and would never again have to worry about making ends meet. Hardy was 73, and in increasing need of his new wife’s practical support. There was no question of a love match. Nevertheless, Florence must have found it painful to read the extraordinary poems Hardy was writing in memory of Emma. Her letters soon begin to cloud with dejection. Like Emma, she was to be childless. Lacking Emma’s spiky feminism – she believed that women were ‘only strong when they realise their weakness and dependence on men’ – her sense of loss was deepened by her conviction that motherhood was a woman’s highest destiny. Writing to Sydney Cockerell, father of three, in 1915, she thanks him for a photograph of his children: ‘I am so pleased to have it, though it fills me with envy. What would I not give to have one – any one of the three – for my own.’ Years later, an extraordinary letter to Marie Stopes shows how deeply this longing was embedded in Florence’s nature, and how hard she found it to renounce it.

I find on talking to him that the idea of my having a child at his age fills him with terror. He is far more nervous and highly strung than appears to anyone outside the household ... He said he would have welcomed a child when we married first, ten years ago, but now it would kill him with anxiety to have to father one.

Florence was 44 years old when she wrote that, and her husband was 83.

Fortunately, she worked harder than Emma, and had less time to fret. She refused to give up writing and reviewing fiction, much to Hardy’s displeasure. Her labours as secretary and research assistant were indefatigable, and it is clear that Hardy would not have managed to write the Life that later appeared under Florence’s name without her organising hand. She coped, forlornly, with Hardy’s continuing infatuations with other women – notably the comely actress Gertrude Bugler, sixty years younger than her husband. She was an efficient housekeeper, complaining of the old-fashioned inconveniences of Max Gate. ‘We have no boilers, no gas, we use oil-lamps & candles for lighting, & have no bathroom even. I expect this is the only house of this size in Dorchester without. And we are not connected with the main drainage either.’ Such limited facilities were a source of consternation when the Prince of Wales came to lunch in 1923: ‘And he will want to wash his hands – etc – here which is terrible. You know what our house is like.’ In fact the heir to the throne was found to be remarkably in tune with the household – ‘I think his face is absolutely miserable.’ He ate a hearty meal, asking for ‘a second helping of ham’. Despite Hardy’s reluctance to introduce change, modern life gradually encroached. The wireless arrived, and was greatly enjoyed. The dog especially loved it. A telephone was installed. ‘We have had several calls from London lately, all wonderfully clear.’ Car journeys became more frequent. Though Florence often recorded and regretted Hardy’s distaste for society (‘he feels that he never wants to go anywhere or to see anyone again’), her letters show that friendships were, against the odds, begun and sustained. Their shared liking for new writing did much to lighten the gloom. Siegfried Sassoon and T.E. Lawrence became valued friends. There were many literary callers – Edmund Blunden, E.M. Forster, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, John Drink water – and Florence took an eager interest in their conversation. Quick to forget her own afflictions when she sensed greater distress, she did all she could to help Charlotte Mew, whom she pitied and admired. ‘What a pathetic little creature! She has genius, I think.’ Though Hardy’s needs absorbed more of her energies as he grew older, Florence resisted his attempts to occupy her whole life. She was proud of what she could do for herself. In 1926 she defied his wishes by accepting election to the Borough Licensing Committee – ‘the first woman who has ever been on that committee for Dorchester, or Dorset I think. I am sorry T.H. does not care for my taking up this work, but it is a real recreation to me, & takes up very little time.’

No such rebellion could change the fact that loyalty to Hardy was the dominant motive of Florence’s life. His death in January 1928, at 87, was a calamity from which she could not recover. ‘Life seems absolutely at an end for me.’ The later letters (she died in 1937, aged 58) are largely taken up with the publication of the biography, the future of Max Gate, worries over manuscripts and monuments. They have a sadly posthumous feel. Florence’s fragile self-respect often crumbled in widowhood. She fabricated a curious emulation of Hardy’s response to Emma’s death, feeling that she had let him down: ‘I have to suffer remorse, almost beyond expression, because I know I failed him at every turn.’ In reality, Hardy and his readers owe both women an incalculable debt.