This beautifully written novel about a few weeks in the life of the author Thomas Hardy is a work of fiction based on fact. The story itself concerns Hardy, his second wife, Florence, and an amateur actress, Gertrude Bugler; the background is Dorset; and the season is winter. The style itself is reminiscent of Hardy's own books.
During a cold, bleak winter in the mid-twenties, Hardy, eighty-four, is coming to terms with his approaching death; Florence, almost forty years younger, is wallowing in a sea of neurotic self-pity; while Gertrude, twenty-six, happily married with a small baby, is looking forward to playing the leading role in a London production of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The construction of the book moves between the thoughts, dreams and anxieties of each of these three characters - Hardy (in the third person) and Florence and Gertrude (in the first person).
Hardy is captivated by Gertrude, who is a flawless representation of the character of Tess as he has always imagined her. He may regret the age difference, but he completely accepts Shelley's theory of the ideal woman and how, during one's life, this woman can reappear in numerous guises. Hardy is not necessarily in love with the physical Gertrude but more with the essence of the girl - an essence that he has experienced many times (if sometimes fleetingly).
Florence, however, is too focused on her wasted and miserable life to even begin to understand her husband's fascination. Instead she complains about trees and cold and interminable damp and instigates the tragic climax of the story.
This is a wonderful book and, especially for fans of Thomas Hardy, is a definite must-read.
Photo of Hardy and Florence from The New York Times.
Photo of Christopher Nicholson from Amazon UK