HARDY WOMEN: MOTHER, SISTERS, WIVES, MUSES: Kevin Saving reviews Paula Byrne’s extensive examination of significant women in Thomas Hardy’s life


Hardy Women: Mother, Sisters, Wives, Muses
Paula Byrne 
William Collins
ISBN 978-0-00-832225-0
570pp         £25

There were, it transpires, a large number of hardy women: both “hardy” in the dictionary-sense of “robust; capable of enduring difficult conditions” and also those who shared their surname with the eminent writer, Thomas. Of the latter, five of true interest, emerge. They are two sisters (Mary and Kate), two wives (Emma and Florence) and the formidable, matriarchal, Jemima. This new study by Paula Byrne considers all of them.

Perhaps, though, we should begin with Hardy’s mother’s midwife, neighbour and friend, Lizzie Downton. It was this lady who, after Jemima’s protracted first labour (and an attending physician’s woeful mis-diagnosis) pointed out that there was life in the seemingly-inert newborn’s body. That same frail – so nearly “stillborn” – infant would somehow survive another eighty-seven-and-a-half years and, ultimately, be responsible for fourteen published novels, over forty short stories and almost one thousand separate poems. The first, still extant, of these (written when he was seventeen) concerns his paternal grandmother (another Mary Hardy) who also appears, thinly disguised, in Two on a Tower.

Although there were eventually to be four Hardy siblings, he was always closest to the next-eldest, Mary, born the following year. For a decade these were the only two children in the household and they shared games-play, similar temperaments and (quite likely – and commonly-enough) a bed. Jemima, an ex-maidservant, would stipulate to each of her children that they should never marry – an injunction which only her first-born (and favourite) would feel confident enough to ignore.

If an over-arching impression is to be taken away from this book it is that Thomas Hardy always had a flirtatious eye for pretty women – initially for those of his own familial working-class and then (after he had achieved middle-aged celebrity) for the more “liberated”, wealthier, possibly more aristocratic matrons in whose society he increasingly found himself. None of this identifies him as anything other than a typical, heterosexual male – though latterly one with enough wealth and fame to attract a certain type of platonic feminine attention. He may well have entered into a number of “engagements” when young (his cousin, Tryphena, and another – more shadowy – domestic servant, Eliza Nicholls, are persuasive candidates) but, always, he left them – usually amicably-enough – before placing the proverbial marital ring on their finger.

The wonderful work of the period 1865-’67, the sonnet-sequence “She to Him” and the desolating “Neutral tones” were written around the period of his break-up with (a possibly hyper-religious) Eliza. Byrne is quite correct in acknowledging the first stirrings of Hardy’s greatness as a writer in the poetry, not in the longer, fictional productions.

        Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame,
        That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
        Knowing me in my soul the very same-
        One who would die to spare you touch of ill!-
        Will you not grant to old affection's claim
       The hand of friendship down Life's sunless hill?
                                                                        (from "She to Him [I]", 1866)

Byrne has clearly read each of the novels and pays diligent attention to their author’s re-working of personal, biographical themes. She devotes a large section of Hardy Women to the fictive heroines and their resonances with the real women in his life. These are the book’s dullest, most-disappointing chapters. The novels, though wonderful in their way, are still Constructs – with moments of digressive, horribly-Victorian grandiloquence and clunky, unrealistic plot-twists. Additionally, Byrne’s own writing can be pedestrian. More than a few of her (and Hardy’s) women turn out to have been of scant literary or historical significance and she can occasionally be imprecise in her use of language (conflating “epidemic” and “pandemic” for example). Much of the narrative of Hardy’s two wives (his mother was probably correct in her matrimonial diktats!) is already sufficiently well-known. That all said, Byrne’s enthusiasm is infectious and the “back-stories” behind Tess of the D’Urbervilles (and some of the others) are worth the telling.

One lovely nugget (related in greater detail here than the version in Claire Tomalin’s, otherwise excellent, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man {2006}) is of his first wife, Emma’s, late fancy – two years before her own death – of her husband’s physical likeness to the infamous, wife-murdering Dr Crippen. There is, it can be confirmed, more than a passing resemblance between their respective photographs. Emma seems to have been seriously concerned that she might end-up, like Mrs Cora Crippen, gruesomely mouldering in her own cellar. Hardy’s correspondence with Mrs Florence Henniker – with whom he was undoubtedly, but unrequitedly, “infatuated” – reveals a slightly manipulative, even spiteful, side of his character. He was also, in many respects, more “enlightened” about female emancipation than were most of his bewhiskered coevals. Most of his acquaintances found the author to have been a gentle person: “patient” and “resigned” are two of the more-frequent epithets used. Then again, Emma’s maid (the teenaged “Dolly Gale”) recorded, many years later, that she “despised” him as a “wizen up little man” with “shift eyes”.

Hardy’s last words were to a woman (as they will be for so many of us). His sister-in-law, Eva Dugdale – who had nurse training – was assisting the second Mrs Hardy at the end. He appears to have called out “Eva, Eva, what is this?” – another unanswered question in a life so fraught with them.