A year-long diary set in LONDON
Talking Location With Elizabeth Lowry – CORNWALL and DORSET
23rd April 2022
TalkingLocationWith.... Elizabeth Lowry, author of The Chosen – Cornwall and Dorset, England
The Chosen, my novel about Thomas Hardy’s fraught marriage to his first wife, Emma, opens in Dorset in 1912. For twenty years Em and Tom, now in their 70s, have been living in virtual isolation from each other at Max Gate, the large house on the outskirts of Dorchester which he built for her. Once Em was intensely involved in his work, acting as his copyist and daily support; not least in the writing of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the novel that made his name. But their marriage has long since soured, to the point where they occupy separate rooms and no longer speak. And then quite unexpectedly, one November morning, Emma dies.
In the days that follow Hardy, still stunned by this sudden loss, discovers a cache of diaries that she had secretly kept about their life together, ominously titled ‘What I Think of My Husband’. He’s thrown into utter confusion and must start re-evaluating his entire marriage – and himself. How did it all go so wrong? Answering this question took me on a journey through Dorset and Cornwall from 1870 to 1912 as I tried to plumb the mysterious spaces between man and wife; memory and grief; life and art.
The love story between Thomas and Emma properly begins in the hamlet of St Juliot, near Boscastle. While working as an architect, Hardy (then aged 29) was sent here in March 1870 to make plans for the restoration of the local church. When he arrived he was met at the rectory door by the rector’s pretty, high-spirited sister-in-law. This was his first sight of Emma. Within a week they had fallen in love. Emma would encourage Tom to pursue his dream of abandoning architecture in order to become a writer, defying her family to marry him, as he did his to marry her. The rectory is now an atmospheric B&B where you can stay in ‘Emma’s room’ overlooking the garden, or in ‘Mr Hardy’s room’, with a view of the church.
From St Juliot we travel across counties to the even tinier hamlet of Higher Bockhampton, three miles north-east of Dorchester, in Dorset. Hardy was born here, in a cob-and-lime cottage (today known as Hardy’s Cottage and run by the National Trust) at the edge of the heath. Surrounded by woodland, with its overhanging thatch and apple orchard, it still conjures the isolated rural life that inspired his novels. He wrote his first four published books at a small table under the window of his boyhood bedroom, and only finally left the cottage to marry Emma in 1874.
A short detour to the Blackmore Vale area of Dorset takes us to Sturminster Newton. The newly married Thomas and Emma spent two ‘idyllic’ years together in this small market town. They rented a semi-detached house, Riverside Villa, overlooking the River Stour, where Emma often wrote to Tom’s dictation. The house is privately owned – look for the blue plaque – but you can follow in Hardy’s footsteps by taking his daily walk along the riverbank to the iron footbridge, and back towards the old mill.
In 1885 Tom and Em moved into Max Gate on the edge of Dorchester. Designed by Hardy, the red-brick villa stood on a substantial plot of land, with a garden in which they planted beech and apple trees, a nut walk and a border of pines. As Hardy’s writing career took off, though, and he became more and more absorbed in his professional life, husband and wife started to live separate lives under the same roof. Hardy later extended the house (also administered by the National Trust: allow plenty of time to linger in its many rooms, and drink tea in the kitchen), adding a separate set of attics above a large study he’d designed for himself. By 1899 Emma had moved her bed into the attic. They rarely met, eating dinner together every night, but otherwise not speaking.
Emma’s death triggered a period of devastation for Hardy that would result in his writing some of the greatest love poems in English to her, the ‘Poems of 1912-13’. Our last stop is St Michael’s Church in nearby Stinsford, where you can visit the tomb which Hardy designed for Emma, under the old yew tree near the church-hatch. He remarried in 1914, but his second wife, Florence, was regularly called on to visit Emma’s grave with him. When Hardy died in 1928, Florence had to make a painful decision: to honour her celebrated husband’s last wish to be buried in Stinsford, or to agree to have him interred in Westminster Abbey? In the end his ashes went to Poet’s Corner – but fittingly his heart is buried here, with Emma.
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