When Thomas Hardy’s wife Emma died in 1912, she left behind the memories she had been writing of her life in Cornwall before her marriage, evoking her joy as a young woman riding over the cliffs of Beeny and St Juliot. She also left behind the numerous diaries she had kept during two decades of growing estrangement from a husband who seemed to have deserted her because of the reality separated from her novels. The heartbroken Thomas faced these documents in shock, finding in his pages both the young woman he had loved and a horrible image of her failed marriage. Out of the unexpected depths of his sorrow and remorse came his great elegy sequence, Poems of 1912-13.
With remarkable constancy and good judgment, Elizabeth Lowry enters the midst of this legendary literary maelstrom and opens a space for fiction. She lives in Max Gate House, the house that Hardy built in Dorset, in the days after Emma’s sudden death and before the poems gave lasting shape and voice to the woman lost in the Cornish hills. Was Hardy the jailer of an abandoned wife? Was Emma frustrated in her own writing? Why did everything go so wrong and the problem started with Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Slow and poignant, the novel pores over questions about the costs of art, refusing to shout out answers, letting many perspectives count each other.
The resistant diaries were, according to his second wife, “diabolical”. She burned them down: Emma’s own version of her life story caught fire. Lowry takes up the challenge of imaginative recreation. Here is Emma reinstated as the narrator of herself: persistent in her love, perceptive of her husband’s work, chronically rejected, finding no suitable companionship or purpose, and eventually feeling caged in an attic room, resentful and shunned by the man concerned about her. invented people in the study below. In 1896 she is already considered dead. “This is how we exist now: two people in her coffins, two ghosts, stacked on top of each other.”
The charges against Hardy are many and clear, but the novel itself is not an accusation; Lowry certainly isn’t about to write off Thomas Hardy. The Chosen is backed throughout by the enduring power of the poems, and takes us back to them. It carefully follows the stages of Hardy’s incipient grief and awakening desire, his attachment to and estrangement from his working-class family, his efforts to honor a restless mind, as well as the woman who stands solidly before him, who in the fall of 1912 is his mistress Florence Dugdale, waiting to become his wife.
This is Lowry’s third novel. The Bellini Madonna (2008), a densely plotted mystery with an engaging and unpleasant narrator, was followed in 2018 by Dark Water, finely crafted and hugely ambitious in its study of 19th-century psychology and its Melville shadow. These are all novels concerned with the attractions and dangers of great minds and the limits of understanding; they work with narrators who could be called, by Hardy, “who do not see themselves”; they offer biased and conflicting versions of history.
Lowry can form brilliant sentences when he wants to, as in The Bellini Madonna, but in The Chosen he chooses moderation. The writing draws us into quiet thought even as Emma silently screams in her prison or Hardy holds her corpse. The very moving tone will not allow all this to be tragedy, melodrama, farce or brilliantly remembered romance. Everyone at Max Gate has their own keen sense of the absurdities involved in dueling. The crowns laid for Emma are “chubby as life preservers” (but they don’t save anyone, they soon look deflated and just rain on them instead of being dumped on a flood). Reveries of the planets can be met with biting interruptions, either from Hardy himself or from his intelligent, capable and loyal sister Kate, one of the most memorably drawn figures in this composite portrait of Hardy and the people he loves. “Don’t go easy on me,” she says, shaking off the sentiment before it takes hold.
Wit can be touchingly smooth and suggestive. Thomas and Kate sit together in silence, she remembers how proud everyone at Higher Bockhampton farmhouse was when he was a schoolboy carrying his certificates across the fields. Lovingly, she encourages him to decline “table” in Latin. Mensae, message, messagethe beginning:
That’s the vocative, you know, mensa. It means ‘O table'”.
“Why would anyone want to address a table?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
They say no more, but we glimpse how the late poem The Little Old Table (“creaking, little wooden thing, creaking”) might stem from this moment of family closeness. And we see how different the use of the vocative will be in the lines of Hardy’s poetry than we sense below the surface of the novel: “Very missed woman, what do you call me, call me.”
Where the poems of 1912-13 intensify around single visions, wholly concentrated, The Chosen it works by looking around at everything that happens in the house. Max Gate is vividly realized in all its tree-shaded melancholy, gobbling up coal and effort, too big but grimly confined. There are fans at the door, the cake is cold, someone has to pay the grocery bills, the maid’s family would starve without her wages. Hardy is learning to notice all of this: the passions and struggles of these others who live around him, the hands-on work that makes his days of absorption possible. Unmoored as he is, adrift and a stranger to himself, he is thinking a lot about what he hasn’t noticed. “Too late, he sees everything.” He is changing it, perhaps, though there is no simple morality to draw from, and he must once again set out on his lonely journeys while someone else tends the fire.