Book review: Winter, by Christopher Nicholson

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This novel about Hardy’s attraction to an actress playing one of his heroines intrigues Allan Massie

Somerset Maugham remarked somewhere that one of the tragedies or great pains of life was that one continued to feel sexual desire long after one was no longer sexually attractive. No doubt this is true, though it is also something to which most are able to reconcile themselves. In Christopher Nicholson’s novel, the 84-year-old Thomas Hardy is attracted to Gertie Bugler, a young married woman playing his heroine Tess of the D’Urbervilles in an amateur production of the dramatisation of his novel; he wants her to play the role in a London professional production. Florence, his second wife, is convinced that he is infatuated with Gertie, especially when she discovers some poems he has written to her, or about her, in one of which he contemplates the idea of an elopement; she is determined that Gertie should not play Tess in London.

This is the gist of what is a very fine and intelligent novel which is, among other things, a meditation on marriage, subject of so many of Hardy’s novels and much of his poetry. Deep down, Florence knows that she is wrong, but she cannot stifle her jealousy. This extends to her predecessor, Emma. Hardy had loved Emma dearly when they were young. They became estranged and the last years of their marriage were unhappy, both being tormented. Then, after her death, Hardy wrote some of his finest poems, elegies for the days when they were young and in love. For him, the loved object was always just out of reach. His love was, as it must be for many, a projection of his feeling on another who is as much imaginary as real. When he thinks of Gertie now, he is sure only of one thing: “that those philosophers who claimed that the passion of love was a matter that could be experienced in its fullness solely by the young, and in diminishing degree by those of more advanced years, were mistaken”.

There is an irony at the heart of his marriage with Florence. Believing, as he did, that life has no purpose, and that pain is more common than pleasure, he nevertheless finds it difficult to understand and respond to Florence’s evident unhappiness. Only at the very end, when she has successfully lied to him, does he experience, and display, sympathy. This invention, as I take it to be, of Nicholson’s is admirably true to the spirit of Hardy’s work. “But, whatever the truth,” he reflects, “it was impossible not to feel yet again that there was something terribly remiss about an institution that yoked two individuals for the rest of their lives. Monogamy was not a natural state for the human species, was his considered opinion. Love was a migratory phenomenon, not to be controlled by human laws, any more than a migratory bird might be controlled by borders or customs” Even the slight awkwardness of the phrasing is Hardyesque.

The novel is written partly from Hardy’s point of view, partly from Florence’s and partly (more briefly) from Gertie’s. The Hardy passages are in the third person, though we are admitted to his thoughts and feelings. Florence’s and Gertie’s are first-person narratives. The combination and shifting of the points of view work very well.

The Florence passages, and the picture that emerges of her, are especially good. She is self-absorbed and tiresome, as the unhappy tend to be. She feels unappreciated. Her marriage was perhaps a mistake, and yet it is her marriage and her status as Mrs Thomas Hardy, which gives her such consequence in the eyes of the world as she enjoys. She used to be a schoolteacher and often thinks with sympathy of the children of the poor. Her concern is sincere, yet also a way of thinking well of herself. Sometimes she thinks with longing and anticipation of the life she will have as a rich widow. Meanwhile, she acts as Hardy’s housekeeper and secretary, and writes drafts of the biography which is to be published after his death – drafts which he then revises, corrects and adds to. (It is well-known that her Life of Thomas Hardy was mostly written by him.) She is irritated because he will not agree to have the trees overhanging their garden cut back – even though she insists that there spores were responsible for the cancerous growth in her throat which she has recently had removed. “On the morning after his death,” she thinks as she lies awake at night, “I shall burn his old shawl and laugh at his first wife as I do so, and then I shall set a team of wood-men to work, and calmly watch as one tree after another crashes to the ground.” Nevertheless, in her way, she still loves the old man. Their chief bond is the dog Wessex, a terrier whom they both adore, but for whose love they jealously compete. As a portrait of a marriage, in which the affection between husband and wife is fraying on account of resentments based on incompatibility of sentiment and opinion, Nicholson’s novel rings disquietingly true. He catches the atmosphere of the rather gloomy house that Hardy built very well, and his sense of period generally rings true. There is tonly the occasional mistake. He calls T E Lawrence (a friend of the Hardys in real life as in the novel) “tall” whereas he was only about five foot four or five: perhaps he was – understandably – mixing him up with Peter O’Toole?