Thomas Hardy’s last love.
In the winter of 1924, Hardy, 84, is living with his 45-year-old wife, Florence, and beloved dog, Wessex, in Dorchester. Their house has no electricity, and only with great difficulty has Florence managed to convince her husband to install a telephone. He feared, he said, that operators could listen in on their conversations. He refuses to have a car, although Florence offered to learn to drive. “He doesn’t like anything new,” Florence complains; “he would like the world to be as it was in eighteen fifty!” He is content to be isolated, in fact prefers it: Florence answers all his mail, declining interviews and invitations, while he retires to his chilly study and writes poetry. With tenderness and sympathy, Nicholson (The Elephant Keeper, 2009, etc.) imagines the writer’s reclusive final years and the brief glimmer of passion that enlivened them. A local acting troupe, mounting a play based on Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, has cast the lovely young Gertie Bugler in the title role. Hardy, who has long been following her career, is irresistibly attracted. Each man, he believes, has “an ideal though unattainable female spirit” that “moves freely from one woman to another"; that spirit, for him, resides in Gertie. When Florence sees poems apparently celebrating this new love, she falls apart. Like his deceased first wife, Hardy observes, Florence “read a poem as if it was a scientific tract” to be interpreted literally; he, though, recognizes that the woman he addresses is a “shape veiled by shadow or mist”: like his fictional heroines, she is a figment of his imagination—but, nonetheless, a powerful inspiration. Florence’s jealousy and despair propel the plot, but this fine novel reveals more than marital tensions: Hardy’s story becomes a meditation on love, regret, and an elusive yearning for happiness.
Elegant, lyrical, and absorbing.