The final days of novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, as related by his wry, perceptive housemaid.
Hardy is dying at Max Gate, his house in Dorset, and the people around him are trying to maintain his comfort while planning the curation of his public image. The goings-on are narrated by shrewd housemaid Nellie Titterington, a deliciously Hardy-esque name which author Wilkins (Somebody Loves Us All, 2010, etc.) notes in an afterword he discovered during his research. Hardy, “adored by the nation,” is less beloved than merely catered to at home, attended by his literary executor Sydney Cockerell, friend Sir James Barrie, and much younger secretary-turned–second-wife Florence. It's 1928, and it isn't only Hardy that's passing on, but also his Victorian morals, his style of novel, and his way of pigeonholing women—one of whom, his first wife, Emma, fared better as a dead muse than a living spouse. “Did he know just a single female—his mother or sisters, or some little girl from his childhood?” wonders Nellie. “We are just shapes to fill in a jigsaw.” Nellie leaps backward to relate her brief dalliance with a local reporter who romanced her only to dig for information on the great man and forward to hint at a future life of domestic contentment and even, ingeniously, into the head of the unhappy lady of the house, Florence, in tour-de-force stream-of-consciousness sections in which Nellie briefly imagines the world from her perspective. In the voices of unforgettable, feisty Nellie and forlorn, forbearing Florence, Wilkins tells more than the story at hand, raising questions as to whose voice is granted authority in a narrative and how a legend is remembered.
The death of a literary giant liberates a marginalized member of his household into claiming her destiny in her own unique, dazzling words.