Michelle Huneven

Webpage of Michelle Huneven, novelist.  Author of Round Rock, Jamesland, Blame, and Off Course.

Heart and Bones

You can add Records Place and the Devon coast to the list of places we did not want to leave.  There is much more coastline to walk, not to mention Cornwall to the west. Still, we had a nice sendoff breakfast, with another couple, friends of Beryl and Malcom visiting from Manchester – with Beryl and Malcom alternately waiting on the four of us and joining the conversation circle.  

Ten days in, we had our first rain.  Jim found that the rain made the driving easier. The passing cars on the narrow, winding English roads slowed down almost to the speed limit.  Our plan was to visit two Thomas Hardy sites and two Jane Austen sites on our way to Midhurst, in West Sussex.  Two out of three ain’t bad.

Dorset County is Thomas Hardy country.  He lived much of life there and set many of his novels in fictionalized versions of towns in and around Dorset.  (Warning: the following gets wonkish.)

Our first stop was at Max Gate, the brick home designed by Hardy (he’d been trained as an architect) and built by his brother’s construction company.  We had seen old photographs of this stern, forbidding neo-gothic creation and were steeled to dislike it. But trees and shrubs have mitigated its starkness, time has softened the brickwork, and a lot of scaffolding and tarps covered the worst of it. (Ongoing repairs in progress).

BTW: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

            Hardy had written four novels and was already enjoying success and fame by the time he and his wife Emma moved into Max Gate in 1885. He went on to publish The Mayor of Casterbridge (1986) and write both Tess of the D’Ubervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895) in his study, his desk at a window looking out over the garden. But those last two novels met with so much disapprobation, he gave up writing fiction and devoted the next 30+ years of his life to poetry—or so said at least three of the Max Gate guides. Several were dismissive, too, about the novels, especially the dark and depressingJude the Obscure, and confided in Michelle that they preferred Hardy’s poems to his prose. Michelle tactfully disagreed.

Like many of the homes we’d visit on this trip, Max Gate’s contents had been sold off after his death, and then replaced later with simulacrums of what had been.Still, the care and attention given to the rooms is moving.The guides, too, are deeply steeped in Hardy lore, and they discuss his life and his books, as well as his women, with the ardor of great gossips. (In Hardy Country, and throughout our trip, we were awed by the commitment of England’s National Trust to preserving England’s literary, cultural and natural heritage. The Trust’s employees and many volunteers were unfailingly engaging and informed.)

Hardy was a small man, “runty” as a guide put it, but charismatic. And as he grew successful and worldly, his affections wandered. Over the last twenty years of their life in Max Gate, he and Emma grew increasingly estranged. In 1905 a young woman began appearing and made herself useful to both Thomas and Emma: Florence Dugdale, 39 years Hardy’s junior, became his secretary and helpmeet and her friend.

  Emma increasingly withdrew from daily life in the household and retired to what some biographers called “her third-floor suite,” where she sewed, painted, and wrote diaries.

            Well, we have now seen this “suite:” two tiny dark rooms with sloped ceilings and small windows. It’s hard not to imagine any female inhabiting them as the mad woman in the attic. 

            Emma died in 1912. Shortly—within days, probably--Hardy went for the first time up to her rooms and found a manuscript she’d written entitled “What I Think of My Husband.” He read it and burned it and then began a two-year binge writing love poems to and about her—the wife he’d so long ignored! Some say that Hardy’s greatest poems were those written during the two years of his wild, unanticipated, remorse-soaked grief.  

            “It was very hard time for Florence,” a guide remarked.

            Hardy married Florence in 1914.

            Max Gate is comfortable and unassuming inside—no grand ballrooms or anything like that.  Some easy chairs around the fireplace.  A conservatory.  A dining room where they entertained visitors that included H. G. Wells, T.E. Lawrence, the Prince of Wales, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, and Virginia Woolf.  Having famous company did not dissuade the Hardys from allowing their cat to jump on the dining table. We would never allow our cat on the dining table with company present.

            And we weren’t done with Hardy yet.  Leaving Max Gate, we drove a few miles to the cottage where Hardy was born and raised and wrote his first four books.  It was hard not to take a somewhat psychoanalytical interest in his case, moving as we did from a complicated adulthood into the family cauldron.

            The tiny cottage is also movingly, beautifully preserved, its rooms sparely furnished with bits and pieces of the family’s life—no doubt a far cry from what it was like filled with three generations—the grandmother, parents, and five children—when the writer lived there.

Hardy’s first memory is memorialized with a fake snake in a cradle beside his parents’ bed—where he was born. Hmmm. 

            And in his boyhood room, at a window overlooking the garden, sits the very same small table where he sat and wrote his four earliest books, culminating in The Return of the Native.

            A table and a window with a garden view: that much never changed for him. 

            We left Hardy and drove to Jane Austen’s burial site in Winchester Cathedral. Winchester dates back to Roman times and is close to Chawton, where Jane lived for the last eight years of her short life. She moved to Winchester to seek medical help in May of 1817, but could not be cured and died that July at the age of 41.  

            There was some kind of agricultural/job fair on the green right in front of the famous cathedral, and a calliope tootled raucously.

            In the cathedral, a guide promptly directed us past incongruous agricultural displays to Austen’s tomb. Seeing her black stone there on the floor of the cathedral as it’s been for the last 300 years is powerful and stirring.  In its entirety, the memorial consists of 1) of that original stone, which makes no mention of her writing (her bones now rest to one side of it—moved for plumbing), 2) a brass plaque installed by a nephew in 1872 that extolls her books, 3) a stained glass window erected in her honor that features St. Augustine, thought to somehow relate to the Austens, and 4) Small lightbox installations commemorating her life in Hampshire at Steventon and Chawton.

            Our new lodgings were some miles east, the Spread Eagle Hotel in the Sussex town of Midhurst.   The Spread Eagle began life in the 15th Century as a coaching inn, the kind of place we imagine where the posts carrying Anne Elliot, Fanny Price or Catherine Morland would have changed horses.  (Michelle took against the Spread Eagle for a framed ledger page hanging in the bar, featuring the signature of Ribbentrop and commemorating his and Goering’s dining at the hotel in 1939—Why memorialize THAT?)  Curiously, we were put in the Hillaire Belloc room in the oldest part of the hotel. (Belloc, a local, turns out to have been a prolific and contentious franco-english writer who was a reactionary catholic, anti-semite and an active vote against women’s suffrage. Jim began to see Michelle’s point. To be fair, the room directly beneath ours was named for one of Hilaire Belloc’s great adversaries, H.G. Wells.)  Our floors and walls were fully wonky, more wavy than flat—although the furniture was set to level. We were again graced with a sitting room separate from the bedroom.  Charming, although just walking across a room felt like being drunk. 

            In search of dinner, we met an older couple en route to the local Italian place; they had reservations, the place was full, so they invited us to sit with them at their four top. David and Jane. “I have to tell you right away,” said Jane, “that we are brother and sister.” (Michelle’s mind, of course, went straight to the marvelous Sylvia Townsend Warner story, “A Love Match.” Look it up!) David, a small businessman who disliked EU tariffs and regulations, was the first person we’d met who voted leave; Jane, with her more urban, worldly background, had voted stay. 

 We deemed further political discussion unwise, enjoyed our dinners, and parted friends.