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The Chosen: Who pays the price of a writer’s fame? by Elizabeth Lowry

25 November 2022

Jessica Ballantine finds more about Hardy from his first wife, Emma

WHEN Thomas Hardy’s wife, Emma, died in 1912, the couple were already long estranged — a fact detailed by Emma herself in a series of diaries (later destroyed). After her death, Hardy was apparently freed from an unloving marriage, and able to marry his lover, Florence Dugdale. Yet there followed, famously, the most fertile period of Hardy’s poetry writing, largely inspired by love for his first, long-avoided wife.

In her nuanced historical novel, Elizabeth Lowry explores this mystery by dramatising the days after Emma’s death, in which Hardy is met by a grief that surprises him. His discovery of her diaries leads to an existential questioning of the value of his life, his work, and his relationships.

Lowry’s novel is, of course, a work of fiction, but one that she hopes is “essentially true”. It is, indeed, meticulously researched, both in fact and tone (Lowry’s recreations of Emma’s diaries are inspired by her surviving letters). But beyond this, the “truth” that Lowry’s novel seems to be grappling with seems not just purely biographical but also covering essential questions met by Hardy: what happens to love in a long, constrained marriage? Does success entrap or free? And, finally, what seems central: does writing help to discover truth, or does it disguise it?

Lowry’s Hardy complains that life is colourless, but “writing about it so real”, while his long-time friend Gosse dismisses his writings as “traps and shadows”. Emma, meanwhile, suggests that Hardy “understands only the women he invents — the others not at all”. Too late, Hardy sees his writing not as a friend, but as a master “asking for more than he can give”.

Indeed, while Hardy’s poems (and those of his wife) echo throughout Lowry’s novel, her writing has a distinctly bodily focus: on the ageing, changing bodies of Emma and Thomas; on the necessity of cleaning Emma’s body after death; and on the mundane necessities of eating, bathing, running the household, and instructing servants, to which Hardy has formerly paid no heed.

Lowry is compassionate in her approach to Hardy, and is not a writer to provide simple answers. Instead, she weaves a complex, haunting narrative that portrays a Hardy who is himself grappling with his understanding of himself and of his place in the world.

Jessica Ballantine completed a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Leeds. She is now training to be a doctor.


The Chosen: Who pays the price of a writer’s fame?
Elizabeth Lowry
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