November 27, 1912--The sudden death of his wife of nearly 40 years left Thomas Hardy (pictured) with more than the grief customary to widowers. To the immediate cause of his anguish (why hadn’t he noticed that the gall-bladder condition his wife had recently complained of had deteriorated so quickly?) was added a longer-term question: How had a relationship begun with so much love evolve into one marked by so much discord?
Soon, the British man of letters took to sorting out the answers in an outburst of poems that, most biographers and critics believe, marked a significant advancement in his achievement in this genre.
Hardy owed his very livelihood to Emma Lavinia Gifford Hardy, as she had shared his interest in poetry and persuaded him to pursue writing, rather than his original intended vocation, architecture. Later, unfortunately, it might be said, too, that the frequent subjects of his novels and poetry (he was one of the few writers whose achievement was as significant in one form as another), marital misalliances and fate, owe much to their relationship.
The woman that Hardy wed within two years after the passing of Emma, Florence Dugdale Hardy, would eventually relate the story that the writer had married his first wife not knowing she was five years younger than she claimed. However, even at her real age, she was still several months younger than Thomas. It was more likely that the two were driven apart by temperament and the changes that time could bring.
When he first came to her father’s rectory as a 30-year-old architecture apprentice, Hardy was struck by Emma’s “golden curls and rosy colour” as she rode around the countryside in her horse, as well as by what the writer’s biographer Robert Gittings characterized as her “willfulness and lack of restraint.” But as she drifted into middle age, she no longer wore her hair long, her face grew heavier, and her eccentric digressions with friends became a source of increasing embarrassment to her husband. Nor were there children to bind them together.
Even worse, by the 1890s, when two of his novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, had ignited controversies over what was then deemed sexual explicitness, Emma—by this time having become religiously conservative—had become embarrassed by her husband. In the same decade, his increasing emotional attachment to younger women may have become a source of tension between the two.
(Oddly enough, in the last years of her life, Emma did not notice the budding relationship between her husband and the woman who would succeed her as his wife. Florence, four decades younger than Thomas, became friends with the wife as well as the poet, which seems to have thrown off what would have been Emma’s normal suspicions.)
By the time of her death, Emma had taken to sleeping apart from her husband in a room in the attic, and had her meals taken up there. Her 72nd birthday had passed uncelebrated, and she had suddenly announced that she would no longer play the piano, a longtime source of comfort for her.
Within a month of Emma’s passing, Hardy had already begun his private summing-up. In “The Voice,” he addressed her directly, immediately, as “woman much missed.” At the same time, he is also acknowledging—and wondering—to himself (and, as it happened when published, to the larger reading public), why “you had changed/from the one who was all to me.”
Emma’s death, according to Hardy biographer Claire Tomalin, became “the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet”:
“They are among the most original elegies ever written, in feeling and in the handling of both language and verse forms. They do not spare the truth about the unhappiness suffered by wife and husband, but they move into the past with an expansiveness and panache he had never found before.”
Nearly a century later, another British poet would come to a late-life reckoning with the ghost of his first wife. Ted Hughes felt a great affinity for Hardy’s intense interests in nature and memory. Perhaps not so coincidentally, he also sought to make sense of a troubled—in fact, deeply controversial—marriage, to the American poet Sylvia Plath. In 1998, 35 years after her suicide, Hughes responded, belatedly, to accusations that he had caused her death with a cycle of poems about their relationship, Birthday Letters.
Hughes—whose mistress also took her life six years after Plath had killed herself—would probably have endorsed Hardy’s notion that women represented “the most vivifying and disturbing influence in human life.”
(Photograph of Thomas Hardy from the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)