The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry review – Thomas Hardy in mourning

A remarkable portrait of the remorse that followed a difficult marriage, and gave birth to great poetry

When Thomas Hardy’s wife Emma died in 1912 she left behind the recollections she had been writing of her life in Cornwall before her marriage, evoking her joy as a young woman riding over the cliffs of Beeny and St Juliot. She also left the many diaries she had kept through two decades of increasing alienation from a husband who seemed to have abandoned her for the separate reality of his novels. The bereaved Thomas confronted these documents in shock, encountering in their pages both the young woman he had loved and a horrifying picture of their failed marriage. From the unexpected depths of his grief and remorse came his great sequence of elegies, Poems of 1912-13.

With remarkable steadiness and fine judgment, Elizabeth Lowry goes right into the midst of this legendary literary maelstrom and opens a space for fiction. She inhabits the household at Max Gate, the house Hardy built in Dorset, in the days after Emma’s sudden death and before the poems gave lasting shape and voice to the lost woman on the Cornish hills. Was Hardy the jailer of a neglected wife? Was Emma thwarted in her own writing? Why did it all go so wrong – and did the trouble start with Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Slowly and feelingly, the novel pores over questions about the costs of art, refusing to shout out answers, letting many perspectives tell upon each other.

The diaries Hardy read were, according to his second wife, “diabolical”. He burned them: Emma’s own version of her life story went up in flames. Lowry takes on the challenge of imaginative re-creation. Here is Emma reinstated as narrator of herself: persistent in her love, acute about her husband’s work, chronically rejected, finding no adequate company or purpose, and eventually feeling caged in an attic room, resented and avoided by the man preoccupied with invented people in the study below. By 1896 she thinks of herself as dead already. “This is how we exist now: two people in their coffins, two ghosts, stacked one on top of the other.”

The charges against Hardy are many and clear, but the novel itself is not one of accusation; Lowry is certainly not out to cancel Thomas Hardy. The Chosen is underwritten at every turn by the enduring power of the poems, and it leads us back to them. It follows carefully the stages of Hardy’s inchoate sorrow and reawakening desire, his attachment to his labouring-class family and distance from them, his efforts to honour a restless mind as well as the woman standing solidly in front of him – who in autumn 1912 is his lover Florence Dugdale, expecting to be made his wife.

This is Lowry’s third novel. The Bellini Madonna (2008), a densely plotted mystery with an alluringly off-putting narrator, was followed in 2018 by Dark Water, finely crafted and hugely ambitious in its study of 19th-century psychology and its shadowing of Melville. These are all novels interested in the attractions and dangers of great minds and in the limits of understanding; they work with narrators we might call, after Hardy, “self-unseeing”; they offer partial, counterpointed versions of the story.

Lowry can shape glittering sentences when she wants to, as in The Bellini Madonna, but in The Chosen she chooses restraint. The writing steers us towards calm thinking even while Emma is soundlessly screaming in her prison or Hardy is holding her corpse. The very mobile tone won’t let this be all tragedy or melodrama or farce or shimmeringly remembered romance. Everyone at Max Gate has their own keen sense of the absurdities involved in mourning. The wreaths laid for Emma are “plump as life buoys” (but are saving no one, soon look deflated, and are merely rained on rather than flung out across a flood). Plangent reveries are liable to run up against acerbic interruptions – from Hardy himself, or from his sharp, capable, loyal sister Kate, one of the most memorably drawn figures in this composite portrait of Hardy and the people he loves. “Don’t go soft on me,” she says, shaking off sentiment before it takes hold.

The wit can be touchingly gentle and suggestive. Thomas and Kate sit quietly together, she remembering how proud they all were at the Higher Bockhampton cottage when he was a schoolboy bringing his certificates back across the fields. Fondly she prompts him to decline “table” in Latin. Mensae, mensae, mensa, he begins:

“That’s the vocative you know, mensa. It means ‘O table’.”

“Why would anyone want to address a table?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

They say no more, but fleetingly we see how the late poem The Little Old Table (“creak, little wood thing, creak”) might come from this moment of familial closeness. And we see how differently the vocative will be used in the lines of Hardy’s poetry that we sense below the surface of the novel: “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me”.

Where Poems of 1912-13 intensify around single visions, utterly concentrated, The Chosen works by looking around at everything going on in the house. Max Gate is vividly realised in all its tree-shadowed gloominess, gobbling coal and effort, too large yet grimly confining. There are admirers at the door, the pie is cold, someone needs to pay the grocery bills, the maid’s family would go hungry without her wages. Hardy is learning to notice all this: the passions and difficulties of these others who live around him, the practical work that makes possible his days of absorption. Unmoored as he is, adrift and a stranger to himself, he is thinking hard about what he has failed to notice. “Too late, he sees it all.” It’s changing him, perhaps, though there’s no simple moral to be drawn, and he must set off again on his solitary journeys while someone else sees to the fire.

• The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry is published by Riverrun (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Alexandra Harris

The GuardianTramp

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