From time to time, instead of creating characters, writers have kidnapped real people and imprisoned them in novels. In the last century the preferred method was to write a roman à clef. You collected a group of relatives, acquaintances, friends, and enemies, gave them new names and sometimes different physical traits, and told a story about them, often one with parallels in life. Sometimes the author of a roman à clef also appeared in it, more or less disguised: Thomas Mann as Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Mary McCarthy under many different aliases in many of her stories and novels.
Sophisticated readers enjoyed discovering the real people behind the (often rather transparent) disguises, exchanging this knowledge with friends, and occasionally revealing it in print. Other readers did not make these identifications, but as time passed, their ignorance was corrected by critics. There was even a British book-length guide to all this, Who’s Who in Fiction, where you could learn, for instance, that D.H. Lawrence and several other acquaintances had become characters in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, and that Lawrence himself had portrayed Katherine Mansfield and her husband in Women in Love. As time passed, the keys to the roman were turned faster and faster. Wised-up book reviewers, for example, almost immediately informed us that Saul Bellow had based the troubled poet in Humboldt’s Gift on his friend Delmore Schwartz, and the right-wing professor in Ravelstein on another friend, Allan Bloom.
Today the roman à clef is not so popular. Instead, in many successful novels, the methods of literary abduction are less subtle. Their authors do not look among their friends for characters, or disguise identities—they use real names and events, though sometimes with considerable flexibility. Of course, stories about celebrated historical figures have been popular for centuries. Henry VIII and his wives, for instance, have been the stars of hundreds of works of fiction, drama, and opera, many of them bad and some, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, excellent.
Recently, however, writers have started producing novels in which other writers, under their real names, are central characters. Unlike the casts of the old roman à clef, they are always dead. They are also almost always very famous, or related to someone famous. (Books purporting to reveal the unhappy stories of the wives and mistresses of celebrated authors are especially popular.) The advantages of this method are clear: the writer both avoids lawsuits and attracts attention, since everyone today seems to want to read about celebrities, especially if they are promised intimate, ideally shocking, details of their lives and loves.
There are problems here, though. As readers, we often unconsciously feel that we have already met the great writers who appear in these novels, through their books. We know how they thought and spoke, and may be reluctant to accept someone else’s version. It is also not easy to imitate another writer’s style and tone, especially if he or she is a genius.
Christopher Nicholson, however, manages it brilliantly. His new book, Winter, is one of the most dramatically convincing and moving Famous Writer Novels I have ever read. It is the story of an episode in the last years of Thomas Hardy’s life that takes up only a few pages in Claire Tomalin’s deservedly admired biography. In 1924, when Hardy was eighty-four, a local amateur dramatic society put on a play based on his celebrated—and at one time shocking—Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A local farmer’s young wife, Gertrude Bugler, who had already appeared in dramatic versions of several of his other books, played Tess. For Hardy, she was the perfect embodiment of his heroine—an association that seemed even more striking when he learned that Gertrude was the granddaughter of a dairymaid whom he had seen as a young man and taken as a model for Tess.
Hardy presently became involved with the production and spent more and more time with the beautiful young woman he began to call Gertie. His second wife, Florence, who already felt neglected and unloved, soon became jealous. She refused to admire Gertie’s acting, claiming that she “twitters affectedly in the tragic parts.” But no one else agreed, and the production was a great success; Gertie was offered a chance to play the role of Tess again on the London stage. Hardy encouraged her to accept, and promised to come to see her perform in the West End. Florence could not stand it. She became “hysterical, convinced that Hardy was so besotted with Gertrude that everyone in Dorset was laughing about it.”
Florence determined to stop all this, and she succeeded. She said, and possibly actually thought, that the excitement of going to London to see Gertie on stage would be disastrous for Hardy’s health. It was a belief, or pretense, that persisted. Even five years later, after Hardy’s death, she claimed that “my husband’s heart was weakened by excitements connected with the production here in Dorset, & had it not been for that I think he might have been alive now.” In other words, the old man’s passion for Gertie had killed him.
Winter alternates between the viewpoints of Hardy, Florence, and Gertie. The two women speak to us directly; Hardy through a third-person narrator—perhaps because it might have seemed both difficult and presumptuous to assume the voice of one of the greatest English novelists. Nevertheless, the prose of these sections is strikingly Hardyesque. The first page of Winter, for instance, might easily be that of a lost Hardy novel:
One of the old roads leaving a well-known county town in the west of England climbs a long slope and finally reaches a kind of open plain, a windy spot from which a wide prospect of the countryside is available. Fields of corn occupy the near and middle distance, while the rolling downs further off are grazed by numerous flocks of sheep. Much closer at hand there stands a clump of pines and other trees, the branches of which overhang a brick wall surrounding a dwelling of some substantial kind….
On a blue November dawn, not long before the present time, an old man might have been observed walking down the short drive that led from the house to the gate. He walked slowly, with a slight stoop, and carried a stick in his right hand. A small dog, a wire-haired terrier, accompanied him, snuffling at the vegetation on either side of the drive.
The drive was flanked by trees, and the depth of shadow beneath their boughs was such that the old man seemed to emerge by degrees out of a dim obscurity.
Amazing, I thought; but can he keep it up? Nicholson does, steadily and subtly. He also, like Hardy, manages to drop important information into what seems at first glance to be just a slow wide-angle view of a rural scene. Almost every seemingly unimportant detail counts. The trees that surround the house, shadowing and darkening it, are metaphoric as well as real; their oppressive closeness begins to obsess Hardy’s hypochondriac wife, Florence, who suspects they cause her illness and desperately wants them cut back. But her husband, who helped to plant these pines and beeches himself and believes that all trees are in some sense conscious beings, refuses, and it becomes a bitter issue between them.
The “small dog,” who turns out to be named Wessex like the imaginary setting of Hardy’s novels, is also a cause of dissension. Wessex is a biter, feared and disliked by servants and visitors, but he also functions in a way as the Hardys’ child, spoiled and petted and fought over, whining for table scraps and sentimentally and embarrassingly embraced by Florence whenever she feels neglected by her husband, as in fact she often is.
As this beginning (and also the title) suggests, Winter is not a lighthearted book. Neither, of course, are most of Hardy’s novels. But like them, it is full of life and drama and an intense sensitivity to landscape and weather, people and places. The portrait of the author that emerges is remarkable—and according to Tomalin’s biography remarkably accurate. Hardy is both admirable and insufferable. As an old man, and a writer, he is not easy to live with. He is stubborn and set in his ways. Though he could easily afford it, for a long time he refused to have a telephone installed in his isolated house, and he still will not allow electricity. He pays almost no attention to his wife, but spends most of his time going for solitary walks or shut in his study, reading and writing and dreaming of the past:
Often the spirits appeared unbidden in his inner vision, rising before him, beckoning, speaking….
At the drop of a hat he could change perspectives; could fly back to his childhood and become the boy he once was, or slip into the part of some other person, dead or alive. Equally, without difficulty, he could become a tree or a bat, or a bird.
For Hardy, even material objects are in a way alive:
The chair on which he now sat had served him for much of his life…. The desk itself had also done long service, and despite its inanimate nature stood in the category of a friend. The shawl draped over his shoulders he held in the same affectionate regard.
Winter often reminded me of how our acquaintance with characters in fiction reverses normal experience. Let us imagine that we have a neighbor, or even a close relative, called Edward. We can see what Edward looks like, we hear what he says and how he says it, and we observe what he does; but we will never be privy to his internal thoughts. In a novel with a first-person or focused third-person narrator our experience is reversed: we know what goes on in Edward’s mind, but we can never see or hear him, or be sure of what his world and the people in it are really like. One great attraction of a book with more than one narrator, like Winter, is that different views can modify each other, as they do in life, though of course we may never get the whole truth.
The Florence sections of Winter are just as effective as the Hardy sections, and in a way even more impressive, for Nicholson has made her out of scraps of epistolary evidence and his own imagination, rather than published books and letters. Florence is forty-four, with “dark brown hair tied in a bun, and heavy-lidded eyes that gave a powerful impression of melancholy.” Around her neck she habitually wears a fox stole with glass eyes, to hide the scar from a probably unnecessary operation. She is lonely and miserable and she feels shut out from her husband’s life, as in fact she is. The breathy, neurotic intensity of her internal voice, so different from that of Hardy, is evident from the first moment we hear it:
Last night I asked him, not for the first time, for indeed I have asked him a number of times, if we could have a few of the branches taken down as the house is now in shadow for much of the day. The problem is most acute in the summer, when we are engulfed by foliage, but even now, with winter almost upon us, the trees are an oppression. They oppress me, they darken my life. This is a dark house. He would not discuss it….
He believes that the trees must not be touched for fear of wounding them… To care for the feelings of birds and animals is one thing, yet to believe that trees are capable of suffering as human beings suffer is quite another. What of my suffering? I am still not well, I know I am not well. The doctors say that on all accounts I must avoid straining my nerves. Can he not see how the trees are hampering my recovery? Can he not see how I suffer?
The “old, crocheted shawl, beige in colour,” that Hardy wears when he writes and holds “in affectionate regard” is one of the many things that Florence hates almost as much as the trees that shade the house. It was made by Hardy’s first wife, Emma, of whom she is still bitterly jealous, though Emma is long dead and her last years with Hardy were unhappy. But after Emma died Hardy mourned her deeply, and he wrote many of his greatest poems about the early days of their love and his guilt and sorrow at her loss.
Florence still feels deeply injured by all this: every reminder of Emma hurts her, including the fact that the perpetual calendar on Hardy’s desk is kept turned to Monday, March 7, the day he and Emma met. She is determined that she, not Emma, should be recognized as the most important woman in Hardy’s life. When she thinks of the future, she remarks that “I am not unaware that there is a certain heroism in the role of devoted widow, and that it is one which appeals strongly to the melancholic side of my nature.” She imagines how she will
ensure that his study is maintained as it was on the day of his death…. I shall change one thing only. The pages of the calendar will be turned to rest on the twelfth of January. If the visitors ask…I shall proudly tell them, “Yes, it was the most important day of the year for him, my birthday.”
Florence, as Nicholson ventriloquizes her, is unforgettable. It is impossible to like her, but also impossible not to sympathize with her. It has never been easy to be the wife of a famous man, and in her day it was even harder. A wife had to put up with the fans and journalists for whom she was an obstacle to intimacy rather than an actual person. Beyond this, if she wanted to be seen as a supportive helpmate and a lady, she was discouraged from having a career of her own. Florence, like Hardy, was not born into the gentry: her grandfather was a blacksmith. Today, she might have boasted of this, but as Claire Tomalin puts it:
The snobbery of the age made her understandably reticent about her early working life. To admit to having worked as a pupil teacher would have been humiliating, and she chose to describe her job as a companion as “staying with friends.”
By the time they married in 1914, Hardy was famous and well-to-do; he was socially confident and accepted everywhere. But Florence’s origins haunted her. Braver middle-class girls might break the rules and take jobs, travel alone in Africa and India, become hospital nurses, or demonstrate for women’s rights, but for her the most important thing was to keep up appearances. A lady did not go out to work; she was supported by her husband. She did not cook or clean or sew or garden; she had servants. That was how she proved she was a lady.1
Florence Hardy appears in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy as a relatively sympathetic character: “a hero worshipper, kind and sensitive, and also determined, and she learnt to be devious.” Though she later gave several different accounts of how she met Hardy, it was in fact the result of a fan letter she had written at twenty-six, asking if she could call. When Florence married him after Emma’s death she was thirty-five, without financial resources, and nobody had ever proposed to her. Presumably, a future as the wife and helpmate of a great writer thirty-nine years her senior seemed better than the possible alternatives. It offered economic and social security, and occupation: she could manage his household (though she never got on well with their servants, and believed that they disliked her) and help with his vast correspondence.
Tomalin states that Florence never loved Hardy, but in Winter she often says that she does, though unlike Emma she seems not to have enjoyed expressing it. One of the saddest and most horrifying passages in the novel is Florence’s account of their sexual relations. She describes them as if they were a rather unpleasant but necessary household task:
He would leave his bed and arrive by mine, breathing heavily in the darkness. I would lift the corner of the sheets and in he would climb, dragging at my nightgown, wrenching it upward, hauling it above my shoulders. To avoid being suffocated I would pull it off my face…. He would nuzzle and mumble while I stroked his head and caressed his ears, all the while asking myself whether I should do more…. But then I would say to myself, what does it matter that he so rarely pushes into me, surely all that matters is that it makes him happy, although would it not make him even happier if he did push into me? As a wife it is one’s duty to make one’s husband happy. I firmly believe that.
As time goes on, Hardy’s interest in Gertie, and Florence’s jealousy, increase. “He does not love me,” she complains.
He loves a woman a third his age, and writes her love poems. When has he ever written me a poem? Not for a long time. Yet he writes her poems, just as he wrote love poems to the first wife after her death…. Do I have to die before he writes me another poem? Is it possible that her baby is his? Of course, of course. How else can one explain his blind infatuation? How else explain these disgusting poems?
Eventually Florence’s obsession leads her to lie and threaten and destroy; to do everything she can, and much more than she should, to stop Gertrude Bugler from appearing as Tess in London. She wants to ruin Gertie’s chance of becoming a professional actress, bring an end to the local amateur dramatic society in which Gertie has starred, and prevent her from ever seeing Hardy again. Yet Florence also has a sentimental side: she writes cute little poems for children, and smothers her dog with baby talk.
After spending time with the silent, stubborn Hardy and the anxious, deeply neurotic Florence, it is a relief to enter the world of Gertrude Bugler. Though young and inexperienced, she is intelligent, affectionate, sane, and exceptionally observant. She notices the Hardys’ relationship to their dog, for instance:
I was up there for tea…and Mr. Hardy kept on feeding Wessex mince pies, and Mrs. Hardy told him off…. “You spoil him, Thomas. It is very naughty of you….” As I recall it, he was completely unperturbed. He said, “The old deserve their pleasures,” and immediately gave Wessex another mince pie….
When it came to Wessex, there was a degree of competition between them, if only because they both doted on him so much…. Whether the dog should have been fed the mince pies wasn’t the issue, the issue was whether the dog liked him more than her.
Things do not always go well for Gertie Bugler, but she faces the world openly, directly, and honestly. When she is an old woman she thinks back on her life as one of “many happy moments,” and still remembers Hardy with warm affection. “He never put on any airs. He was very famous but you wouldn’t have thought it from his manner, and he always did his best to put me at ease.” I ended the book regretting that there had not been more about her.2
Over the past two decades, many good Famous Writer Novels have been written, in some cases by contemporary Famous Writers like David Lodge, Colm Tóibín, and Michael Cunningham. Christopher Nicholson, though relatively unknown, has now produced one of the best. For the past twenty-five years he has lived quietly in the center of Hardy’s Wessex, on the border between Wiltshire and Dorset. He knows the countryside and its history well, and it shows in Winter. Nicholson is also the author of two earlier novels: The Fattest Man in America (2005), the comic-gothic account of an incredibly obese Texan who becomes a carnival attraction, and The Elephant Keeper (2009), an entertaining and often moving tale of the relationship between a stable boy called Tom and the elephant he cares for on a great eighteenth-century estate. In Winter, which takes place closer to home and to our own time, he has gone beyond these earlier works, and written an absolutely first-rate novel.
One important disadvantage of this social system was that marriage was often postponed or delayed until a man could support a wife and possibly children in genteel idleness. Hardy and his first wife, Emma, fell in love when she was twenty-six; it was only four years later that he felt able to marry her. (Emma was a vicar’s daughter, and Hardy the son of a small-time builder and a household servant; after the wedding her indignant middle-class relatives broke off connection with her completely.) ↩
I also felt sorry for Hardy, and wished his life could have been happier. Others have apparently wished this too. Somerset Maugham’s favorite of his own works was the roman à clef Cakes and Ale, in which a writer rather like Hardy is a major character. Maugham calls him Edward Driffield, and gives him a wonderful first wife, a beautiful, high-spirited, sexy former barmaid called Rosie who loves him and the whole world. He also has a second wife, who, though not as neurotic as Florence Hardy, is equally obsessed with protecting her husband’s reputation. Cakes and Ale also presents Driffield as born and living in Kent. This allows Maugham, who grew up in Kent, to imagine what it would have been like to know Hardy intimately. His narrator, Richard Ashenden, who stands in for Maugham in many novels, appears in Cakes and Ale as a schoolboy who goes bicycling with Hardy and his wife and is close to them later in London. ↩