On the writing of Winter

'In his later life Thomas Hardy was much preoccupied by the subject of ghosts. They come to life in his poems, where they talk among themselves and reflect on their previous lives and on the sorry state of the world. 'Winter' attempts to conjure three such creatures from the dead, one of them being Hardy himself.

'The novel is set in late 1924 and early 1925, when the 84 year old Hardy, the most celebrated English writer of the day, was living at his Dorset home of Max Gate with his second wife, Florence. Aged 45 but in poor health, she came to suspect that Hardy was in the grip of a romantic infatuation. The woman in question was a beautiful local actress, the 27 year old Gertrude Bugler.

'Unlikely as such an infatuation may seem, Hardy had past form when it came to young women. Many years earlier, he had even written a short novel, 'The Well-Beloved', which describes a man who falls in love with a woman, then with the woman's daughter, and then the woman's grand-daughter. For that and a host of other reasons - among them Hardy's complex, secretive personality - it's perhaps not so surprising that Florence began to feel seriously alarmed.

'Winter' is constructed around the developing crisis. It was born out of a chance conversation. One Sunday in November 2010 I went to lunch with an elderly woman by the name of Alice Dilke, who lives in the Marshwood Vale of west Dorset. The countryside thereabouts is one that can have changed little since Hardy's time, with thin, tree-lined lanes winding past damp pastures and boggy woods. Alice's home, an old, thatched farmhouse up a muddy track, felt like something out of the pages of 'The Woodlanders', or another of Hardy's novels.

'We talked a lot about Hardy. I had always loved Hardy's work, as had Alice; she came from a literary family. But she said that when she was a child, in the Dorset of the 1920s, she had been warned off Hardy by her parents. I asked why, and she said: 'I think they didn't think he was a nice man. There were stories about him and women. Of course, I immediately read every novel of his that I could find.' Alice went on to mention Gertrude Bugler, whom she had known as a friend in the 1950s and 60s, when they were members of the same Women's Institute. She told me that Hardy had written a poem in which he had imagined eloping with Gertrude from a particular place, Toller Down Gate. The poem, supposedly, was destroyed by Florence. I started to write 'Winter' the next day.

'The novel is more a conversation with the past than a historical reconstruction. Although loosely based on events at the end of 1924 and the start of 1925, it plays fast and loose with the known record. To give two instances: it seems to suggest that Gertrude and Hardy's first meeting took place around 1920, when it was in fact seven years earlier; and it implies that Florence and Hardy saw 'Tess' for the first time on its performance at the Corn Exchange in Dorchester on 26th November 1924, when they had in fact attended several rehearsals. In short, for anyone in search of historical truth, 'Winter' is not to be relied upon. The Hardy, Florence and Gertrude of the novel are fictional beings of the early twenty-first century, and their relationship to the individuals who breathed and spoke and felt in the 1920s is possibly no more than one of close resemblance.

'During the writing of 'Winter' I consulted a wide range of sources. Among them is the transcript of a talk given by Gertrude in 1959 and later published as 'Personal Recollections of Thomas Hardy' [Dorchester, 1962]. While Gertrude is largely reticent about Hardy's feelings for her, she says much about her feelings for Hardy, and also gives an account of Florence's fateful visit to Beaminster in February 1925. Other memories that I found particularly useful include those recorded in 'Hardy, Tess and Myself' by Norman J. Atkins [Beaminster, 1962], who played the part of Alec d'Urberville in the original production of 'Tess', and 'The Domestic Life of Thomas Hardy' by Ellen E. (Nellie) Titterington [Beaminster, 1963], who was a maid at Max Gate in the 1920s.

'While researching Ernest Bugler's military career, I read the '35th Sikhs Regimental Record, 1887-1922' [Peshawar, 1923]. Florence's life is examined in 'The Second Mrs. Hardy', by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton [London, 1979]. Letters relevant to the crisis at Max Gate in the winter of 1924-25 are to be found in 'The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy' [Oxford, 1977-88], and in 'Letters of Emma and Florence Hardy<' [Oxford, 1996]. Of recent biographies of Hardy, the most sensitive and authoritative is Michael Millgate's 'Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited' [Oxford, 2004].

'Thomas Hardy died on 11th January 1928, at the age of 87. Contrary to his stated wishes, he had a bizarre double funeral, with his heart buried in the graveyard of Stinsford Church and his ashes simultaneously interred at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey in London. Two years later an uninspired statue was erected in Dorchester, but his writing - a string of wonderful novels and many poems of extraordinary beauty - is his true memorial. It has greatly enriched many lives, including my own.

'After Hardy's death Florence bought a car and employed a chauffeur. In search of happiness she tried living in London and then moved back to Max Gate. She did not remarry. She became a magistrate in Dorchester and involved herself in charitable causes. She died as she had feared, of cancer, in 1937, aged 58.

'Ernest Bugler died in 1956, but Gertrude Bugler lived on near Beaminster. By all accounts she was a woman of great elegance and charm. She never acted again, but in her later years, as interest in Hardy's life grew, she became something of a minor celebrity. She died in 1992, aged 95. Diana was her only child.'

Christopher Nicholson 16th May 2013

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