Thomas Hardy became one of the stars of English Literature during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), the most celebrated of his Wessex novels, crafts a tragic love story reflecting social, religious, and moral themes. Hardy, who trained as an architect before becoming a writer, was the son of a stonemason, and uncomfortably aware of strait-laced Victorian attitudes towards class status, religion, and sexuality. His wife, Emma, died in 1912, following many years of increasing disenchantment between them. She described this discontent in a series of "black diaries" which Hardy discovered shortly after her death and subsequently burned.
With her third novel, The Chosen, Washington-born but Oxford-based writer Elizabeth Lowry takes a dauntingly well-researched tilt at the circumstances and people present during the days and weeks following Emma's death, seamlessly blended with eerily evoked flashbacks to happier times. The novel daringly re-invents passages from Emma's destroyed diaries, based on her surviving letters for their "tone, and sometimes for their content".
The result is a moodily cast psychological drama, with a grieving Hardy in the rambling house he designed and helped build, struggling to understand how success as a novelist and poet had distanced him from Emma, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. With early winter in Dorset providing an appropriately bleak rain-shadowed backdrop, the celebrated writer, wrapped in a shawl from his childhood, wanders the house and grounds, endlessly sifting through remorse over Emma's complaints, often alone, but frequently with visitors. These include his sister Kate, with her working-class sensibility tempered by a teacher's practicalities, and Florence Dugdale, his loyal literary assistant, almost 40 years younger than himself, whom he soon marries.
There's little doubt that Hardy is remembered more for his novels than his poetry, although, in the wake of his last two novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure being sceptically received by critics (despite their popular success) he turned wholly to poetry, with his writing in the years following Emma's death producing work that validated his status as a poet, while still coming to terms with the loss of a loved relationship as a result of his intense interior focus as a novelist.
Lowry's compassionately drawn portrait of a famous writer tormented by the loneliness of moral imperatives is hauntingly beautiful and a delight to read. This demonstrates the seductive power of good fiction to capture the essence of historical fact.
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