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Littleton POWYS Llewelyn POWYS Philippa POWYS T.F. POWYS Forrest REID


Rosemary TIMPERLEY A. N. L. MUNBY Christopher

Misogynist, Fantasist, Romantic, Feminist —

Just who was Thomas Hardy?

In three books on the women in Thomas Hardy’s life and fiction, Peter Tait explores the above and other themes focusing on women who featured prominently in his life Jemima Hardy (the matriarch), Emma and Florence (the two unfortunate wives), Tryphena Sparks, Florence Henniker, Agnes Gove and Gertrude Bugler (four of his lady friends) to a number of the most significant and interesting heroines from his fourteen novels (Bathsheba Everdene, Eustacia Vye, Sue Bridehead and Tess Durbeyfield).

thomas hardy's well-beloved, the women in his life and fiction, peter tait

Announcing the forthcoming publication of:




‘A Lover of Women’

‘He had, surely, a deeply intuitive understanding of female nature . . . Hardy’s guileless and ecstatic response to women in life irradiated his writing at every level . . . For Hardy really is a lover of women in the fullest physical sense.’  (Rosamund Miles)1    

peter tait, thomas hardy's well-beloved, sundial pressThomas Hardy’s portrayal of women as victims of circumstance and social convention is one of the distinctive features that set him apart from other nineteenth century novelists. In writing, implicitly or explicitly, about lesbianism, rape, illegitimacy, divorce, adultery and incest, all linked to the wider vulnerability of women, trapped by marriage or societal expectations, he helped expose the hypocrisy of society in its attitudes to women the way few others dared. He became, belatedly, an advocate of women’s suffrage and supported Emma in her campaign, counting among his closest friends a significant number of women with feminist interests and aspirations. His most intimate female friends were, in the main, independent, modern women, usually well-connected, and with a spirit and interests not dissimilar to his own. On the other hand, his own nature and his relationships with them were ambivalent. Hardy often seemed to play the role of the perennial wooer or suitor, as reflected in his writing and letters, a perpetual adolescent as Gittings called him, and while he could be persistent, his ardour usually lapsed over time or, as in the instance of Florence Henniker, grew into a life-long friendship. Yet there is more evidence in his writing, his marriages and his relationships that he saw women either in pragmatic terms, as we may see in his marriage with Florence, or in a strictly utilitarian way, as fuel for his writing. That is not to say that the attachments he formed or his two marriages were without emotion or feeling, but that the idea of marriage, perhaps, appealed more than its reality. He was a romantic, who espoused the idea of love, but seemed unconvinced by its durability, refuting the idea of romantic love transcending marriage. He had a love of women no doubt, and of beauty, in particular, and all his writing is suffused with a repressed sense of desire and longing, but always with an eye to the inevitability of fate, of time passing, however well-dressed it might appear. Moreover, he was mindful of human foibles, many of which he exposed in the person of his heroines. He did so often by attributing specific traits to womankind, which upset many feminists then and now. He never lost his eye for a beautiful woman, from his early dalliance with Rosamund Tomson until well into his eighties, as evident from his embarrassing flirtations with Gertrude Bugler. He was always inclined to place beautiful women on a pedestal, imbuing them with a dash of romance and mystery, as this remarkably personal reflection in The Life showed:

‘That girl in the omnibus had one of those faces of marvellous beauty which are seen casually in the streets but never among one’s friends. It was perfect in its softened classicality – a Greek face translated into English. Moreover, she was fair and her hair pale chestnut. Where do these women come from? Who marries them? Who knows them?’

Hardy always seemed to be chasing these elusive women throughout his life and in his writing and yet, when he captured them in his novels or poems, his response was to make them tragic figures, against whom the fates had conspired or who were unattainable, usually because they were dead and therefore could not contradict anything he wrote about them. Bathsheba summed up the lot of women, especially attractive women, as seen by Hardy, when she reflected: 

‘Loving is misery for women always . . . dearly am I beginning to pay for the honour of owning a pretty face.’ (Ch. 30)

Confronted by the inevitable, the predestined, Hardy’s women often found themselves powerless, defenceless, with no control over the machinations of their own lives or, indeed, their ultimate fate. They were endlessly subject to the caprice of men or, as Tess found out, by the judgement of the President of the Immortals, powerless to act as greater forces sported with their lives. Better, it seemed, to be unattractive and plain and to be ignored than to be cast as corks upon the sea of human failing as Hardy was wont to do. If we look at survivors in his fiction, they are more than often, the meek and obsequious. Yet through his heroines we can find moments of deep insight, warmth, humanity and pathos. Hardy had the ability to make us feel for his heroines as they underwent the travails of married life and to see the constraints of their world through fresh eyes. 
  In his first volume of biography on Thomas Hardy, Gittings cited a review of The Well-Beloved which described the novel’s lead character as ‘A man who all his life is in love with love rather than any particular woman’. It was a view he felt could be ‘the verdict on Hardy himself’.3 It is a compelling argument. Hardy’s penchant for pretty women and his inability to sustain a long and loving relationship (the exception being with Florence Henniker, largely because she kept him at arm’s length) had a good deal to do with his upbringing and the exhortations of his mother. Hardy was not unusual for a writer in compartmentalising his life (no doubt why he saw little wrong in publishing his elegies to Emma in the first year of his marriage to Florence), and seeing his writing and his life as two distinct entities. Insensitivity to causing hurt by slighting women in some way was a part of his person, as his sisters and wives found out, yet when made aware, he could show contrition and guilt. He was single-minded in his work as evident from the clues littered about in his novels and poetry. When Jude commented, ‘Every successful man is more or less a selfish man’ (Pt. 6, Ch. 4) it was undoubtedly a comment on Hardy’s own life. Today, we would describe Hardy as obsessive, even compulsive, conscious of who he was and mindful of what he was capable of giving in time and affection. He was also aware of what was beyond his capabilities or his emotional range. It was as if his life was always measured in some way and that while the heart was occasionally allowed a little flutter, it was the head, and his writer’s ambition, that invariably won through. 
  On the surface, neither of Hardy’s marriages appeared happy or fulfilling, although for different reasons. Apart from non-literary failings by both husband and spouse, of which there were doubtless many, Emma was soured by Hardy’s prose, particularly by Jude the Obscure, which she detested. Florence, by contrast, was scarred by his poetry, and especially his elegiac poems of 1912-1913. There are various times in his fiction when he casts an unfavourable eye on the state of matrimony. In the annotations he made in the margins of a book given to him by Florence Henniker in 1894, in response to the idea of men being devoted to an ideal of womanhood without properly understanding woman’s complex nature, Hardy suggested that, perhaps, ‘REAL woman is abhorrent to man? Hence the failure of matrimony?’4 Even the women he admired or lavished poems upon, never seemed quite as he wrote of them at the outset after the friendships or relationships developed. He could be reserved and touchy, preferring his own company and, famously, and apocryphally, he disliked being touched. Seldom do we see the affectionate side of his nature in either of his marriages, despite Florence writing that he craved affection. He was often nervous and once told Florence that ‘he thought he had never grown up’.5 It is clear that emotionally he was immature and it was not that he did not feel love or affection for either Emma and Florence at times in their married lives, but that he was unable to sustain any feeling for another, except through his writing. Emma and Florence both felt betrayed by him, each bearing their own crosses. Emma realised the futility in trying to compete with his heroines, once commenting ‘Thomas understands only the women he invents – the others not at all’6 while poor Florence was never able to escape from the shadow of the rehabilitated Emma, commenting in later years, ‘You have to be dead to be acknowledged’.7 
 The final section of the book looks at another subset of Hardy’s women, his heroines – a term loosely applied here to include all his major women characters. Hardy is now in control (although never wholly so, one feels) and shows a remarkable acuity of perception of the female psyche and their helplessness in the face of the social issues of the day. From the flighty Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree to the darker and more complex character of Arabella in Jude the Obscure, Hardy explored a range of female types whose daily lives and conversation were often closely linked with such diverse issues as the stigma of illegitimacy, incest and poverty, but whose lives were ultimately ordered for them by the author. Some of the subjects he felt strongly about, such as his views on the sanctity of marriage, took time to filter through his fiction, either because of the censorship laws of the time, by what his publishers felt was acceptable or what was palatable to the reading public. By the time Hardy completed Jude the Obscure, he had dealt with many of the most contentious issues relating to women, and most importantly, had highlighted their lesser status and freedom in the eyes of society and the law. 

Individually, his ‘creations’ could be capricious and headstrong, gentle and loyal and even though they often found themselves powerless, victims of fate or circumstance, they are invariably women who demand our attention. Powerlessness in the face of adversity was a hallmark of many of Hardy’s heroines. So too was a strength of character that often belied their passive role in the hostile world into which they had been cast.
In a review published in 1880 on the publication of The Trumpet Major, Havelock Ellis wrote, ‘Mr Hardy’s way of regarding woman is peculiar and difficult to define, not because it is not a perfectly defensible way, but because it is in a great degree, new. It is . . . far removed from a method, adopted by many distinguished novelists, in which woman are considered as moral forces, centripetal tendencies, providentially adapted to balance the centrifugal tendencies of men.’8 If there is a criticism that can be levelled at Hardy’s womenfolk, it is that they are not free, but, ‘mere playthings of an inscrutable fate’. More pointed, if we are to agree with Benjamin De Casseres in an article he sent to Thomas Hardy in 1902, ‘ . . . Hardy’s women are woof and warp of his thought. They are nothing in themselves. They are merely corks on a current.’9 There is a sense of the inevitable denouement to many of his novels, yet the argument that Hardy didn’t allow his heroines any slack and allowed them even less autonomy is more than a little unfair. Throughout his novels, Hardy created women that he chose to love or not love, and over the course of his novels, he does both. Some are notional figures, but others are not and offer robust justification for their life’s actions and outcomes. A number of his heroines are invariably influenced by women he had known in his own life, but it is also true that many of the women Hardy befriended after 1890 were expressions of a woman type he had imagined and created – that is, first he drew the picture, his ideal, then went out and found the model. So Rosamund was Eustacia, Gertrude, Tess and so on.
  As well as giving us a new type of woman in fiction, we are constantly, drawn to parallels between the characters and the women in Hardy’s life, and also to what was happening at the time that he was writing. Tess may have been his ideal, but he also hankered after women who were more akin to Eustacia; flawed women, made interesting by their failings and imperfections. Rather than being nothing in themselves, to Hardy, they were part of his extended family.
  As there is a substantial amount of scholarship on almost all of the heroines, it is useful to start with a caveat or two. With so much already written on all the leading characters of Hardy’s novels, the focus of this section is on the relationship between the heroines and the writer who or what they represented. Several of the heroines, for instance, are directly linked with the women in Hardy’s early life; others represent viewpoints and attitudes that Hardy felt strongly about; still others tell us something about Hardy’s own romantic views and inclinations. In relating the characters to people Hardy knew, and looking at the relevance of the words he placed in their mouths, there will inevitably be some overlap, but the crossover between fact and fiction in Hardy is often hard to separate and some quotations naturally exist in both worlds. A vast resource is, of course, his poetry and its representation of real and fictional women, only lightly touched on in the book. In 1919, in a letter transcribed by Florence for Thomas we are told that ‘Speaking generally, there is more autobiography in a hundred lines of Mr Hardy’s poetry than in all his novels’.10 It is, however, likely that this comment was a deliberate ploy to deflect questions about Jude in particular. Of course, we should be aware of the importance of Hardy’s poetry as a source of information about his relationships with women (and it can seem that an attractive woman had only to look at Hardy to have a poem written of her), but it is the novels’ heroines that give us a far better insight into Hardy’s own emotions and attitudes, indeed, into his soul. 
  Hardy always enjoyed the company of women and one suspects, he filled many of his waking hours, whether writing or not, thinking about them – which is no doubt why his heroines take centre stage in most of his novels. He was a strange combination: a cynic on love, yet a romantic, albeit one who eschewed commitment; shy and socially self-conscious, yet in his writing, provocative and controversial. His heroines are the hub of much of his fiction just as the women he knew through kin and friendship shaped and moulded his own life and writing.
  Of all the influences on his life, however, none surpassed that of his mother, ‘our well-beloved’ as he had once called her. Her abiding presence and her homespun wisdom and words of advice stayed with him throughout his life.  While Tess was Hardy’s literary ‘well-beloved’, it is surely no surprise knowing what we know of Hardy, that it was Jemima that he listened to most of all.

Publication:  2019



nLater in life Thomas Hardy would recall seeing the silhouette of Emma riding along the crest of Beney Cliff.  He would remember with a feeling of agitation the scene that lay before him, stripped bare of everything, but the most elemental. A bent tree, doubled up by the westerlies; an evening sky exploding in a fiery tempest; and, set against it all, a horse and its rider. She looked magnificent, like Boadicea, thick auburn hair billowing out behind her, standing high in the stirrups. He watched her as she fell off the edge of his view into a furze covered gulley and disappeared. Yet it was frozen in his mind, the picture of the high-spirited and unsettling young woman, that he could recall at will for the rest of his life. 

Time can give a gentle wash to memory, that he knew. It can smooth out the rough edges and make mellow the astringent, destroy the glass cage. But Tom knew in that one vivid snatch that what he had seen was real and that whatever else changed in time, that image would remain indelible. A rider on a horse skirting a cataclysmic sky. A heart aloof and vagrant, one and the same. His West of Wessex girl! He felt the first drops of rain. What had become of them? What had happened to pry loose the grip that once held him so tightly? What had led him to betray her?

Hardy thought Emma was an intelligent and well-read woman, which she wasn't, and Emma took Hardy for a successful London professional man, which he wasn't either. It is hard to know who got the worst of it. – Philip Larkin

Price: 9.99 | Paperback | ISBN-13: 978-1-908274-55-7 | Book Dimensions: 198 x 129 mm | Official Publication Date: 31 October 2018

(Copies now available to order directly from this site and mailed within 24 hours post-free within the UK)

EMMA A Woman Betrayed


(USA, AUS, NZ, etc) 14.99
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Mistress of Max Gate

bFrom the moment she first met Thomas Hardy in 1905, having written him an admiring letter, Florence Dugdale seemed destined for controversy. Her presence at Max Gate, both before and after the death of his first wife Emma, and her clandestine courtship with a man nearly forty years her senior sparked suspicion among the locals and scorn from the Gifford family. She had wanted to be a writer herself, but was drawn into Hardy’s life as his ‘secretary’ and companion, and within a year of their own marriage was humiliated by his publication of poems commemorating the late Emma and his painful relationship with her.

Yet in the posthumous biography of her husband that bore her name she would tell the ‘truth’ and at last achieve the acclaim she sought – or so she had imagined, until that fiction too began to unravel. After fourteen years of marriage, and despite her own gifts and her life thereafter, her fate was to be remembered by her obituary tag in a national newspaper – ‘helpmate to genius’. Her love life stunted, her literary ambitions thwarted, disowned by the Stoker family and satirized by Somerset Maugham – Florence’s lot was an unenviable one. Why did she put up with it all?

In his compelling recreation of Florence’s life, Peter Tait tells of a letter, one that Hardy had written to her on the eve of their wedding, which she kept until her death, when, under instructions, it was destroyed … ‘And with it died part of the secret, the secret that helped explain Florence. For, as Thomas found out to his cost, there was more to Florence than was evident from their first meeting. And so began their trail of deceptions, first of Emma, then of their friends and, finally, of us all.’ 

Price: 9.99 | Paperback | ISBN-13: 978-1-908274-52-6 | Book Dimensions: 198 x 129 mm | Publication date: June 2018

FLORENCE Mistress of Max


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Peter Tait was born in New Zealand and gained his Masters degree in History at Massey University. After a career teaching at junior and senior schools in both New Zealand and England, he finally moved to England in 1998 to take up the position of Headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a contributor to The Daily Telegraph and a long-time devotee of the writings of Thomas Hardy as well as the Powys brothers, John Cowper, Theodore and Llewelyn.

peter tait, max gate
peter tait, winstones, bookshop, sherborne

Peter Tait at Max Gate
Peter Tait at Winstones Bookshop

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Peter Tait at book launch


A full house for Peter Tait at the MERE LITERARY FESTIVAL
peter tait, mere literary festival 2017

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August 2019