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A vanishing and a Christmas quarrel: on the emotion behind Thomas Hardy’s Christmas cards

Anthony Gardner

Filed under: Non-fiction

Anthony Gardner on the high emotions behind Thomas Hardy's Christmas cards.

Among the treasures of Eton College’s Thomas Hardy archive are manuscripts of his poems, presentation copies of his novels, books from his library, and his letters to Siegfried Sassoon and Walter de la Mare. A small collection of Christmas cards printed to his commission seems at first glance to be of purely decorative interest; but it curiously reflects two emotional upheavals in the last part of the author’s life.

Most of the cards date from the early 1920s (though one, inspired by the poem Birds at Winter Nightfall, may belong to the turn of the century). Particularly charming are those for 1923 and 1926, featuring woodcuts of scenes at the Hardys’ house in Dorchester, Max Gate, executed by a relative of Thomas’s called Lilian Whitby: the first shows their beloved terrier Wessex sitting outside the front door, and the second the arrival of the postman in winter. But the strange thing about the later card is that exists in two versions. In one, Wessex appears in the foreground with his name handwritten next to him; in the other, there is empty snow. Why, then, did the dog disappear?

The sad answer is that when the time for sending Christmas cards came in 1926, Wessex was at death’s door. With deep regret, his owners eventually decided to have him put down, as Hardy reported in a letter to Harley and Helen Granville-Barker on 29 December:

‘Our devoted (and masterful) dog Wessex died on the 27th, and last night made his bed outside the house under the trees for the first time in 13 years. We miss him greatly, but he was in such misery with swellings and paralysis that it was a relief when a kind breath of chloroform administered in his sleep by 2 good-natured Doctors (not vets) made his sleep an endless one…’

Michael Meredith, Eton’s recently retired head of College Library, believes that as Wessex’s illness progressed the Hardys – having a thoroughly Victorian sentimentality about animals – no longer felt able to send out cards as if all were well, and therefore had his image cut away from the picture. Certainly, if they began by writing his name on every one, it must have been a painful reminder of their impending loss.

The fifth card in the archive is very different. It shows a scene from Tess of the D’Urbervilles: the one in which Tess, fresh from the May Day dance where she first sees Angel Clare, returns home to her parents’ dismal cottage. The drawing is part of a series by Sir Hubert Herkomer RA which illustrated Tess on its first publication in the Graphic in 1891, and appears initially to be a piece of harmless bragging on Hardy’s part, akin to putting a photograph of one’s children on a modern Christmas card. But again there is a question: if Hardy admired Herkomer’s picture so much, why did he wait for more than 30 years to use it?

A clue can be found in another part of the Eton archive: a collection of programmes for productions in Dorchester by a local dramatic group, the Hardy Players. On 26 November 1924 there began a four-night run of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ‘being [Hardy’s] adaptation for the stage, by request, in 1894-5, of the Novel of that title, and hitherto unacted’.

Although Hardy had misgivings about dramatising his book, one aspect of the production above all appealed to him: the portrayal of Tess by 27-year-old Gertrude Bugler, the beautiful daughter of a Dorchester confectioner.

Gertrude had been a member of the Hardy Players since she was 16, and had already made a strong impression on Hardy. In 1916 he wrote a special part for her in a production of excerpts from The Dynasts, and four years later he was so taken by her performance as Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native that his wife Florence wrote to Sidney Cockerell, ‘T.H. has lost his heart to [Miss Bugler] entirely’ – though she added, ‘as she is soon getting married I don’t let that cast me down that much’.

Since Hardy was now in his eighties, the idea of his embarking on a relationship with Gertrude was fanciful to say the least. (She undoubtedly considered him no more than a friend.) But the stage version of Tesselevated his interest in her – and Florence’s jealousy – to new heights. ‘I find myself insensibly drawn into the details of the production,’ he told John Masefield, ‘which I must say is, for a change, very entertaining.’ Having personally cast Gertrude as the lead, he seemed to see his creation come to life in front of his eyes. In a letter to Macmillan, discussing a new illustrated edition of Tess, he wrote, ‘But what I think would be a great help to the artist…would be to see the young woman who has personified Tess in the play, who is the very incarnation of her.’

It was not just Gertrude’s acting ability which underlay this belief, for Hardy remembered her mother as a striking young woman working at a dairy which he had visited while researching Tess. Moreover, in the words of Hardy’s biographer Michael Millgate, ‘Gertrude’s own fresh beauty and slightly open-mouthed eagerness were extraordinarily reminiscent of…the image of Tess Durbeyfield that Herkomer had captured in his drawings for the Graphic.’

None of this escaped Florence Hardy, whose state of mind was not helped by a recent operation to remove a tumour from her neck. It is hard to imagine anyone approaching their Christmas cards with greater reluctance than she must have felt when, shortly after her ‘rival’ had given a widely praised performance at the Dorchester Corn Exchange, she sat down to write ‘with every good wish for Christmas & the New Year’ beside copy after copy of Herkomer’s picture.

But Florence was to have her revenge. Early in 1925 she paid a hysterical visit to Gertrude and persuaded her to refuse an invitation to play Tess in London, lest Hardy’s obvious interest in her should cause a scandal. Although Gertrude did eventually appear in the West End four years later, she felt that she had missed her chance to pursue a professional acting career. Nor did the Hardy Players escape Florence’s wrath: Tess of the D’Urbervilles was to be the last production they ever mounted.