Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Romantic House in Cornwall

The story of Thomas Hardy’s meeting with Emma Gifford his future wife, at St Juniot’s Vicarage in North Cornwall, as told by Claire Tomalin in her book Thomas Hardy, the Time-Torn Man is very moving.

Thomas Hardy’s life was, at that point, in disarray, his hopes of University dashed, his hopes of becoming a published author on the verge of extinction. In addition, he had no house, no money and few prospects.

Emma had been a governess for a short time but was still a single woman at twenty nine. In spite of being the daughter of a lawyer in Plymouth, she was penniless - if cultured and middle class. She lived with her sister who had married a clergyman in his mid 60s possibly to stay out of the workhouse. The two women were helping to run St Juniot’s Church in an isolated spot on the Cornish coast, near Boscastle and Tintagel. She may have still seemed a kind of romantic 'wild child' which entirely suited this romantic Atlantic coastline.

In spite of being beautiful, with masses of flowing auburn hair and cutting a romantic figure on a horse riding along the beach, she probably now had few hopes of marrying. Meeting Hardy in the hallway at the Vicarage one evening after his long journey from Dorchester, they soon felt connected. Walking the beach together and clambering over the rocks, they fell in love, marrying four years later. Indeed, it seems that it was the appearance of Emma, warm and vital, with her love of writing and poetry, and her faith in Hardy’s talent that coincided with something happening in his writing which led on to his greatness. Emma was Hardy’s Muse. Within four years of their meeting, he was a famous author, and she helped him, in every way.

Sadly, their marriage faltered after some years. Removed from her romantic setting, she lost her lustre. He started to take her for granted. He despised her attempts to get published and she lost her looks. He chased after young women, buoyed up by his literary fame. Emma retreated into the attic at Max Gate, their house near Dorchester, now belonging to the National Trust, becoming cronically ill. One day in 1912, she died.

Thomas Hardy, much to the chagrin of his future wife, teacher Florence Dugdale, who claimed he had never loved Emma, was utterly distraught and heart broken. Emma’s passing lit a fire in him recalling how much he had loved her. He took himself off to stay in Boscastle and walked the paths they had taken in their youth seeing her again as she was then - in her air blue gown - feeling again like her lover one moment and like her grieving and guilty widower the next.

Then he wrote some of the greatest love poems ever written, (known as The Poems of 1912-1913) such as The Voice. Hardy had his heart buried near Emma in Stinsford Churchyard.

One can visit St Juniot’s Vicarage where this romance started, now a B&B, and sleep in the bedroom that Hardy stayed in - with a view of the church that he was renovating. 

That’s now on my bucket list of things to do!

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