23 July 2013

Visiting Thomas Hardy’s house at Max Gate

Max Gate is just outside Dorchester in Dorset and was the home of author and poet Thomas Hardy.  Originally trained as an architect, Hardy designed the house in 1885 commissioned his father and brother (both master masons) to build it.  The house was built on a one and a half acre plot which had been the site of the cottage and tollgate of a ‘turnpike keeper’ called Mack, hence the name ‘Max Gate’.  (It was later found that the house was right in the middle of a neolithic stone circle and an early Roman cemetery.)

Hardy lived at Max Gate for most of his working life and it was there that he wrote his most famous novels, including Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge  and my own favourite, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Many famous writers were regular visitors to Max Gate, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, H G Wells, Robert Graves and George Bernard Shaw.

Thomas Hardy's Study
I was disappointed to realise that almost all the contents of Max Gate were sold before it was acquired by the National Trust  but largely thanks to the ‘encouragement’ of the Thomas Hardy Society,  they have tried their best to recreate the ‘feel’ of the place with similar furniture of the period.  All is not lost, however, as under a condition of his will the entire contents of Hardy’s study was relocated to the Dorset Museum, where it can be seen today.  The display includes Hardy’s collection of over four hundred books, many of which are his own first editions.  (Interestingly, Hardy moved his study at Max Gate to a different room with every book he wrote.)

It was particularly poignant to climb the narrow twisting stairway to the attic rooms of Hardy’s first wife Emma.  She asked Hardy to create her a private space where she could retreat from the world, and he was happy to do so.  Unfortunately, Emma became something of a recluse, spending most of her time in these small rooms until her death in 1912 at the age of 72.  After Emma died, Hardy searched her attic bedroom and found her writing, a small book she had written about her early life called ‘Some Recollections’  and a notebook entitled ‘What I Think Of My Husband’.  (After reading it he carefully burned the notebook in the garden, then spent the rest of his life full of remorse for the unhappiness he had caused her.)

Thomas Hardy lived in the house from 1885 until his death on 11th January, 1928. His youngest sister Kate bought Max Gate when it was auctioned in 1938 and bequeathed the house to the nation when she died in in 1940. Her wish was that income could be generated to pay for the purchase and upkeep of the old cottage at Higher Bockhampton where her brother had been born 100 years earlier.  (See Visiting Thomas Hardy's Birthplace.)

20 July 2013

Review: The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou


Anyone who had tried writing historical fiction will tell you how challenging it is to find the right balance between carefully researched facts and the fiction necessary to ‘fill the gaps’.  The Queen of Last Hopes achieves this perfectly – and really makes you want to find out more about Margaret, who shines through as a strong woman with the same vulnerabilities we all have.

I’d been saving this book to read on my recent holiday, as my current work-in-progress is set during the reign of Shakespeare’s ‘She Wolf’, Margaret of Anjou, and I needed to learn more about the real woman behind the caricature we so often read about.  Susan Higginbotham’s book proved to be a great place to find that new perspective, as she is up there with the best historical fiction authors and has a refreshing attitude to rule breaking.  When did you last read a book where the narrator switches to a different character who proves to be writing from the grave, having described their own death?  Susan has chosen to apply her creative licence to the character of the Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, as Margaret's lover - but the book is better for it – and I am sure he would have approved!

The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou
 on Amazon UK and Amazon US


6 July 2013

Visiting Thomas Hardy's Birthplace

There is a road leading directly to the first home of writer Thomas Hardy in Bockhampton but I recommend taking the narrow footpath through the woods.  Set in a particularly peaceful and tranquil part of the Dorset countryside, the evocative smell of wood smoke drifts towards you before the old thatched cottage comes into sight. Even though my visit was on a hot summer afternoon, The National Trust, who own the cottage, had a log fire burning to help visitors travel back in time.

Built by Hardy’s great-grandfather and unaltered since his time, his early novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd were written there.  The thatch on the roof needs replacing and the original contents of the cottage have long since disappeared but I liked the way the National Trust have recreated how it may have looked, keeping a sense of a family home that was actually lived in.

Thomas Hardy was born in the cottage on 2nd June 1840 six months after his parents were married.  His father, also called Thomas, was a stonemason and local builder. His mother Jemima was a servant and cook and reportedly had no wish to marry before she became pregnant. (She warned the young Hardy not to make the same mistake, a theme he explored several times in his writing.) Surprisingly literate, Jemima educated Thomas until he started school at the age of eight. His father taught him to play the fiddle and paid for him to attend a reputable school in Dorchester, a three-mile walk away.  Hardy did well at school and went on to qualify as an architect, although his ambition n was always to be a successful writer.

It has been said that Thomas Hardy was reticent about his humble upbringing and silent about his birthplace until well into his seventies. From what I know of him I think he would be proud, however, to see how his birthplace has become a worthy monument to his writing talent.


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