Book Review: Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins

Max Gate will be available in bookstores from 12 September.

I can’t think of a single author writing today who could garner the intense media cv_max_gatespeculation surrounding their imminent demise that Thomas Hardy attracted in January 1928. So famous and popular and revered was this man that there was a very bitter dispute between the locals and the literati over where he should be buried – at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey or beside his first wife in parish of Stinsford where he was born in his beloved Dorchester.

The death of Thomas Hardy and the furore surrounding it are the subjects of this latest novel by highly regarded, award winning New Zealand writer Damien Wilkins. Thomas Hardy, who died at the very grand age of 88, was probably England’s greatest living author at that time. Author of such classics as Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, he had in the previous twenty years or so returned to writing poetry. Much of his poetry deals with his first wife Emma, who he seemed to have a tortured love-hate relationship with, as well his love of nature, his preoccupation with man’s suffering and life’s disappointments. And these are the major themes that permeate through this carefully crafted and beautifully written novel.

The story is not so much about Thomas Hardy himself, who is lying in his bed, death imminent, but more about the people directly affected by his passing – those living at Max Gate, his much loved house that he designed and lived in for over 40 years.  And let us not forget Wessex, Hardy’s devoted terrier.  The story is narrated primarily by a maid of the house, Nellie Titterington, but also moves gracefully to and fro between her, second wife Florence Hardy, his executor Mr Cockerell, his elderly brother and sister, the author James Barrie and several other characters who may or may not have been real people.

So what does one do when waiting for a loved one to die? One reflects on life with the loved one, and this is what the main characters do. Particularly Florence, who was initially a secretary to Mr Hardy, and then married him on the death of his first wife, Emma. Florence, considerably younger than Thomas, is a fairly tortured soul. Never feeling fully accepted as Thomas’ wife due to her youth and what would appear to be Thomas’ shortcomings in the sensitive husband department, she is doing her best to walk the fine line between keeping her husband’s final wishes – burial locally, and keeping the public happy – privacy vs celebrity. Nellie is her maid, and so is privy to Florence’s emotion and distress. She, in turn, has to maintain the fine line between maid and confidante, in view of the uncertainty of her own fate once Mr Hardy dies.

There are a number of other ‘fine line’ relationships and situations in this novel – Nellie’s relationship with a young reporter Alex Peters; Alex himself desperate to be the one to have the first scoop on Hardy’s death and yet, as a local, wanting to protect him from the likes of Cockerell and Barrie; Florence’s own relationship with Barrie; a conversation between Barrie and the doctor over what is more important, the brain or the heart; being a celebrity versus the need for privacy. Interspersed through the novel are many of Hardy’s own writings, in particular his poetry, which Wilkins has referred to in his note at the end of the book.

I don’t really know anything at all about Thomas Hardy or his writings, and have only seen a 2008 BBC TV adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which was about as gloomy and awful and sad as you can get. It doesn’t compel me to read any of his novels, but his life was certainly interesting and one of deep introspection. There is some very beautiful writing in this book, and I certainly think his poetry is worth a look. There is a lot going on in this novel of just over 200 pages, and really, I have barely scratched the surface. Much like Thomas Hardy really – full of hidden depths.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Max Gate
by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864738998

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