Thursday, 31 July 2014

Mr Hardy's War

The Thomas Hardy Festival is held every other year in his home town of Dorchester.  I'm told that local residents have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Hardy.  You certainly wouldn't know it when you drive through the centre of the town, where the Casterbridge guest house rubs shoulders with the Trumpet Major pub.  It also seems to have more museums per square inch than any other town in Britain I can think of.

Since I was old enough to read Thomas Hardy's work for the first time, I have been of the opinion that he is the greatest novelist in the English language, but I have never fully explored his poetry.  My own ignorance on the subject of his life and times was shown up, to myself, as I read up on the subject for the purpose of delivering a short talk on the subject of his relationship with Sassoon, as part of a miscellany entitled "Mr Hardy's War", which was presented at the Festival in this last week of July.  

My education continued when I discovered that not only was Siegfried's aunt, Agatha Thornycroft, the model for Tess Durbeyfield, but that a portrait of her hung at the top of the stairs in the very house where I was being put up for the night.  What is more, Dorset County Museum, where the event took place, houses a very fine bust of Hardy, the work of Agatha's husband Hamo.  Uncle Hamo and Hardy were friends long before Siegfried came on the scene, but one must assume that he heard Hardy's name from his uncle before he became an admirer of his novels and poetry.

Another friend Siegfried Sassoon had in common with Thomas Hardy was T E Lawrence, who was present at Max Gate (Hardy's house in Dorchester) when Siegfried visited in August 1924.  The Sassoon diaries mention seeing Lawrence's motorbike leaning against a wall when he arrived at the house and being pleased at the thought of seeing him again.  Hardy had, by this time, become another surrogate father-figure for Siegfried, following the loss of Rivers; Neil Brand captured their relationship perfectly in his 2001 radio play Between the Lines, which many of you will have seen performed on stage at our 2011 conference in Stratford.

"Mr Hardy's War" included varied contributions in the form of readings, songs and a short lecture on how the Great War affected the local area, from Chris Copson, curator of The Keep military museum; the museum comes highly recommended.  Dorset folk singer and musicologist Tim Laycock became the unwitting model for a soldier's uniform and pack, which all agreed was "very heavy" as well as "very uncomfortable".  Hardy's own words were read by the Dorchester town crier, Alistair Chisholm (who, unlike me, did not require a microphone).

Most touching was the story of the "lost heir", Thomas Hardy's second cousin, Frank George, to whom Hardy and his wife Florence had intended to leave everything, having no children of their own.  Hardy had been so taken with Frank that he had recommended him for a commission, which duly sent Lieutenant George on his way to a fatal wound at Gallipoli in 1915.  Hardy underplayed his distress at the news of Frank's death (as he did his sadness at the death of his own sister shortly afterwards).  He did, however, write an elegy for his cousin, entitled "Before Marching and After (In Memoriam F.W.G)", which appeared in the Fortnightly Review and eventually in a 1917 poetry collection.  It is certainly not Hardy's greatest poem, attempting as it does to find a silver lining to the dark cloud of his bereavement: "marching was done / For him who had joined in that game overseas / Where Death stood to win, though his name was to borrow / A brightness therefrom not to fade on the morrow."  What else was Hardy to say, having unwittingly contributed to his beloved cousin's fate?

The evening as a whole, however, went with a swing (thanks in no small measure to the community singing led by Tim Laycock), and left me with a picture of Hardy much as Sassoon portrayed him in "At Max Gate", the poem he wrote about a summer evening he spent with the old man in the 1920s.  My contribution?  Just a few minutes talking about the Sassoon-Hardy friendship, followed by Siegfried's voice reading from his own work.  As always, the audience was enchanted (by him, not me) and there was much interest.  The Hardy Society, like our own, is delightfully friendly and informal, and I already have ideas for possible future collaborations.  But I'd better get 2014 over with first!

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