Sunday, 14 August 2016

A Wiltshire Tragedy

The Thomas Hardy Festival is held every other year in Dorchester, and is a week-long orgy of lectures, concerts, walks, tours and other events that would probably blow my mind if I had enough spare time to take full advantage of the opportunities.  This year I spent three full days in Dorchester,  a town I’d never fully explored previously. As well as making the standard tourist visits to Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and the house he built for himself at Max Gate, I participated in three group visits by the THS to places of interest in the area: Kingston Lacy, Stourhead and Portland.  Of the three, the one that carries the most resonance is undoubtedly Stourhead, the former home of the Hoare baronets, now in the care of the National Trust.  

The trip to Stourhead was organised, very capably, by Andrew and Marilyn Leah, who were my hosts when I last participated in the festival, two years ago. Hardy first became acquainted with the 6th baronet, Henry Hoare, through his wife, Lady Alda, a memorable personage if her portrait is anything to go by.  I imagine her as a slightly more laid-back version of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The Hoares had a very successful marriage and would die within a few hours of one another in 1947; she had always said that she could not imagine living without him.   Their lives were marked by tragedy, however, since their only child, their son Harry, died in Egypt in 1917, as a result of which the baronetcy eventually passed to a nephew and the house and gardens were bequeathed to the nation.

The gardens at Stourhead are world-famous and it was a pity that heavy rain prevented us from seeing them at their best.  A tour of the house is nevertheless enough to satisfy anyone who wants to know about Hardy and his relationship with Lady Alda.  I do get the impression that there was more enthusiasm for a continuing friendship on Lady Alda's side than there was on his. She began by writing him a fan letter, to which he politely replied, but Hardy was not a man who gave a great deal of himself away, and, of the 18-year correspondence between Stourhead and Max Gate, only three of the letters that survive were written by Hardy himself; the rest were exchanged by Alda Hoare with his two wives - first Emma, until her untimely death in 1912, and later by Florence, whom he married two years afterwards.

The sympathy shown by Lady Alda when Emma died was equalled by Florence's response to the news that Harry Hoare, aged 29, had died of wounds received while fighting in Palestine in 1917.  His service in the Middle East did not overlap with that of Siegfried Sassoon, who did not arrive there until the spring of 1918, by which time there was little going on in the way of military action.  Sassoon saw no fighting until his return to the Western Front.

Lady Alda herself had been busy supporting the war effort by welcoming "Tommies", as she referred to them in her diary, to Stourhead and encouraging them to eat enormous teas, including such treats as game sandwiches and currant-cake. The men came from a convalescent hospital in nearby Mere.  Even after the loss of her son, she continued to entertain them, and I cannot help thinking it gave her a reason to carry on.  Harry had a good baritone singing voice and sometimes sang, accompanied by his mother, at musical evenings in the drawing room at Stourhead.  This activity brought mother and son together, and her love of music was a comfort to her in the years following this great loss. She referred to the Tommies as her "soldier sons", and it proved truer than she had ever intended.  Sir Henry wrote that Harry was "our only and the best of sons".