Monday, 14 April 2014

Writers' Houses 1: Max Gate - by Sue Purkiss

Portrait of Hardy
I think it’s always interesting to visit houses furnished as they would have been in the past. It’s part of this whole thing of trying to imagine life in different periods, of trying to work out whether people are intrinsically the same whatever period they happen to have lived in.

But there’s an extra layer of interest when it comes to visiting writers’ houses. What do the houses say about the writers? Recently I visited Max Gate in Dorchester, the house into which Thomas Hardy moved in 1885, when he was forty five. Hardy actually designed this house, so there’s even more reason to expect that it will tell us something about him.

Max Gate

From the outside, it’s rather forbidding. Built of dull dark pinkish-red brick, it has a central section with a pointed gable, and on either side there’s a square tower topped with a pinnacle – slightly gothic, perhaps. The front garden has mostly gloomy trees and shrubs, which, as you approach, partially obscure the view of the house – it’s as if the house is hiding: though to the left and rear of the house is a much pleasanter, happier garden, with flowers, lawns and vegetable beds. It’s a house that would serve very well as the setting for a ghost story, with figures flitting across the small upstairs windows – particularly the Rapunzel-like casements high up in the towers. No wonder, perhaps, that Hardy wrote such gloomy, doom-ridden stories here.

The sitting room
Inside, however, the feeling is quite different. It has the most relaxed feel of any National Trust house I’ve been into: the stewards invite you to go into the kitchen and help yourself to tea, sit anywhere you like to drink it, pick up anything you want to look at. The dining room is perhaps not fully restored yet; it doesn’t feel lived in. But the sitting room is another matter. It’s colourful and cosy, with red walls covered with pictures, comfortable saggy armchairs, tables piled with books and magazines. It looks as if it’s just waiting for Hardy to sit down and have tea with a visitor – in later years T E Lawrence, perhaps, ridden over from his retreat nearby at Clouds Hill on his Brough Superior motorbike. 

Just off the sitting room is a conservatory, or garden room. The house was built on an archaeological site: when the ground was being prepared for building, an ancient grave was found, containing skeletons curled up in a foetal position. And Hardy found a stone, which he had dug up and set upright in the garden; recently, others have been found nearby, and it looks as if Max Gate was on the site of a Neolithic stone circle. Considering Hardy’s interest in ancient sites – think of the scene at Stonehenge at the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – this seems astonishingly fitting.

Emma as a young woman
On the first floor are various bedrooms, one of which is set out as Hardy’s study. (His actual study furniture is in Dorchester Museum, and he used several different rooms as a study.) But more poignant are two tiny rooms which you find by venturing up a rather precarious staircase into the attic – Emma’s rooms.

Emma was Hardy’s first wife. They met when Hardy, trained as an architect, went to a village in Cornwall to do a survey of a church in need of restoration; Emma was the rector’s sister-in-law, a woman of thirty, whom the rector was keen to see married off. Pictures of her show a sturdy looking girl, a little heavy-faced, but with creamy skin and a mass of thick chestnut hair. Thomas and Emma married four years later, and at first, all was well. 

As the years went on, however, they grew apart, Emma perhaps jealous of Hardy’s fame and the literary life he led in London for part of the year. Eventually she asked him to make for her these two rooms, and here in the last few years of her life she spent much of her time, sewing, reading, drawing, writing. (She wrote a lively account of her own recollections of her early life, and her drawings of St Juliot Church are better than Hardy’s. If she’d lived now, maybe she would have had her own career, and
would have seen no need to marry someone in whose shadow she would always remain. But who knows!)

On the 27th November 1912, Emma died in one of these rooms. Hardy hadn’t seen her death coming, and he was devastated. He went on a journey back to the places where they met and courted, and the result is an outpouring of his efforts to come to terms with his feelings of loss, in a collection of very beautiful poems: here's a verse from one of them, After a Journey.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
    Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you
What have you now found to say of our past –
    Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
    Things were not lastly as firstly well
        With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.

And perhaps that's a good place to stop.


Kate Lord Brown said...

What a wonderful account - I'd love to visit. It's like reaching out and touching the past when houses like this still live and breathe rather than being preserved as mausoleums. I remember going to an event at Leighton House one night a few years ago, when actors recreated the life of the house and studio - each 'act' in candlelight and gaslight. Love the idea of making a cup of tea in TH's kitchen ...

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, that was great - and just feeling you could wonder around as if it was your own house!

Joan Lennon said...

A rich account of a fascinating house -

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This was wonderful Sue! I've never been to Max Gate but I think that cherry red room looks glorious and the attic rooms, now that you've told your story, are even more poignant. How wonderful to have been made to feel so at home. For a while there you must've inhabited the rooms not just literally but spiritually as well.

I've visited the much smaller thatch and stone cottage of his youth in Higher Bockhampton that is set deep in the woods. I always imagined these woods which he had to walk through to school must've added Gothic flavour to his writing.

Theresa Breslin said...

What a lovely place to visit Sue where you can help yourself to tea!
There's a garden cafe in Dickens' house in London but this sounds even better. Thanks for sharing.