Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Thomas Hardy's house of secrets thrown open to the madding crowd

For the first time since Thomas Hardy’s death in 1928, the Dorset house where he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles and composed his most poignant love poetry is to be opened in full to the public. From mid-March, visitors will be able take in all three floors of Max Gate, designed and built by the author himself.
Moments of real revelation are in store for literary pilgrims who make the trip to Dorchester, said Jacqueline Dillion, the American PhD student who this month was appointed scholar-in-residence. Hardy, she said, is in the very grain of Max Gate, and almost every facet of his life is revealed in its structure.

Take the drawing room with its long windows allowing inspiration to flood in. J. M. Barrie, one of many famous writers to visit Max Gate, said: “Hardy could scarcely look out of the window at twilight without seeing something hitherto hidden from mortal eye.”

Visitors will be able to see two studies, the first where the author wrote Tess, a tale of love, pre-marital sex and murder that scandalised Victorian society, and the second where, over 40 years or so, he completed some 900 poems.

From the first floor, they can climb to the attic where his first wife, Emma, retreated as the marriage collapsed. The couple became estranged in the 1890s and in later years Emma occupied this second storey. “She wanted her own personal space, and she got it,” said Ms Dillion. “She was up there writing, and below in his study, Hardy would be working too.”

The son of a stonemason, Hardy trained as an architect, but only came to design Max Gate in his forties, by which time he had secured his literary reputation with a succession of novels including Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

In configuring every detail of the house, Hardy brought his own personality to bear on its design, said Ms Dillion. “He lived out half of his life in a house that was designed for his own specific purposes, his dreams,” she added. “He lived out two marriages here, and died in Max Gate. You sense his presence as soon as you walk in.”

Today, the nearby ring road can mask the significance of its location. In fact, Max Gate, with its “wild, bleak look”, is just three miles from the cottage where Hardy was born, which in turn stands on the edge of ominous, glowering moorland that was the basis for Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the setting for The Return of the Native. Yet for all its original rural setting, Max Gate was close enough to Dorchester for Hardy to observe the comings and goings in his fictional “Casterbridge”.

Everything about the house reflects Hardy’s idiosyncrasies, said Ms Dillion. He was so absorbed with the construction process that he drove his easygoing father, Thomas, to distraction as he helped to build it.

Hardy had one turret built when he commissioned the house, then, years later, another. As time passed, and his successes grew, he added more rooms and by the time of his death Max Gate had doubled in size.

Ms Dillion, who has an MA in Victorian studies from the University of Hull, will spend the first 18 months of her tenancy completing a PhD for the University of St Andrews on folklore in Hardy’s literature. For the rest of the time she will concentrate on restoring the house’s original interior design and furnishings.

This will be no easy job. To the dismay of scholars, Hardy ordered that his papers be burnt after his death and his sister, who inherited the house, sold off most of the furniture.

Max Gate passed to the National Trust in 1940, with the stipulation that it should always be occupied. Public access began in 1993, when Andrew and Marilyn Leah became custodians, and the next year opened up the ground floor to the public, two days a week in a short summer season.

Earlier this year, Dillion heard that the Leahs were planning to move on and, with their support, she was installed on a three-year tenancy. Under her care, Max Gate will open five days a week between March and October.

“This part of Dorset repays anyone who has read Hardy and loved Hardy,” said Ms Dillion. “When Max Gate opens up, it will complete a wonderful picture.” 

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Travels with Tess - Arkansas to Dorset via Baghdad 

Jacqueline Dillion may not be the first custodian of Max Gate since Thomas Hardy’s death, but at 28 she is probably the youngest. And she is certainly the first US Army veteran to take up residence, Offering proof positive that great literature endures even the most extreme circumstances.

“I kept a battered, dirty copy of Tess under the seat of the Humvee in Baghdad. I snuck it out when mortars were hitting,” said Ms Dillion, a former military intelligence specialist with 1st Cavalry Division.

For the National Trust, the owner of Max Gate, she is clearly not just some academic caretaker. Her age and enthusiasm offer much more: marketing power. “I guess there is something about promoting ‘Hardy country’,” she said. “Maybe the notion is to inspire a younger generation of readers.”

Quite how a former frontline soldier will cope with rattling around alone in a huge Victorian pile is anyone’s guess. Iraq was full of danger, excitement, noise, comradeship and fear. “Maybe the Dorset countryside will have a calming effect,” she said. “It’s kind of a hard act to follow.”

Ms Dillion grew up in the Arkansas Bible Belt and took her first degree in America before she was called up in 2003 as a reservist. She was already a “lifelong Hardy advocate”, converted by her first encounter with Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the age of 14. “My grandparents were poor bean farmers,” Ms Dillion 
explained. “When I went back to the farm, with the smell of horse manure, it was another world. Reading Hardy was a way to see the beauty in that rural place — to see that people aren’t just backward farmers, they have real literary worth, they endure tragedy and drama. Everything you find in the best literature you also find in that landscape.”

For years, she loved Hardy’s Dorset from afar: the hidden passions, the human anguish, the brooding presence of nature. “But you can romanticise anything — then you have to live it.” 

Friday, 3 December 2010

Prisoner of his own conscience

Scotsman 17 June, 2002 
It’s a special kind of contrarian who can irritate all sides in politics, but then, for all his languor over lunch, Christopher Hitchens is what you’d call an especially contrary fellow.
This is a journalist whose meticulously documented contempt for Mother Teresa caused him to be summoned to the Vatican to play devil’s advocate against her memory. He followed that attack with a blast against the cult of Princess Diana which disgusted the Daily Mail. 

But if these shafts cut through the narrow minds of the Right, Hitchens takes no prisoners on the Left. The oleaginous Gore Vidal has anointed Hitchens his natural heir as Grand Pantomime Dame of the American Left, but his successor has no compunction about dismissing Vidal’s latest political work. "Badly written and ponderously argued," he booms in his rich, bass voice. "I’m not looking for a quarrel with him. I’ve tried to avoid it as long as I could ... "

This counts as a mild assault from Hitchens, whose witty, passionate and bellicose outpourings in the aftermath of 11 September stood out as the finest journalistic response to the terrorist massacres. No-one surpassed him in his assault on al-Qaeda, on "Islam with a fascist face". Equally, many on the Left were numbed by his fierce contempt for appeasers in the war against terror.

Even now his enemies are forced to fight a rearguard action. Two weeks ago, the 53-year-old Hitchens was labelled "the poster boy of ‘principled opposition’" by the New Statesman, and derided as the "dishonourable policeman of the Left". His response was to invite the author, Scott Lucas, to "look me up in Washington any time - I am in the book - and have an unscripted exchange with neutral witnesses present".

These days, as George Orwell’s centennial approaches, it is almost inevitable that Hitchens is compared to his literary hero, whose ambivalence to parties and ideologies he has himself adopted ever since he left the International Socialists in 1975.

In a fine London restaurant, it is easy enough to conjure up some clear distinctions between the lean, ascetic Orwell of the 1930s and the robust and bibulous Hitchens, who even now is happily ordering us up a second bottle of red wine. But according to "Hitch", the fundamental difference is one of moral and physical courage. Orwell was the self-denying reporter whose journeys into misery still colour our views of the 1930s and 1940s, a fighter in the Spanish Civil War, who took a bullet in the throat. For his part, Hitchens, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in 1974, and a foreign correspondent who has been shot at in the course of duty, was never in such danger.

Now in his latest book, Orwell’s Victory, Hitchens has sought to rescue his subject from critics who either claim his legacy or scorn his worth. And while he saves much of his spleen for those on the Left who have cast Orwell as a fellow-traveller with the establishment, Hitchens vigorously slaps down the Right, whenever they stumble into view.

Take John Major’s pitiful attempt to link "Eric Blair’s" 1984 with the "doublethink" of one Tony Blair. Hitchens was on it like a flash. "I was delighted when I discovered Major had linked the two Blairs. If he’d have read a word of Orwell, he would have known the huge snorting pig in Animal Farm is called Major. But I felt I shouldn’t point it out - it does Mr Major too much credit." He lets go a throaty chuckle: "Old Major is a fine old pig, rallying the piglets for a struggle."

In contrast to the last prime minister, Hitchens appears well-disposed to Tony Blair, although he says he deplores his "official piety". He applauds the constitutional changes of the past five years and approves of British foreign policy in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, contrasting it with the failures of the Bush administration.

And despite barbs to the contrary from his left-wing critics, he does not bury criticism of Bush, not least because he fears the struggle they have embarked upon may not go well. Therefore, "It matters to point out when they mess up. I wrote a long piece from Kashmir last autumn saying we should worry about the next war.

"America has already committed itself to getting things wrong in Kashmir and Pakistan, for it has for so long neglected the idea of India."

This international outlook has been a constant in Hitchens adult life and he has spent the past 25 years in America ("I felt early on I’d been born in the wrong country," he grunts through a glass of Macallan). The son of an English naval commander, who had worked his way up through the ranks, he was brought up by his mother as the family moved from base to base. She nurtured his love of books before he was sent away to a Methodist boarding school near Cambridge.

By the time he went up to Oxford, Hitchens had dabbled with verse, and thought about writing fiction, but found he couldn’t. At Balliol College he shared rooms with the poet James Fenton. He went on to become friends with novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Very quickly it became apparent he could learn about writing just by spending time with his companions.

Thirty years on, would he accept that journalism is the lesser art? The question is posed three times before he answers head-on. "I would rather put it like this. I think the ability to write a novel or a sonnet is a superior ability. James, Martin and Ian have all written essays and reviews which would stand comparison with anybody’s.

"That is their spare-time work but it’s not their calling. They knew something that I didn’t know.

"I have to say journalism is second-best. It’s not false modesty. I have one idiom in which I can write - James has three.

"Gore Vidal has made political writing an art by fictionalising it, but you can’t keep it in the form it commonly exists in and claim it for art," Hitchens says.

But with all the fire and humour, the angst and aggression that marked his work after 11 September, surely there’s artfulness to be had from that kind of journalism? "But you’re not going to remember it like Mozart, are you?" He counters. "You must realise, at whatever cost to yourself and however much you think you’ve seen, that you have to be able to recognise a new situation when it happens.

"One of my main criticisms of people on the Left like Noam Chomsky and JohnPilger after 11 September was they thought: ‘Here’s a new event, but it just reminds me of what I was going to say anyway and what I’ve been saying all along.’ That was their failure."

We are back to the events which could come to define his career, just as they immediately rearranged his priorities. On 10 September it seemed a Hitchens sponsored campaign to have Henry Kissinger indicted for war crimes was coming to fruition. That day, a group of Chileans had been given leave to bring a lawsuit for murder against Kissinger, and others, for their role in the 1973 coup in the country. The same evening Hitchens delivered a triumphal lecture at Washington State University and, to a standing ovation, concluded: "This day will be remembered for a long time in the struggle for justice."

He awoke the next day to find the world falling apart on his television screen. The Evening Standard rang, and Hitchens responded instantaneously with the first of a sequence of articles whose passionate clarity made sense of the shocking, confusing scenes for thousands of readers around the world.

"It was one of the most beautiful mornings in the history of the world. But the most perfect crystalline view of Manhattan had suddenly been totally obliterated from the air by this ghastly cloud. I wrote that it was ‘as if Charles Manson had been made God for a day’. If you’ve thought that, you aren’t neutral about things. I dumped my campaign - I don’t think the subject of international human rights will go away, but you’ve got to realise when things have changed."

We’re back, more or less where he started, and the question of another whisky is being raised. Does he ever worry he’ll lose his fire? Through a great throaty laugh, he has advice for contrarians everywhere. "If you don’t get up every day whimpering with fear, thinking this is the day they’ll find you out, and say, ‘Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ you’re not doing your job. You should be in a state of permanent fear about being discovered as a blowhard, or as an irrelevance." He decides against the whisky, because the BBC are waiting to speak to him. A blowhard, perhaps, but he’s not an irrelevance yet.

  • Orwell’s Victory is published by Penguin, £9.99.