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.” 

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