Hardy's wives were not inclined to be reticent about the trials of life at Max Gate. Florence was struck with uneasiness after one particularly edgy bout of discontent: 'I hope you burn my letters. Some are, I fear, most horribly indiscreet.' But her husband was by then the most famous literary man of his age, and Florence's letters were not for burning. They might, after all, be worth something. Neither Emma nor Florence could come to terms with having the value of their lives measured by that of their husband. It is hard to know whether the first or second Mrs Hardy had the more doleful time. Emma is more mysterious. Already 33 when she married Hardy in 1874, she was a mature woman with decided opinions and a strong sense of self-esteem committing herself to a shy but ambitious novelist. Oddly, not one of the letters she wrote before her marriage, or for many years after it, has survived. She would have been far from pleased with Michael Millgate's speculations on their disappearance. 'In her later years she was often regarded as a faintly ludicrous figure, and in her earlier years her status as Miss Emma Gifford or even as Mrs Thomas Hardy might well have been insufficient to ensure that her letters would be kept and treasured.' It was Emma herself who seems to have destroyed her early letters to her husband. Just two poignant scraps remain, transcribed by Hardy. In 1870, only months after they met, she wrote to him: 'I take him (the reserved man) as I do the Bible; find out what I can, compare one text with another, & believe the rest in a lump of simple faith.' Perhaps Emma was hurt to see such trusting intimacy transformed into grist for a literary mill. A revised version of what she had written appears in A Pair of Blue Eyes, published the year before her marriage to Hardy.
LRB 14 November 1996 | PDF Download