Review of Damien Wilkins' Max Gate
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
Thomas Hardy often wrote about death's little ironies. There's a poem in the voice of a dead and forgotten woman whose dog, who has also forgotten her, is burying his bone in her grave. There are fictional scenes like Bathsheba Troy unscrewing the lid of Fanny Robin's coffin to discover the secret dead baby in her arms, and the flowers on Fanny's grave washed away by a gushing gargoyle. Often there is black humour, “a laugh from underground,” as another poem puts it. Only Hardy could make a great anti-war poem out of the comic cast of corpses in the village graveyard being astonished awake by the sound of naval gunnery practice.
We like to call him pessimistic and tell how he carried a little wooden scraper on his bicycle trips to take the moss off gravestones. But he was a Dorset countryman who grew up in daily contact with the actuality of death, so made vivid literature of that actuality, just as he did of sexual love, or getting the gas out of the bellies of sheep, or the grasshoppers trapped in the muslin skirts of women going to church. To reach the church, the centre of communal life, you had to pass in every village through the graveyard, the centre of communal death. The two were much less separate than we make them. Hardy had picked his spot years before he died.
So it seemed that death imitated literature when he finally did die, age 87, in 1928, at the house he called Max Gate (originally Mack's Gate, a tollhouse, not a Roman arch). His will stated he should be buried in the plot in Stinsford Churchyard, in company with his ancestors, alongside Emma, his turbulent first wife. His literary admirers claimed him for the nation, for Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Hardy's bereaved second wife Florence was pressured into a decision that she never fully believed was the right one, the compromise of removing his heart for burial at Stinsford, and cremating the body for ceremonial interment at the Abbey, with every big-name writer present.
That's the scenerio that has attracted Damien Wilkins to add Max Gate to the recent wave of - what shall we call them? - author biofics? David Lodge and Colm Tóibín did Henry James, Julian Barnes did Conan Doyle, Alberto Manguel did Stevenson, Lodge tried again with H.G. Wells, and at home C.K. Stead and Patrick Evans fictionally refashioned Mansfield and the Sargeson-Frame ménage. Wilkins stands pretty well in this company. Clearly there is an appeal and a market, though the genre has implicit problems. The novelist may feel free to manipulate and invent, as Wilkins cheerfully admits he did, but readers who are only curious for celebrity details, and seek them from fiction rather than formal biography, will be too credulous, and not appreciate the ingenuity of the fabrications. Others who care about the truth may be incensed by unsympathetic interpretations that seem to claim some biographical validity, as Evans has been discovering.