One Wednesday morning in November 1912 the ageing Thomas Hardy, entombed by paper and books and increasingly estranged from his wife Emma, finds her dying in her bedroom. Between his speaking to her and taking her in his arms, she has gone.
The day before, he and Emma had exchanged bitter words – leading Hardy to wonder whether all husbands and wives end up as enemies to each other. His family and Florence Dugdale, the much younger woman with whom he has been in a relationship, assume that he will be happy and relieved to be set free. But he is left shattered by the loss.
Hardy’s bewilderment only increases when, sorting through Emma’s effects, he comes across a set of diaries that she had secretly kept about their life together, ominously titled ‘What I Think of My Husband’. He discovers what Emma had truly felt – that he had been cold, remote and incapable of ordinary human affection, and had kept her childless, a virtual prisoner for forty years. Why did they ever marry?
He is consumed by something worse than grief: a chaos in which all his certainties have been obliterated. He has to re-evaluate himself, and reimagine his unhappy wife as she was when they first met.
Hardy’s pained reflections on the choices he has made, and must now make, form a unique combination of love story and ghost story, by turns tender, surprising, comic and true. The Chosen – the extraordinary new novel by Elizabeth Lowry – hauntingly searches the unknowable spaces between man and wife; memory and regret; life and art.
Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Chosen in exchange for an honest review, and many apologies for taking so long post this! As penance (not really – I was very keen to go!), I recently took the book on a pilgrimage to Hardy’s Cottage, where he was born, and Max Gate, where he lived with Emma, hence the photos in this post.
I knew I would enjoy this novel, as I am a big fan of Hardy, and a Wessex girl to boot, but I have to admit I wasn’t expecting to be so caught up in the microcosm of time and place that the author creates in this book. It is appropriate that the late, great Hilary Mantel is quoted on the cover – Elizabeth Lowry’s Hardy comes to life as vividly as Mantel’s Cromwell, with that same almost uncanny quality of the writer seeming to possess the subject. Hardy’s innermost thoughts are laid bare, and as you’re reading, you believe them absolutely to be true.
The Chosen focuses on a specific time in Hardy’s long life, when his wife of forty years has passed away. Their relationship, so full of possibilities at the start, had become a twisted, bitter estrangement long before she dies, and yet he mourns deeply, so deeply, in fact, that he cannot shake the feeling that her presence lingers still. Hardy’s fragile state of mind, his ageing body, his accumulated disappointments, coat the pages of the novel in a fine dust of nostalgia and regret.
The depiction of grief for something long gone is almost unbearably poignant – it really moved me. The novel is an exploration of this very particular type of mourning, taking the essence of Hardy’s beautiful poem ‘The Voice,’ and building his world and his experiences back up around it. That is such a brave and brilliant premise for a novel – not to distil, but to expand, and I’m in awe of how the author pulls it off.
The prose is crisp and precise and wonderfully evocative – even in the most simple lines, there is so much to enjoy, from satisfying descriptions of the weather: “The rain of last week has thinned to a scrim,” to the image of Hardy as a boy licking jam off his fingers: “Jam is a daily treat he’s allowed because he is not strong. He licks his fingers slowly, trying to delay the disappointing moment when he will taste himself.”
This novel is jam-packed (sorry!) with perfect sentences, elevating domestic mundanities to things of beauty, and it is so clever, because this is exactly what a writer does, and here is a writer, doing it expertly, while capturing another brilliant writer on the page. It’s exactly the sort of layered, complex, carefully constructed but never artificial writing that honestly gets my nerdy writer side completely overwhelmed with excitement! I am really looking forward to reading more work by Elizabeth Lowry – I’m in awe of her talent.
This is not a warm, cosy, cheering book – if you know Hardy’s work, you know better than to expect that from a book about the writer – it is elegant and elegiac, rich with that particular tone of mourning that we also find in music, or in poetry. This novel meant a lot to me, because of its premise of giving yourself permission to mourn for something that really was over long ago, and I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time.
I’m going to finish this review by copying Hardy’s poem below, as it gives a much better sense of the feeling of this novel than my ramblings ever could:
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
Thomas Hardy, 1912
The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry is published by riverrun and is available to purchase here.