Book review: Max Gate

By Rebecca Barry Hill

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In fictionalising Thomas Hardy’s life, Damien Wilkins discovers some outrageous truths, writes Rebecca Barry Hill

Damien Wilkins' new book casts Hardy as a shadowy figure. Photo / Aaron Smale
Damien Wilkins' new book casts Hardy as a shadowy figure. Photo / Aaron Smale

Think Thomas Hardy: Far From The Madding Crowd, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Tess Of The d'Urbervilles. Probably less likely to spring to mind: his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey, his heart was buried in Wessex. Or that his beloved but dominant terrier, also named Wessex, had scant regard for his high-society friends. Or that Hardy made his second wife type love poems for his deceased first wife. They are all oddities brought to life in Damien Wilkins' seventh novel, Max Gate.

"Strangely, a lot of the most outrageous things [in the novel] are true," says the 50-year-old Wellington writer. He could find no recognition, for instance, that the writer's poems for Emma Hardy might cause Florence Hardy pain.

As Hardy is lauded as one of the finest English writers, Wilkins is one of New Zealand's great wordsmiths. Wilkins has won just about every literary prize here, including the 1994 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction for The Miserables, and the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize in 2008, allowing him to write Somebody Loves Us All in Menton, France, where Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote.

He juggles this with music (writing songs for his studio project The Close Readers), and his academic role as director of the Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, where he oversees the creative writing PhD students.

The Oxford Companion To Literature describes him as "potentially the finest New Zealand fiction writer of his generation"; he has drawn praise for his ability to observe character and the perception of self and others.

This is true of Max Gate in that it is not directly about Hardy, a shadowy figure in the novel, but a reflection of the often contradictory nature of what is known about him, told by those around him.

The story started life as a play, morphing, over three years, into Wilkins' first historical novel. Set in Hardy's Dorset home in 1928 when the English writer was dying of pleurisy in the upstairs room, it tells the story of the maid, Nellie Titterington. When she's not negotiating the tricky confines of her relationships, she observes Hardy's high-powered friends - Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, museum curator Sydney Cockerell - debating what to do with Hardy's remains.

It's a lyrical novel with beautifully crafted Victorian dialect, lending itself well to performance.

Wilkins, who has also written plays and for TV shows such as The Insider's Guide To Happiness, has engaged professional actors to perform excerpts for its launch at Wellington City Gallery next Thursday.

"What sparked my interest was the scenario of who owns someone after they've gone," he says. "Around the time I started toying with the idea, Maori tangis were being interrupted by body-snatching, and in the back of my head was this idea of ownership, what they deserve and what is owed to someone after death, and the rights that gives you."

Wilkins had also just read Jude The Obscure, the last of Hardy's novels, which scandalised critics in part for its criticisms of religion, and led the author to produce mostly poetry for his remaining years. Wilkins was startled by the raw emotional world Hardy created, with scenes that still had the power to shock.

"Books written that long ago, you expect to reach us only as classic works but Hardy is not like that. He's odd and difficult to categorise. His imaginary world did penetrate powerfully, there was that deep strangeness in his books. There were certain expectations about polite 19th century writing. And, of course, he had a problem with polite 19th century living."

Wilkins adds that Hardy was a complicated man who moved between cruelty and kindness, coldness and warmth. He had an affinity for animals, much of which plays out in Max Gate, yet he often bullied people.

"He was a very interesting mix of impulses hiding within a very benign exterior, an old man in a waist jacket and hat, who was nice to cats."

Even with this rich material for a novel, Wilkins couldn't escape the feeling of disappointment that he'd chosen a writer to write about. It struck him as potentially too inward, too reliant on his own obsession with the creative process. He worried it would find an audience only among Hardy fans or fellow writers. The key breakthrough was finding a way for the narrative to move from the human drama of the characters to the animal world and landscape, which he achieves with his distinctive, poetic language.

The other challenge was finding the balance between fact and fiction, the truth being a malleable commodity in historical fiction.

Alongside the various Hardy biographies and books about Hardy's friend J.M. Barrie, Wilkins found information and inspiration in online sources, including the London Dog Forum, the British Newspaper Archive, Dorset Dialect and Dorset Ancestors, where he came across Hardy's maid, the real Nellie Titterington.

Wilkins created a world for her, including a romance, and Nellie soon became swept up in the drama that followed Hardy's death.

"It's a strange thing when you write a novel like this," says Wilkins.

"If I sat a test on Thomas Hardy I'd get a lot wrong because so much of it has become my invention and that has become a status of fact. I can almost see a witty situation where I'm lost in a soup of failed attribution. It was important for me to stop finding out more about Hardy, because there's so much. His letters alone reach five volumes. I felt I could just die. At a certain point, you have to swallow your research and ingest it and that's it."

The sheer volume of contradictory information about the man, not to mention Hardy's own vivid imagination and tendency to bend the truth, gave Wilkins the confidence that he could do the same.

Hardy was so protective and concerned about his reputation that he dictated his "biography" to Florence. It was released after his death.

"The house was really about secrets and disguises," says Wilkins, "and that provided a rich emotional world."

Max Gate (Victoria University Press $30) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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