A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
After his wife Emma’s death in 1913, Thomas Hardy made a pilgrimage to Cornwall to grieve his loss and relive their courtship. This is the first poem he wrote after that journey.
Why go to Saint-Juliot? What's Juliot to me?
I've been but made fancy
By some necromancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.
Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
And a maiden abiding
Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.
And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
There lonely I found her,
The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.
So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
That quickly she drew me
To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.
But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
Can she ever have been here,
And shed her life's sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?
Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
Or a Vallency Valley
With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?
In March 1870 Thomas Hardy came to St Juliot in north-west Cornwall as a 30-year-old trainee architect, with instructions to measure and survey a dilapidated 14th century church needing restoration. He was greeted at the rectory by Emma Gifford, who was living there with her sister Helen and her brother-in-law, the Rector Holder. Emma was a vibrant beauty with blue eyes, and long ringlets of corn coloured hair that a friend said lent her ‘the look of old pictures in Hampton Court Palace.’ Her speech and manner enchanted Hardy and she struck him as delightfully unrestrained.
Emma later wrote that she felt,
…a curious uneasy embarrassment at receiving anyone, especially so necessary a person as the architect: I was immediately arrested by his familiar appearance, as if I had seen him in a dream – his slightly different accent, his soft voice; also I noticed a blue paper sticking out of his pocket.
St Juliot was a small, remote hamlet offering little in the way of social opportunity beyond the occasional clergyman or school inspector so the visit had been eagerly anticipated. Initially Emma found this reticent, socially awkward man in his ‘rather shabby great coat’ who appeared ‘much older than he was’ somewhat unprepossessing. But during his three-day visit they bonded over their love of literature, each wishing to become writers. With pleasure Emma discovered the blue paper in Hardy’s pocket was a poem. Soon she was agreeing with a friend that neither liked handsome men, deciding that ‘clever, well read ones were more to our taste’.
Hardy spent much of his time on the church, but on the third day they went out unaccompanied on the coastal path, Emma on horseback. He was entranced by her boldness as she galloped along the dangerous edge of Beeny Cliff, her hair streaming behind her, ‘wild and free’, an image that would return to haunt him after her death.
Hardy was invited by the Holders to return in August for three weeks. They had blissful hot weather and Emma’s brown dress had been changed for an ‘air-blue gown’. He wrote in his notebook:
The smoke from a chimney droops over the roof like a feather in a girl’s hat. Clouds, dazzling white, retain their shapes by the half hour, motionless, and so far below the blue that one can almost see round them.
Emma played the pianoforte well and she and Hardy would sing duets together in the evenings. He later documented this aspect of their courtship in his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes:
The profile is seen of a young woman in a pale gray silk dress with trimmings of swan’s-down, and opening up from a point in front, like a waistcoat without a shirt; the cool colour contrasting admirably with the warm bloom of her neck and face. The furthermost candle on the piano comes immediately in a line with her head, and half invisible itself, forms the accidentally frizzled hair into a nebulous haze of light, surrounding her crown like an aureola. Her hands are in their place on the keys, her lips parted, and trilling forth, in a tender diminuendo, the closing words of the sad apostrophe:
O Love, who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier!’
Her head is forward a little, and her eyes directed keenly upward to the top of the page of music confronting her. Then comes a rapid look into Stephen’s face, and a still more rapid look back again to her business, her face having dropped its sadness, and acquired a certain expression of mischievous archness the while; which lingered there for some time, but was never developed into a positive smile of flirtation.
They shared a love of nature and Emma showed Hardy her favourite places: the waterfall at Pentargon; the hidden Valency river that ran from the woods beyond the churchyard all the way to the sea at Boscastle; the romantic ruins of Tintagel and the treacherous narrow inlet of Trebarwith Strand, where women loaded seaweed and sand into panniers on their donkeys.
For Hardy the beauty of the wild landscape enhanced Emma’s appeal, as he describes in his poem ‘I Found her Out There’:
I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the salt-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.
Emma later wrote of their time In Cornwall:
Scarcely any author and his wife could have had a much more romantic meeting. A beautiful sea-coast, and the wild Atlantic ocean rolling in, with its magnificent waves and spray, its white gulls and black choughs and grey puffins, its cliffs and rocks and gorgeous sun settings.
They had fallen in love but their courtship was to be protracted over four and a half years. Hardy returned to London and they had to rely on letters. Money was their main obstacle. Hardy was an as yet unpublished writer living on the wages of an architect’s clerk, while Emma’s father had given up his work as a solicitor for a life of leisure, thereby sending the family into reduced circumstances.
During these years Hardy was remarkably productive, writing four novels at night after full time work: Desperate Remedies (1871), Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). All were published, although some not without initial rejection. Whenever Hardy felt despondent, Emma would buoy his spirits and encourage him to persevere. Her selflessness touched Hardy, for his financial prospects as an architect looked far more promising than this risky business of writing.
Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, based as it was on his courtship with Emma, presaged early difficulties in their relationship. The hero, Stephen Smith, mulls over the fact that his ‘self denigration’ causes his love interest, Elfride, to ‘under value’ him. And his preoccupation in the novel with the difficulties of falling for someone above one’s social standing mirrored his own situation with Emma. It was well known that Emma’s father, a solicitor, did not welcome the son of a country builder as his daughter’s suitor. After the meeting to ask for Emma’s hand in marriage, Hardy left his future father-in-law’s house angry and humiliated. He never spoke to her parents again.
All his life Thomas would be keenly aware of class difference and sensitive about his own humble beginnings. Adding to this estrangement, Hardy had kept his love life secret from his own family and when it was finally revealed, his mother barely tolerated their relationship. Emma was to reciprocate Jemima’s hostility.
In 1874 Emma disappeared for some nine months. It is believed she might have been in London while Hardy was in Bockhampton. If this absence represented a hiatus in their relationship it has never been explained, but they were finally married on 17th September 1874. It was a quiet wedding, none of their parents attended, and neither of them wrote much about it. They departed for a trip to France before settling in Surbiton, still a rural area within easy reach of London, and later moving to Dorset.
Their union seemed happy to begin with. Emma was devoted to Hardy and his career. He was easily discouraged and Emma would record praise she heard about him in a notebook that she later read back to him. She made fair copies of Hardy’s manuscripts and recorded details of their overseas trips that he could draw from in his novels. They enjoyed many holidays together and took to bicycling through the countryside, sometimes by starlight. They regularly leased a house for the London season and entertained a great deal.
A friend of theirs, Sir George Douglas, commented that he believed them to be as happy as most couples he came across. Although both had made sacrifices, he felt their bond was strong enough for each to be ‘resigned to that sacrifice’. He noted Hardy’s ‘deference’ and his ‘chivalrous’ behaviour toward Emma but felt that she failed to understand the full import of her husband’s work and was rather too interested in knowing people who were well known. He observed that Emma,
…belonged essentially to the class of women, gifted with spirit and the power of deciding for herself, which had attracted Hardy in his early manhood. She had the makings of a Bathsheba, with restricted opportunities.
There is an incident that spells out discontent between them, only ten months into their marriage, which Hardy later recorded in his poem ‘We Sat at the Window’. They have spent a rainy afternoon at a hotel in the Dorset seaside town of Bournemouth but far from enjoying their time together, they find themselves unable to like anything about the other. ‘We were irked by the scene, by our own selves; yes’. But Hardy’s original version had read: ‘We were irked by the scene, by each other, yes’. It is an early sign of a situation in which Hardy says he had failed to ‘see’ Emma. Over the years this failure to see her was to turn into neglect.
Biographers have speculated about the reasons for the deterioration of their marriage. Claire Tomalin suggests that at the early stage when ‘We Sat at the Window’ had been written, Emma might have been discovering that her opportunities within marriage were just as limited as they had been before. Her desires would now be secondary to Hardy’s. To their deep regret they were childless, and Hardy spent large amounts of the day cooped up in his study writing. His work always came first.
Over the course of the marriage, a number of differences drove a wedge between them. Emma was religious but became increasingly devout. She strongly disliked the agnostic or atheist views expressed in some of Hardy’s works that documented his loss of faith. She also objected to the way he wrote about the sexual mores of his characters and tackled subject matter that she perceived as unsavoury.
Emma particularly loathed Jude the Obscure, renaming it ‘Jude the Obscene’. It similarly outraged many middle class Victorians, and was sold in brown paper bags, even burned by the Bishop of Wakefield. Emma detested what she saw as attacks on the church and worried that people would think it autobiographical, which, in fact, was partly true. The book examines a bad marriage between Jude and Sue Brideshead, and the heartbreak it causes them. In the end Sue retreats into religion and becomes a different person from the one Jude had loved. Hardy admitted to a friend that, like Sue, Emma was in love with the idea of love rather than the experience itself. It seems the attraction and admiration Emma had felt for Hardy during their courtship was rarely made physical after marriage.
Like Hardy, Emma had also cherished ambitions to become a writer. Some of her travel articles were published and she wrote a novel and self-published poetry with a mystical emphasis, but Hardy did not encourage her efforts, calling her literary aspirations a ‘painful delusion’.
Consumed by his work, Hardy was neglectful and impatient. Instead of talking things through with his wife and clearing the air, he took refuge in silence and withdrawal. As his fame and reputation grew, so too did Emma’s resentment and criticism of him, and Hardy was particularly sensitive to criticism.
He began to seek the company of other more fashionable women for admiration and understanding, now sharing literary confidences with them instead of Emma. To add insult to injury, some of these women were published writers. They monopolised him, some coming to stay in their home and hurting Emma terribly in the process. She made the frequently quoted remark that it was these women who ‘spoilt’ Thomas – ‘they are the poison, I am the antidote’. But, sidelined and redundant, Emma became an eccentric, jealous embarrassment to Hardy and she eventually retreated from their bedroom to a room in the attic.
Emma’s sudden death in 1912 was a terrible shock to Hardy. He discovered a diary she had kept hidden in the attic, bitterly denigrating him as a husband. Mortified by the depth of her pain and despair, he started to look back on their thirty-eight years of marriage with the realisation that the responsibility for their estrangement stopped at his door, not hers. This triggered in him a period of profound mourning and remorse.
In The Going, one of the earliest poems he wrote after Emma’s death, Hardy reproaches himself for his indifference and neglect:
Why then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal? We might have said
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’
Well, well! All’s past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down so soon…O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing –
Not even I – would undo me so!
But there was more to it than the regret over letting their love retreat into silences and for failing to take Emma back to Cornwall for a visit. For the last five years he had been in love with Florence Dugdale, 40 years his junior. Emma unknowingly had befriended her and for a while a tricky triangular relationship had developed at their home in Max Gate, with Hardy and Emma both vying for her company. Eventually Emma discovered her husband was having more than a secretarial relationship with Florence and withdrew.
Furthermore, Emma’s ‘fleeing’ had not been swift. She had endured a year of pain from the impacted gallstones that were thought to have been the primary cause of her death. The day before she died she agreed to have a doctor visit, although she would not allow him to examine her. The doctor thought her fasting might be making her ill but he could only surmise about the state of her health. After he left, Emma dragged herself upstairs and Hardy went to see a play in Dorchester. The next day she died in the arms of the cook who had been trying to lift her.
In an act that seems self-punishing, Hardy returned to Cornwall in March 1913, forty-three years after their first meeting. Reliving the memories of their courtship in St Juliot, he fell in love all over again with the idea of the woman and the Cornish landscape.
Although he admitted the journey was painful, it yielded a fine poetic harvest. Within the next year, Hardy produced what he called his veteris vestigia flammae (traces of my old flame): Poems of 1912-13. They are a profoundly moving series of poems about loss and remorse, and biographer Claire Tomalin suggests this was the point when Hardy became a great poet.
The poems are lyrical, sometimes conversational, each with a different structure and poetic risks. Their emotional honesty and the way they work through the many nuances of grief, represent a significant shift from Victorianism to Modernism. As is typical of Hardy, they are full of a sense of poignancy for the past. He restores Emma to the cliff tops of Cornwall where she had once been so proud and happy, in her ‘air-blue gown’ with ‘her bright hair flapping free’. The starriness of first love lingers, despite the years of disillusionment that were to follow, and Hardy longs to regain it but it is all too late. These are intensely sad, secretive and mysterious poems and it is surprising that Hardy, a man of deep reserve, allowed them to be published.
Shortly after he completed the Poems of 1912-13 Hardy married the ambitious Florence Dugdale. He had kept the poems from her until they were published with others in a volume called Satires of Circumstance in November 1914. He then gave her a copy inscribed ‘in all affection’. They were a bitter surprise. Florence felt mortified and insulted by what she saw as Hardy’s parading of love for his first wife, a woman who in death became her rival. She wrote to a friend:
I expect the idea of the general reader will be that T.H.’s second marriage is a most disastrous one and that his sole wish is to find refuge in the grave with her with whom he found happiness. Well – all things end somewhere.
‘Break O’ the Day’, (Arr. Townsend) The Mellstock Band, sung by Julie Murphy from Songs of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex
The Mellstock Band play music of old rural England on authentic musical instruments. They have taken the fictional name Hardy used for his home village of Higher Bockhampton in Dorset and on this particular album recorded in 1995, they play traditional songs and tunes he heard as a youth played, by local people in his county.
Dave Townsend (Director) – Concertina, Violin, Voice
Tim Hill – Clarinet, Voice
Phil Humphries – Serpent, Voice
Charles Spicer – Oboes, Voice
Academic and writer John Bayley, in his grief following the death of his wife, writer Iris Murdoch, discovered a sense of kinship with Hardy’s poems about Emma. Arguing against the idea they were written in response to guilt, he said,
The great emotion in those poems is rather of Hardy’s liberated sense of the possibilities of the writing, of “I can now say exactly what I like and what I feel.” In death even, it seems, he was grateful that his wife had given him this gift. In a way, it is the best thing you can possibly leave to a writer: a wonderful subject.
And ‘a wonderful subject’ is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch left John Bayley. Alzheimer’s wrought havoc with her fine mind when Bayley began the first of what became a trilogy of memoirs about this extraordinary woman. Iris: A Memoir chronicles their early love, Iris’s deterioration and Bayley’s account of his care for her while trying to come to terms with her loss. It is also full of the love of a long and successful union. The book was published in 1998, a year before she died. It became an unexpected bestseller and was made into a film, Iris (2001) directed by Richard Eyre, starring Dame Judi Dench, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.
Iris: A Memoir was followed by two more that came out in a rush of energy and perhaps release: Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire (1999), about the last days of Iris; and Widower’s House: A Study in Bereavement, or How Margot and Mella Forced Me to Flee My Home (2001), about his life after her death.
These works divided opinion. Many found their portrayal of this mysterious and sensuous woman tender and moving. Others saw them as a betrayal of a very private person who was no longer in a position to provide her consent. There were further objections about the way Bayley cast himself centre stage in the drama of their lives despite the fact that her fame had eclipsed his, and still does. Annie Proulx when asked if she would marry again after the death of her husband said: ‘Are you kidding? I’ve been there done that and don’t want to do it again. Besides I might get someone like that man who wrote that awful book about his marriage to Iris Murdoch.’
I’ve been drawn to this remote part of Cornwall, again and again, and find it utterly beautiful all year round. The church and rectory can be found down a narrow lane off the main road (B6232) just outside Boscastle on the route to Bude. From this route you will arrive first at the Old Rectory where the lovers met. It was converted into a bed and breakfast in 2000 and is the double gabled house in the pictures. The owners kindly invited me in so I could take some pictures of the dining room.
Farther down the lane is the church of St Juliot. Both church and rectory remain much as Thomas and Emma knew it. Hardy described the church as a ‘lonely edifice…black and bare, cutting up into the sky from the very tip of the hill’. It sits above the Valency Valley and is open to the public most days. St Juliot predates the Norman Conquest and is mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086. It is lovingly tended and when the season allows, is filled with fresh cut flowers.
Mounted on the wall is a tablet in memorial to Emma that Hardy had erected on his return to Cornwall in 1912. In 2000, the Hardy Society gave the church an engraved window designed by Simon Whistler. It illustrates Hardy’s first journey from Dorchester to St Juliot, his architect’s tools and writer’s desk and features scenes from two of his ‘1912-12 Poems’: ‘Under the Waterfall’ and ‘On Beeny Cliff’.
I walked along the cliffs from the tiny harbour of Boscastle, a natural inlet flanked by two stone walls built in 1584. The piebald pony on the clifftop (the one nearest the camera) was the friendliest beast, and left his companions to join me for a walk along the coastal path for a kilometre or so. I made sure to bring him back to where I’d found him. Emma took Hardy to see Trebarwith Strand (second last picture) which has a small beach popular with surfers. But at high tide the sands are completely submerged. The Port William Inn overlooking this beach serves a good lunch and also offers comfortable accommodation.
Most of these pictures were taken in mid June when the foxgloves were at their peak. At one point on my rambling, at the risk of seeming a complete wimp, I was so overcome with the beauty of this place I burst into tears.
A Pair of Blue Eyes can be read here on Project Gutenberg.
Tim Armstrong gives a psychological reading of the ‘Poems of 1912-13’.
Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne discuss Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’.
Details about St Juliot church.
Notes for a 5.6 mile walk on the South West Coast Path from Beeny Cliff to Pentargon Falls.
A video about The Old Rectory, Boscastle, where Hardy met Emma, and which is now a bed and breakfast.
Visit Cornwall features information about accommodation in the vicinity of Boscastle.
Gittings, Robert. The Older Hardy, Penguin Books, 1980
Hardy, Thomas. A Pair of Blue Eyes, Penguin, 1998
Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited, Oxford University Press, 2004
Page, Norman. Thomas Hardy, Everyman’s Poetry 1997
Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Viking, 2006