No. 14: Woman much missed, Thomas Hardy

I was pretty excited about reading Woman much missed, being a huge fan of Hardy’s novels.

Purely coincidentally, I picked up a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd last week, a book I read some ten years ago when I first discovered and fell in love with Victorian literature. A colleague spotted me clutching the book, published in tandem with the film set for release this year (with Carey Mulligan in the fiery role of Bathsheba). We soon found ourselves gushing over Hardy’s brilliance, quoting favourite lines from his works and analysing TV adaptations (we agreed Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne as Tess and Angel in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was particularly brilliant casting).

Hardy was a man caught between Victorian industrialisation and early twentieth century war. He’s rather out on a limb, I would argue, and his literature echoes that. Perhaps he is most loved for taking us away from city life to the harsh, poignant realities of rural life.

What I really like about Hardy is that he writes real, flawed male and, importantly, female characters in a time where women weren’t really able to have a voice of there own. His confused, cruel, victimised, feisty women are a cut above the either virginal or haggish women that Dickens was alone preoccupied with.

Hardy’s female characters are, if you will pardon the pun, hardy.

As a result, I was keen to read the poetry collected together in this Little Black Classic, written in honour of his deceased wife. What did Hardy miss about her? Why did he fall in love with her? Who was the woman who would walk through the pages with me?

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A couple of things really struck me about Mrs Hardy.

In the poem ‘Without Ceremony’ Hardy describes how “my dear” would “vanish without a word,” suddenly leaving the room without explanation, and concludes that, now she has passed and he misses her, he will adopt her attitude that “‘Good-bye is not worthwhile!'”

I found this very touching, particularly because this quirk of hers would really irritate me. As someone who always justifies my reason for leaving a room, however menial (normally explaining that I’m just nipping to the loo to my poor colleagues), I don’t think I ever exit silently. How rude! Perhaps it did once drive Hardy to distraction, but his celebrating this quirk of hers in his poetry is rather lovely.

In ‘Lament’ Hardy essentially describes his wife as a keen party-goer – whether it was a lawn party or dinner party. She loved the change of seasons, and Christmas, and the celebrations both brought. She would have been “bright-hatted and loved” and “Her smiles would have shone With welcomings.” It sounds as though Mrs Hardy was very sociable, welcoming both the varying celebrations that each season brought and welcoming her guests with equal relish.

It was clear that Mr and Mrs Hardy shared a love for the countryside and the sea. The poems are littered with these images and there are so many references to rain. I’m not sure whether this is a creation of his mourning or whether the West Country was unfortunate to suffer a few years of awful weather but, heavens, there is an awful lot of rain in Hardy’s Wessex.

In Hardy’s poetry, Mrs Hardy almost seems to be attracted to the sea…

“I found her out there On a slope few see, That falls westwardly To the salt-edged air Where the ocean breaks…”

“O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea, The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free – The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.”

These quotes are taken from two separate poems. The image of Mrs Hardy, windswept by the sea stayed with me, although I still struggled to make sense of who she was. She just didn’t jump off the pages for me in these poems. Really, what was entirely spelt out, was Hardy’s grief.  Here is, very obviously, a man in mourning, desperate to be in her place instead.

It was clear to me that I needed to head to the seaside, in order to have my own hair flapping free and taste that salt-edged air. This was no hardship, as I do like to be beside the seaside*.

(*sung, with foot tapping)

I decided to read up more on Mrs Hardy beforehand so that I could take her with me to the scene that she seems to favour, certainly in Hardy’s poetry. I was very surprised and, truth be told, rather upset by what I found. The woman of Hardy’s poetry and the woman I read about didn’t seem to be one and the same.

Emma Glifford was from Plymouth (my Mum’s hometown) and married Thomas Hardy when she was 34, which seems rather late in life for a Victorian woman to marry. After twenty years, their marriage became strained, possibly because they were unable to have children, possibly because Jude the Obscure came between them, having many poignant parallels with their own life together.

They began to spend time apart and Hardy met another woman. Emma became a recluse while Hardy started a new life with his mistress. She died at the age of 72, and amongst her possessions Hardy found a diary, essentially a burn book, listing all of Hardy’s wrongs against Emma.

A seed of guilt grew and grew, and Hardy never forgave himself for the unhappy life he had created for his wife. Hence this collection of terribly sad poems.

Needless to say I have paraphrased this enormously; there are many more complexities to their lives that my words won’t do justice.

With this in mind I headed for Dungeness, a place so eerie it could be the perfect setting for tragic poetry and ghostly figures from literature. It also has a nuclear power station. Ooh er. A hotspot indeed!

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Dungeness is, admittedly, on the English Channel, whereas Hardy was linked to the West Country and the North Atlantic. But I am one woman with one salary, and the West Country was a long way to travel for a brisk seaside walk.

Appropriately, it was a miserable, overcast day with plenty of drizzle. Hardy would have approved. Consequently, I didn’t tread the pebbles or approach the water as much as I would have liked. I was also full of fish and chips and although a good helping of sea air did me good, my heavy, cold body and wet hair craved a good cup of tea at home.

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Dungeness is an important place to my family. We make an annual trip to the scene (the UK’s only desert, did you know) and revel in it’s weird, desolate atmosphere.

There is something very compelling about it. It seemed like a good place to take Hardy and his wife. Sure enough, I could picture her, holding on to her hat as she strode along the shingle, a dot on the bleak landscape.

I feel very sad for Mrs Hardy, and Thomas Hardy too. His poetry clearly includes a lot of poetic license, his guilt translating to grief throughout. Their story could almost be found between the pages of one of Hardy’s own novels.

Thank you so much Poppy for picking Woman much missed. No. 14 because we became friends when we were 14 years old! Next time I will be blogging about The Beautifull Cassandra.

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No. 26: Of Street Piemen, Henry Mayhew

Prior to reading these chronicles of Victorian London, I had no existing knowledge of Henry Mayhew. I restrained from typing his name into any search engine, relishing the prospect of my first Little Black Classic being a complete unknown.

What I found was a very revealing and genuinely gripping account of life in Victorian London, without the familiar circus cast of Dickens’ cannon. Ultimately, this is a great read for anyone living in London or any Londonphiles.

A collection of eight extracts, taken from various articles and essays, guide the reader through varying London scenes: the struggling independent piemen competing against pie powerhouses; the small, more human appearance of the Metropolis from a hot air balloon; the chaos of popular markets; the lewd and clearly tempting setting of the Music Hall; the progress reflected in London’s great ports; the poverty and squalor of young flower girls; the rural views offered by a train journey to Clapham; and finally the patience of local birdcatchers.

It has to be said that I do skim read long descriptions in any book (cheating, I know) and Mayhew’s elaborate depictions were no exception. I tend to regard detailed scene descriptions as waffle, preferring soundbites of description. For example, in one city portrayal Mayhew described London as ‘one immense black spot’, a portrayal that I paused to drink in.

Mayhew also drew a lovely image, from the vantage of the hot air balloon, of a train’s cloud of smoke seeming nothing more than the puff of a boiling kettle. An Englishman reducing a revolutionary, industrial machine to a signatory of teatime. Truly marvellous.

I could also appreciate the power of the chapter dedicated to London’s ports; living in London docklands myself, where old weather beaten dock buildings stand aside modern accommodation, I enjoyed imagining the hustle of shipments.

It was the accounts of real life Victorians struggling in the great urban smoke that were particularly compelling, especially as Henry interviewed many himself. It seems that however beautiful the city was from above in a hot air balloon, or outside of a rattling train carriage, this beauty didn’t reach some poverty-stricken city-dwellers.

The opening study of London piemen really captured my imagination. These forty or so street vendors were competing with the new penny-per-pie stores popping up across London, an antiquated version of our independent high street retailers struggling under the weight of giant corporations.

Henry clearly felt for these men, hinting that the quality of the meat in these pies was not the highest, using a lot of seasoning.

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This made me think of happy summers spent in Devon with my Grandparents, in the house my Mum grew up in. The homely and moderately nauseating waft of hot pasties and sausage rolls filling the car as we stopped for lunch is a prominent memory, and today I just need to walk past a West Cornwall Pasty Co. stall to be right back in the back seat, attempting to catch any renegade pastry in a greasy paper bag.

In honour of these hard-working piemen I decided to cook my own traditional, comforting English savoury pie.

I turned to two women for instruction on pie-making.

We had ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ on our family lounge bookshelf for as long as I can remember. Perhaps its sheer enormity is what placed it in my consciousness. I never dared pluck it off the shelf for fear of it falling on me. Death by book.

It was at university that I became more familiar with Mrs Beeton, studying her in one of my modules. A Londoner herself, Isabella Mayson married publisher Samuel Beeton when she was twenty, and thus the first published cookery writer was born. Rather intimidatingly, Mrs Beeton wrote these articles, advising readers on how to successfully run a Victorian household, when she, like me, was in her early twenties.

She covers everything: the different methods for cooking meat; which vegetables are in season when; tips for hosting a dinner party; drugs to keep in the medicine cabinet for all ailments; appropriate care for animals; fashion; and the duties of a housemaid.

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I really like Mrs Beeton. Admittedly, this household bible is rather intimidating. Despite being her age when this was published, I am incapable of poaching eggs. Otherwise, here is an ambitious woman with valuable advice for everyone under the one household roof. She is clearly confident and knows her own mind.

She also signed off letters to her husband with ‘Fatty.’ Here is a woman I could have been friends with.

The second woman I turned to was my Mum, another intelligent, capable woman with a great sense of humour.

Mum studied Home Economics at university (Food Technology in modern terms), which I benefited from, growing up with delicious and nutritious food, and was packed off to university with knowledge of a balanced diet and recipe book written by Mum. Any food related emergency, I call Mum.

Between the two of them Mrs Beeton and Mrs Richards gave me confidence to set to and bake a chicken pie.

I managed to track down mace, a ground spice Mrs Beeton litters her pie with, and also armed myself with rosemary, salt and pepper, remembering Mayhew highlighting that the piemen used a lot of seasoning.

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I confess that I bought the puff pastry rather than making it. I know, I know. I’ll withdraw my Great British Bake Off application anon.

I made a stock with the chicken, herbs and onion, which filled the flat with a lovely, homely smell, while simultaneously boiling some eggs. Move over Nigella.

At Mum’s suggestion I fried up some leeks to add some green to the pie. When everything was ready, I layered chicken, leeks, ham and the sliced hard boiled eggs, before seasoning with mace, salt and pepper. This was followed by half a pint of water and the puff pastry casing.

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I placed this in the oven for 45 minutes and, upon removing this golden crown, I filled it with the gravy as Mrs Beeton instructed.

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It looked and smelled beautiful.

Flavour-wise, I’m not so convinced.

It was terribly watery, and the chicken was rather bland. I did add a lot of seasoning, as recommended by Beeton and Mayhew, but I would often hit a patch of mace, which made my eyes water.

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In Victorian times, I’m convinced this pie would have been delicious, comforting, filling. But for me it was rather tasteless and thin. It didn’t pack much of a punch and it was an awful lot of work. The kitchen was chaos.

All credit to those London piemen; an awful lot of work in a struggling trade.

A big thank you to Tim for choosing my first Little Black Classic. That’s No. 26 ticked off the list! Next time, I’ll be blogging about Thomas Hardy’s ‘Woman much missed.’

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