Sunday, July 27, 2014

Thomas Hardy's Wife

The day after David and I climbed the artificial hill of Maiden Castle, I got up early, and leaving Mother and David sleeping, I walked through the cold, misty streets of Dorchester.  The faint early morning light filtering through low-hanging clouds made the pavement and all the buildings look gray.  I searched for Max Gate, the house the novelist Thomas Hardy built after he became rich and famous..

Hardy’s life was almost a “rags to riches” story.  He was born in 1840 in a thatched roof cottage.  His father was a stonemason.  While not exactly living in poverty, his father and all his relatives were definitely lower class.  (I wonder how many Americans reading Hardy’s novels realize that all of them were inditments of the British class system?) As a young man Hardy went to London for advanced training as an architect.  He felt the Oxford graduates he met there all looked down on him because of his lower class background. 

For several years he worked as an architect.  He met his wife, Emma, daughter of a clergyman, when he was in Cornwall working on the restoration of her father’s church.  Then his novels were published, and he quit work to devote his life to writing.  He became rich and famous.   He went home to Dorchester and built his dream house.  Called Max Gate, Hardy designed the house, and his brother, who followed their father in the trade, built it.

I found Hardy’s home on the edge of town, not far from Maiden Castle.  (I don’t remember the pre-historic mound being mentioned in any of Hardy’s novels, but I don’t remember a lot of things.)  I do remember how surprised I was. The grounds were surrounded by a high brick wall.  A pair of tall iron gates bared entrance to the drive with a sign: Private Property, No Admittance.  Just like T. E. Lawrence’s Cloud Cottage! 

Peeking through the bars on the gate, Hardy’s “dream house” was a tall brick structure, one of the ugliest Victorian houses I ever saw.  Hardy was a bad architect.  How lucky we are that he was able to make a living as a writer and did not inflict any more of his designs on Victorian England! 

Years later Edward R. Hamilton, Bookseller had a sale, and I ordered a biography of Thomas Hardy, a handsome, hard-bound edition, for $2.98.  (It is still on my bookshelf.)  From Claire Tomalin I learned that Thomas and Emma were miserable living in Max Gate. 

The trouble was that Emma also fancied herself a writer.  Thomas persuaded his publishers to include a couple of her stories in their magazines, but even to please the famous novelist, they refused to publish any more of Emma’s work.  Emma’s stories were not any good. 

Emma refused to see any difference in the quality of her work and that of her husband.  She became bitter and angry.  Hardy began to take frequent trips to London where, now that he was famous, he was lionized wherever he went.  Emma grew to hate her husband.  She retreated to a little room in the attic, where in solitude she continued to scribble away at stories and poems until she died, a bitter, lonely old woman.

After reading Tomalin’s biography, I began to wonder: Am I another Emma Hardy?  I’ve worked so hard on novels that no one will publish.  Perhaps my work is not any better than Emma’s.  

There is one difference: I have not retreated from the World.  I go to lunch and entertain the old people at my table with my stories.  They seem to enjoy them; they ask me to come sit with them again.  If I can lift the spirits of the old folks, many of them in constant pain, then my life has been worthwhile.

I continue to write.  (Yes, this blog, plus novels)  Whether or not anyone else wants to read them, I must keep writing.  I am a writer.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Discovering the Ancient Brits

Not many tourists go to Dorchester.  It is too far from London, and not as picturesque as Cornwall, where Doc Martin is filmed..  I took Mother and David to Dorchester so that I could see the hometown of the author Thomas Hardy, best known for his novel, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”  In his novels he called the town “Casterbridge.”.  It is a typical English country town, which looks as if it has not added a new building since Hardy was writing about it in the 19th Century.

The most exciting structure David and I found in Dorchester was not the Hardy sites, but a pre-historic fort, built thousands of years before the country was called England – before the Romans left mosaic floors buried all around the countryside, before the Angles and Saxons invaded and wiped out all the native Brits.  Not one word of the modern English language comes from those ancient people.

But the original Britains left some remarkable remains.  Every one wants to see Stonehenge.  To cope with millions of visitors, the huge parking lot is across the road.  I followed tourists wearing blue jeans and short shorts, tank tops and tee shirts, their flip-flops slapping against the pavement as we walked through a long tunnel, only to come up to stand behind a fence, so far away that the big stones looked no bigger than my grandparents gravestones in Rockwall Cemetery. Like watching a football game from the upper stands of Cowboy Stadium.

At Dorchester we were the only visitors the day I stopped the car at the base of  a huge earthen mound, right at the edge of Dorchester, overlooking its quaint half-timbered houses.  Today the English call the structure  “Maiden Castle.”  No one know what the original builders called it   It reminded me of Cahokia Mounds in Southern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.  Once when on my way from Chicago to Albuquerque, I stopped at Cahokia and climbed to the top.  I had a clear view of the Gateway Arch. 

In England Mother waited in the car (she missed a lot of things in England while David and I had adventures.)    He and I climbed to the very top of Maiden Castle.  There was no path, just steep (very steep) sides.  I huffed and puffed while David scampered ahead like a goat as we climbed up and up, through a series of trenches which ringed the entire structure, forming impressive defenses for the ruined earthen fort at the top.  David and I were surprised as we reached the top of a trench and looked down on a cow quietly grazing where the ancients once fought off invasions by other tribes.  The cow turned and gave us a bored look, as if to say, "What are you two foolish humans doing here in my hillside pasture?"

 I have seen the Parthenon in Greece and equally impressive Greek temples in Sicily.  In Rome I saw the Coliseum, and was surprised to learn that the rest of Ancient Rome is still there, buried beneath thirty feet of dirt and garbage.  T. E. Lawrence first went to the Middle East as an archeologist studying Hittite ruins.  The Hittites were an important force in the Middle East a thousand years before Alexander the Great marched through. 

The Hittite Empire reached its zenith 3500 years ago.  Now the Hittites have vanished like the original Brits.  Like the mound builders of Southern Illinois. 

What makes us sure that the Washington Monument – or Cowboy Stadium – will stand forever?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia

On Monday during the long hours of dialysis, I read the new Smithsonian Magazine for July/August.  It is packed full of interesting articles.  I’ll be commenting on some of the others in weeks to come. But first I will write about Lawrence of Arabia. 

Surely you saw the film.  Young, tall, impossibly handsome blonde Peter O’Toole, dressed as an Arab sheik, striding along on top of  railroad cars. Flowing white robes billowed around him as he lifted his arms in triumph while below his Arab followers cheered his victory over the Turks. 

The Smithsonian agreed that the film was historically accurate, for the most part, except to point out that unlike the tall (over six feet) O’Toole, Lawrence was only 5 foot 3.  Ivor Prickett, author of the Smithsonian article, visited ancient Hittite ruins where young T. E. Lawrence worked as an archeologist before World War I.  The author also went to places associated with Lawrence’s World War I battles.  The site of his most famous achievement, the capture of Aqaba, a small mud village but a vital Turkish port, is now a holiday resort with high-rise buildings. The sea where Lawrence waded triumphantly is now a place where young Jordanians frolic in the surf.. 

At the end of World War I, Lawrence of Arabia was the most famous man in the World.  One can only wonder what the Middle East would be like today if he could have persuaded his superiors to give the Arabs their one, independent country. Instead, the territories were divided into Syria, Iraq, Jordan, etc. under firm British and French control.  That’s what led to the horrible conflicts in which our country is mired today – with no way out.

Lawrence, a colonel in the British Army was bitter about the lies he told the Arabs at the command of his superiors.  Disillusioned he tried serving in the Army under various aliases.  Giving up, he retreated to a tiny cottage in Dorset. On the last page of the Smithsonian article is a large, color photograph of a brightly painted Cloud Cottage overlooked by purple rhododendron blossoms.

In 1983 I took Mother and my son David to England.  I drove a little red rental car all around England and Scotland, David as my navigator sat beside me finding directions with detailed maps (4 miles to the inch), Mother in the back seat with the luggage, seeing Great Houses and Castles.  Mother and David had no choice as to where we went.  I took them to Cloud Cottage. 

It was a gray day.  The tiny cottage (two small rooms on the first floor, two more above beneath the rafters, no kitchen, no bathroom) was hidden by scraggly bushes and surrounded by a tall, wire fence.   A gloomy sight. Although it is listed as the equivalent of one of our National Monuments, from the car’s widow I read the placard on the gate which said,  “no admittance.” 

I did not linger.  The sun came out as I turned the car west towards Dorchester.  Was this the road Lawrence rode his motorcycle to visit his friend, author Thomas Hardy?  Was this where he had his fatal accident?  All along the narrow road were wild rhododendrons, tall as trees and covered with gorgeous  purple blossoms.  The flowers arched over the road and covered nearby hillsides.  In all my travels my eyes never enjoyed any sight more lovely.