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The Chosen — an evocation of Thomas Hardy’s widowed grief

When Emma Hardy collapsed and died on a November morning in 1912, a few days after she turned 72, no one could have predicted that her death would inspire some of the greatest love poetry in the English language.

Her marriage to the novelist Thomas Hardy, author of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), had irretrievably broken down decades earlier. Although they still lived together at Max Gate, the house in Dorset that Hardy designed and built, they inhabited separate floors and for years Hardy had treated his wife with cold indifference.

Yet this was the same woman who inspired over a hundred poems, notably the impassioned “Poems of 1912-13, first published in 1914, in which Hardy poured out his feelings of love, remorse and yearning, calling Emma “the one who was all to me”.

Elizabeth Lowry’s third novel, The Chosen, imagines what might have happened in the immediate aftermath of Emma’s death to explain this profound change of heart and the poetry it unleashed. Like her previous novel Dark Waters (2018), a gothic thriller that also centred on a man in existential crisis, The Chosen combines psychological depth with prose of mesmerising beauty. The result is an exquisite double portrait of a marriage and a writer, and the elusively complex relationship between the two.

The novel opens on the morning of Emma’s fatal heart failure, which plunges Hardy into an abyss of “stopped-up regret”. As the landscape of grief collapses time and space, Hardy loses his way in the labyrinth of his memories. One moment he is a grief-stricken old man shambling around Max Gate with a jar of jam in his dressing-gown pocket, the next an enraptured youth standing with Emma on a windswept Cornish clifftop. In his imagination, he speaks to her in the first person, the way one does when an important conversation or conflict has ended without one’s consent. For the reader, the effect is intimate and claustrophobic, like eavesdropping on a private exchange in which every word is freighted with contested history.

Lowry conjures Emma as she took shape in Hardy’s mind over the years of their marriage. But there’s a sense in which he is now Emma’s instrument, commanded to narrate her experience: “My story started with a woman on a shore,” her voice in his head insists. “It began with a castle on a cliff. It began with magic. Now go on.”

Storytelling is one of this novel’s central concerns, and Lowry renders the process of writing — “the daily labour to conjure something out of nothing, to invent the world anew” as Hardy puts it — as both a miracle and a curse. His success as a novelist has depended on Emma, but has also excluded her, and the gift of his creative genius is tragically entangled with the collapse of their marriage.

This is a novel of tremendous range, from the elegiac to the humorous to the sublime. Hardy’s inner turmoil is offset by the practical and often comic realities of daily life at Max Gate. His patient but exasperated sister Kate has to point out that he needs to pay the cook or there won’t be anything to eat. His devoted young secretary Florence Dugdale, later to become the second Mrs Hardy, is meanwhile assessing the scene with a clear and ambitious eye. One of the novel’s greatest pleasures comes from the lyrical precision of the physical descriptions, whether of Emma’s cats “piled before the grate, like rugs left out to dry” or “the fugal boom of the winds rolling down the fields”.

Discreetly embedded within Lowry’s sensuous prose are images and phrases from the “Poems of 1912-13”, bringing Hardy’s authorship of his grief into teasing proximity with her own. In the days after Emma’s death, Hardy in The Chosen senses that she “is everywhere, facing round and about him, a thin ghost rising from the page”, calling to mind the lines from Hardy’s poem “After A Journey”: “Where you will next be there’s no knowing / Facing round about me everywhere”.

These semi-submerged verbal echoes create layers of authorial haunting, with art reflecting life reflecting art ad infinitum. “We became a story, which I thought had ended. But here I am, still telling it,” Lowry’s Hardy writes to Emma after her death.

Emma too is given a voice through her diaries and a memoir (destroyed by Hardy in reality but here reinvented by Lowry) from which she emerges passionate, defiant and ultimately forgiving. Where does the truth lie? Whose version of the past should we trust? While these inventions may enrage historical purists, the blending of fact and fiction is part of the fabric of this novel, and intrinsic to its theme of fabrication.

Vladimir Nabokov described the best of fiction as “a game of intricate enchantment and deception”. In this heartbreaking, life-affirming exploration of the perversity of the human heart and the paradox of creativity, Elizabeth Lowry shows herself the mistress of both.

The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry, Riverrun £18.99, 304 pages

Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)

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