Christopher Rush on Thomas Hardy, Howard Phipps

The Great-aunt and the Author

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I love finding things that have been stuffed long ago into old books – a letter perhaps, a photograph, or just an old laundry bill with its pounds and pence redolent of an older England, where once Chaucer rode to Canterbury and Falstaff drank his fill. Or more recently, where the Brontës conjured moonlit paths and Hardy drowned a mill.

The great-great-aunt Elspeth whose house we lived in during my 1940s Scottish childhood was a terrific reader of poems, many of which she recited to me from memory. In one forbidden drawer there was a quarto copy of Walter Scott’s Marmion, which many years later I realized was a first edition. Among the other poetry books was the Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, published by Macmillan in 1932. I didn’t know it was there until the old lady died and my mother inherited a few of her possessions. It still sits on my shelves, in rather good condition.

And it still contains the items slipped between its pages by Elspeth. One of these is an original typescript of the poem ‘Before Marching and After (In Memoriam F. W. G.)’, dated September 1915, the month in which it was composed. It would be nice to suppose that it came from the Max Gate study and had been typed out on an old Remington by the slender fingers of Florence Emily Dugdale, Hardy’s second wife and secretary. But a pencilled annotation in my great-great-aunt’s hand reads: ‘This was sent to me by Mr Herman Lea after my visit to Thomas Hardy in July 1915.’

Lea, the much likelier typist, was a Dorset photographer and an intimate friend of Hardy – who shared very few intimacies with anyone, including his two wives. F. W. G. (Frank George) was a young relative of whom Hardy was sufficiently fond to be considering him as a potential heir, a possibility that was ended by Frank’s death at Gallipoli in August.

That my Scottish great-great-aunt should have visited Thomas Hardy, getting through the combined defences of Florence Emil

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About the contributor

Christopher Rush has been writing for over 30 years. His books include To Travel Hopefully and Hellfire and Herring, and Will, a novel about Shakespeare. He is currently working on a novel about Odysseus.

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