Max Gate by Damien Wilkins

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Max Gate by Damien Wilkins

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Set in 1928, this novel about Thomas Hardy's last days and curious burial arrangements is narrated primarily by his housemaid.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: June 2016
Publisher: Aardvark Bureau
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781910709139

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This is a novel about Thomas Hardy's last days, but we get an unusual glimpse into his household at Max Gate, Dorchester through the point-of-view of his housemaid, twenty-six-year-old Nellie Titterington. She's the daughter of a local seamstress and dairyman, and with her fellow servant Alice Rigler keeps up a steady stream of bawdy banter. On his deathbed, Hardy is already more of a ghost than a real-life presence in the house. Affairs are run by Florence, his second wife, who is still viewed as something of a usurper because she was Hardy's secretary while his first wife Emma was alive and is 35 years the literary lion's junior; 'here she is, having written her way into the story line by line, just as the borer beetle eats through the floor,' as Nellie memorably puts it.

Florence is currently working on Hardy's biography, written by Hardy himself but converted into an authoritative third-person document. Wessex, their elderly dog, is as spoiled as any child could be, and Sir James Barrie is a frequent visitor. Even before Hardy dies, controversy is raging over where he will be buried: in Westminster Abbey or in the family plot in Stinsford, Dorset? In the end a rather gruesome compromise was reached: his heart, cut out and temporarily stored in a biscuit tin, was buried in Stinsford, while the rest of his body was sent on to London to please the nation. Legend has it that the surgeon's cat knocked the biscuit tin off the mantelpiece and had a surreptitious lick of the heart before anyone could stop it.

Prioritising Nellie's perspective on events is an interesting strategy. Before she worked at Max Gate she was in service in Kent. She still occasionally sees her former sweetheart, Alexander Peters, who will be killed in the war 11 years later, and makes one visit to her mum's cottage; apart from that she keeps to Max Gate and ponders her fondness for the old man lying upstairs:

'Oh why did I care for him? In no way is he a father or even friendly much. I'm invisible, or visible only as image of some ghost-girl, a piece of his past he looks for everywhere and can’t recover. Yet over these four years I've somehow become part of it all, another stone in the path, in the damp wall.'

Ultimately I suspect that using a third-person omniscient voice would have worked better. In fact, some passages – recounting scenes Nellie is not witness to – are in the third person, which felt a bit like cheating. This can be confusing, too: especially in a few series of disjointed, short paragraphs, the narrator is not clearly demarcated. Some of the observations of nature, in particular, don't sound like Nellie.

I was intrigued to learn that this book started life as a play but morphed to become the New Zealand author's seventh novel. It's easy to see how the storyline could succeed as a play, especially if all the scenes were limited to Max Gate itself. Nellie's voice would still shine through in dialogue.

Fans who are familiar with the excellent Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin might not learn much about Hardy and his household dynamics from this novel, but it was fun for me to spend some imaginary time at a place I once visited – in the summer of 2004, on a solitary trip around the Hardy sites of Dorset. By chance, I was at Max Gate on the same day as novelist Vikram Seth and got to accompany him for a quick look into Hardy's study, not part of the usual tour.

I would recommend this book to people who have read one or two Hardy novels and are keen to learn more about him.

Further reading suggestion: If you enjoy reading novels about writers, we can recommend Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker and especially Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent.

Buy Max Gate by Damien Wilkins at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Max Gate by Damien Wilkins at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Max Gate by Damien Wilkins at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Max Gate by Damien Wilkins at Amazon.com.


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