Reviews of Lois Deacon and Terry Coleman, Providence and Mr. Hardy (1966).

Contents (click on items to move through page)

Times Literary Supplement, June 23, 1966 .
William Kean Seymour. Contemporary Review, CCIX, 1966.

Times Literary Supplement, June 23, 1966 .


The relation of imaginative writing to its factual bases is always a difficult problem, but in Hardy's case it is made particularly complex by his own contradictory attitudes. In some circumstances Hardy seemed anxious to establish the historical and geographical actuality of his characters and scenes. He had a strong antiquarian streak that found its way into his work in the guide-book like footnotes that he thrust into his novels, and in fusty prefaces such as that to Under the Greenwood Tree. He also had a naive reverence for facts, and believed that a sentimental or foolish poem was justified if one could aver that it was based on a true story. But when his literary materials touched upon his own private life he became reticent, evasive and obfuscating, and revealed only those facts that were too boring to conceal: of this principle his autobiography, cautiously written over his second wife's shoulder, is a vast, dull example.

Consequently, the "real" Thomas Hardy has remained elusive and unknown (as he apparently was even so to his acquaintances). Some of his critics, despairing of finding the origins of Hardy's inventions in his life, have sought them in his philosophy. But one can be sure that, whatever the real Hardy was, he was no philosopher; he could imagine the human condition but he could not reason about it. Others, less philosophically inclined, have gone on spelunking for the private life, as for example in the Toucan Press monographs which have poured so copiously out of Beaminster in recent years as to suggest that in Wessex the writing of Hardy's biography is a cottage industry.

Providence and Mr. Hardy is an outgrowth of one of those little monographs, Lois Deacon's Tryphena and Thomas Hardy (1962). In her monograph Miss Deacon had argued that Hardy was once engaged to his second cousin, Tryphena Sparks, and that he had addressed many poems to her. The principal evidence for this assertion was the recollection of Tryphena's daughter, Mrs. Bromell, then eighty years old. Now, in collaboration with Mr. Terry Coleman, Miss Deacon has published a more elaborate account of the Hardy-Tryphena relationship, which has become a love affair, with an illegitimate son at the end of it. Again the principal source is the memory of Mrs. Bromell, supported by references to Hardy's writings, read as autobiography. Mrs. Bromell's evidence is based on conversations recorded in 1965, by which time she was eighty-six, and, as the authors confess, "beginning to fail". For half the time, they add, "she was confused and wandered in her thoughts." Yet her testimony is all the evidence there is for the bastard-child theory. It scarcely seems sufficient proof for an event not elsewhere recorded.

That portion of the text which does not derive from Mrs. Bromell's recollections is a precarious structure of conjectures, propped up on perhaps and probably, and buttressed with rhetorical questions. It would be unkind to point out the book's many violations of the ordinary rules of evidence and probability; two examples will serve. First, an argument for a connexion between Hardy's poem, "Beyond the Last Lamp", and Tryphena. The poem bears the note "Near Tooting Common", but no date. Tryphena was a student at Stockwell Training College, Clapham, in 1869-71. "Stockwell and Tooting", Miss Deacon and Mr. Coleman observe, "are both suburbs in southwest London, and Tooting Common is a three-mile walk from the college." Therefore the couple in the poem "could have been Hardy and Tryphena, walking near the college". A simpler explanation of the poem, one might propose, is that Hardy lived in Upper Tooting ten years later, and no doubt walked near the common.

A second example, dwelt on both in the monograph and in the book, is an interpretation of Hardy's preface to Jude the Obscure. Hardy wrote:

The scheme was jotted down in 1890, from notes made in 1887 and onwards, some of the
circumstances being suggested by the death of a woman in the former year. The scenes
were revisited in October 1892....

Tryphena died in March, 1890. Upon this slender fact the authors construct a theory which makes Sue Bridehead Tryphena, and Little Father Time Hardy's son. One may pause to observe, however, than many women must have died in 1890, that Hardy does not say which circumstances were suggested by her death, and that the scenes he revisited in 1892 - scenes which vividly recalled the dead - have no known connexion with Tryphena. No biographical inferences can legitimately be drawn from the Jude passage; the creative imagination is more complicated than that.

William Kean Seymour. Contemporary Review, CCIX, 1966.


Since the modest publication by Mr. J. Stevens Cox in 1962 of Miss Lois Deacon's booklet, "Tryphena and Thomas Hardy", a growing number of Hardy's readers have ranged themselves for and against the claim that the poet-novelist was engaged for five years (1867-72) to his cousin Tryphen Sparks. Hardy was twenty-seven years old when their relationship is said to have begun, and Tryphena sixteen. The wonder is, that no mention of this romantic period in his life was made in the two parts of "The Life of Thomas Hardy" which were published in one volume in 1962, the year of Miss Deacon's booklet. That lady's research has resulted in the book under review, Providence and Mr. Hardy, written in collaboration with Mr. Terry Coleman. It is a remarkable piece of literary detection.

Of particular - even sensational - interest is the claim now made that Tryphena bore Hardy a son ("Randy") possibly short for "Randal" or "Randolph", of whom no registration evidence can be produced - though that might not be unlikely in rural Dorset a century ago.

The discovery came about in this way: Miss Deacon, visiting the Rhineland with a part of West Country Quakers, was talking about the novelist when one of her friends remarked that her grandmother was once engaged to Thomas Hardy. This prompted investigation and soon Miss Deacon had the first of several conversation with Mrs. Eleanor (Nellie) Bromell, the octogenarian daughter of Tryphena who, she said, had broken her engagement with "Tom Hardy" and had returned his ring - subsequently given by him to his first wife Emma Lavinia Gifford (m. 1874). Nellie was eighty when the first conversation took place, and many meetings followed (vouched for by Mr. Stevens Cox) before she died in 1965. Nellie produced a number of photographs from the family album, including one of Hardy aged twenty-two, taken in London and given to Tryphena, several of Tryphena, one of a boy aged eight, whom she identified as "Hardy's boy", and one of a young man, aged about twenty, who, Nellie said, was "Hardy's boy grown up". A set of copies of these photographs has been deposited in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester; also a page of a letter Mrs. Bromell wrote to Miss Deacon, in which she said she once "asked her mother (Tryphena) why Hardy did not come to see them and received the reply that he had 'married a lady' (Emma Lavinia)".

This is the case for acceptance of the story that Hardy had an illegitimate son by his cousin Tryphena Sparks; and of course objection might well be raised that no evidence of birth, death, medical care or schooling is forthcoming to support the claim.

Nevertheless, I incline to believe it on the weight of argument presented by the authors, derived mainly from the known facts of Hardy's life, as of Tryphena's, considered in conjunction with the direct and oblique disclosures of his novels, poems, and what have been preserved of his notebooks and letters. It is known that the "Life" written by his second wife, Florence Hardy, was virtually his own work of autobiography. It is known that he was secretive about all personal matters. It is also a fact that, within a few days of his death in 1928 Mrs. Hardy began assiduously to make bonfires of letters and papers. As reported by the gardener at Max Gate, she insisted on doing this herself, and after the fire died down she raked the ashes to be sure that not a single scrap remained. This may be significant or not, as the reader prefers; but what is significant is that the detailed family pedigree, which Hardy prepared in his own fine handwriting, omits two of his mother's sisters, one of whom, Maria Sparks, at forty-six, was the supposed mother of Tryphena and went into Dorchester to register the birth seven days after that event (March 20, 1851). This last comment is made because the authors conjecture that Tryphena was fathered by Francis Martin, the lord of the manor, on Rebecca Sparks, Maria's sister, (a seamstress who may have worked in the big house at Kingston Maurward). Whatever the truth, it seems to be established that Rebecca joined Tryphena in Plymouth when the girl became headmistress of a school there. If the case of the authors is true it would also seem that Rebecca (Tryphena's real mother, not her aunt) there posed as the mother of "Hardy's boy" and so protected the young schoolmistress from gossip."

Hardy and Tryphena - the argument goes, and I find it convincing - had been lovers at an open pasture called Combe Eweleaze, not far from the girl's home at Puddletown. The tragic course of their affair is to be traced not only in plot aspects of the novels but in several of the most powerful and appealing of Hardy's poems. The authors have traced that Mrs. Martin, the lady of the manor and benefactress of Thomas Hardy as a boy and the wife of Francis Martin, sponsored Tryphena's admission to a Teacher's Training College when she was eighteen - that would be after the birth of the love-child. Two years later she obtained the headship at the Plymouth school.

Such a brief summary must necessarily seem a tangled skein; but such is the skill of the authors and the depth of their research that the story is credible from the first to the last page - except for the absence of registration particulars which would prove the case beyond a peradventure.

What we know most certainly is that Hardy was obsessed by social status from his youth up; that he met Emma Lavinia Gifford during his engagement to Tryphena, and that something happened between the lovers which led to the break between them and his marriage to the other woman. We know too that Tryphena married a man of some property named Charles Gale and bore him three children before she died in 1890 in her thirty-ninth year. We can also surely identify many poems which Hardy wrote out of his heart when he though of his "lost prize". One, indisputably, is "Thought of Phena", written in the month of her death:

Not a line of her writing have I,
   Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
   I may picture her there:
And in vain do I urge my unsight
   To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light,
   And with laughter her eyes.

Other poems reveal Hardy's secret just as clearly, "At Rushy Pond", "A Spot", "The Wind's Prophecy", "To an Orphan Child" (later significantly changed to "To a Motherless Child".) I invite readers to ponder these poems and weigh the argument of Providence and Mr. Hardy. The book seems to me to proclaim a literary discovery as exciting in its way as the revelation of the young Wordsworth's secret love of Annette Vallon or the still-to-be-elucidated relationships of Jonathan Swift with "Stella" and "Vanessa".