Thomas Hardy, a Cornish love affair

Thomas Hardy

By the time Thomas Hardy’s wife, Emma, passed away in 1912 the couple had been estranged for a number of years. But her sudden death shook Hardy, and he found himself reminiscing about the beginning of their relationship, the time they had spent together in Cornwall. He began to look back at that courtship and their early love for each other with a reinvigorated warmth. Hardy’s grief also seems to have spurred him to write and his series of romantic poems about Cornwall and the loss of his beautiful wife are considered some of his finest.

A surge of melancholy nostalgia saw him revisiting the Cornwall of his youth in the spring of 1913, and recalling his wife as he had first known her – young and vivacious. The woman he had fallen in love with, lost to him through years of unhappy marriage, was now gone forever, but for Hardy their love affair was intrinsically linked to the place they had met – Cornwall.

Thomas Hardy
Emma Hardy as a young woman Credit: Dorset County Museum

When I set out for Lyonnesse,

A hundred miles away,

The rime was on the spray,

And starlight lit my lonesomeness

When I set out for Lyonnesse

A hundred miles away.

When I set out for Lyonnesse

The Beginnings

Thomas Hardy first came to Cornwall in 1870 when he was 30 years old. At that time he was working for an architectural firm and had been sent to survey St. Juliot Church near Boscastle. Hardy had just published his second book, Desperate Remedies, and was starting to gain some notoriety as a writer. He was also, as the saying goes, ‘in want of a wife’ and, as fate would have it. it was during this first visit to Cornwall that he fell head over heels in love.

Thomas Hardy
St Juliot Church

On the first day that Hardy arrived at St Juliot church Emma Lavinia Gifford was there to meet him. She was working as a governess and was outgoing and well-educated. She was also strikingly beautiful with bright blue eyes and a mass of auburn hair.

Emma had been born in Plymouth in 1840 but had come to live in Cornwall in 1860. When she met Hardy she was living with her sister Helen, who had married the vicar of Boscastle, Rev. Caddell Holder. It was Holder who had raised the funds to have the little church redesigned and renovated. For the next four years Hardy and Emma spent as much time together as possible whenever his work brought him to Cornwall.

Thomas Hardy
Cliffs at Tintagel

A Pair of Blue Eyes

Emma, who is said to have been a bit of a tom-boy and fearless on a horse, took Hardy on long walks through the Cornish countryside. Together we know they visited Tintagel, Bude, Trebarwith, Strangles Beach and Beeny Cliffs. On one occasion they were so caught up with each other that they stayed too long at Tintagel castle and found themselves locked in. They had to attract attention of people in the cove below by waving their handkerchiefs so that they could be let out.

Needless to say, Hardy was absolutely smitten with Emma. He wrote in his diary that he would like nothing more than to “walk the world” with this woman.

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,

And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –

The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

Beeny Cliff, March 1913

His third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, published while they were still courting, is almost certainly autobiographical. The book’s heroine, Elfride Swancourt, is seemingly based on Emma. Elfride is the daughter of the Rector of Endelstow, a remote parish in Cornwall which was inspired by Boscastle and St Juliot. The character is also blue-eyed and high-spirited, if a little naive. In the novel she becomes entangled with two men, the young architect, Stephen Smith (we can assume this is Hardy) and Henry Knight and is forced to choose between them. This too is true to life as when Emma and Thomas Hardy first met she was already involved with and some say expected to married another man – a curate’s son, William Serjeant who lived in St Clether.

Thomas Hardy
The Old Vicarage St Clether

The poem The Face at the Casement written by Hardy in 1871 describes the couple paying William Serjeant, who was too unwell to see them, a final visit. Unbeknownst to Emma as the pair rode away together in the pony and trap Hardy saw a face at the vicarage window. It was William watching them leave. At that moment, in an act that later haunted him, Hardy vindictively put his arm around Emma’s waist so that William would see that he had truly lost her. The young man died soon after their visit.

The pale face vanished quick,

As if blasted, from the casement,

And my shame and self-abasement

Began their prick.

. . .

Long long years has he lain

In thy garth, O sad Saint Cleather:

What tears there, bared to weather,

Will cleanse that stain!

Love is long-suffering, brave,

Sweet, prompt, precious as a jewel;

But jealousy is cruel,

Cruel as the grave!

The Face at the casement

The Cracks

The couple married in 1874, the same year that Far from the Madding Crowd was published, and honeymooned in France. On their return they settled in London and Emma encouraged Hardy to give up his job as an architect and write full time. But it was here, in the first few months of what would be their 38 year marriage, that the cracks began to show.

Emma’s new life in London, as the wife of a successful novelist, was not quite as she had envisaged it. In Cornwall, she had been free to walk for miles in the country lanes or ride her horse on the cliff tops with the wind in her hair. (And after her death this is how Hardy vividly remembers the woman he fell in love with in his poems The Phantom Horsewoman and in Beeny Cliff.) Now she felt constrained, trapped, perhaps by society’s expectations, and with literary ambitions of her own Emma was also it seems a little jealous of her husband’s status. For his part Hardy did nothing to encourage his wife’s writing. He saw it as a silly pipe-dream and even hurtfully implying she had little or no talent.

The Hardys were never able to have children and this too was doubtless one of the issues that placed an inevitable strain on their marriage. Emma may have begun to suffer from bouts of depression. She became more and more reclusive, often locking herself away in the attic of their home for days on end. Hardy, perhaps unsure how to comfort his wife, began to have affairs with other women. Robert Gittings, the author of The Young Thomas Hardy (2001) has also argued that there was another source of the couple’s marital problems :

“Emma Lavinia Gifford certainly appears . . . as the spoilt child of a spoilt father. There is no doubt at all that her wilfulness and lack of restraint gave her a dash and charm that captivated Hardy from the moment they met. He did not consider, any more than most men would have done, that a childish impulsiveness and inconsequential manner, charming at thirty, might grate on him when carried into middle age.”

Emma’s Words

After her death a diary or notebook written by Emma Hardy was discovered, it was entitled Why I Hate my Husband. Hardy had the book destroyed. But other diaries, written in happier times, do give us an insight into her early love for her husband, in the same way his poems show us his adoration for her. Emma wrote:

“My architect came two or three times a year . . . I rode my pretty mare Fanny and he walked by my side, and I showed him more of the neighbourhood. The cliffs along the roads and through the scattered hamlets, sometimes gazing down at the small solemn shores below, where seals lived . . . often we walked to Boscastle down Valency Valley . . . Sometimes we drove to Tintagel and Trebarwith Strand where the donkeys were employed carrying seaweed for the farmers; Strangles Beach, also Bossiney, Bude and other places along the coast. Lovely drives they were . . . “

Valency Valley, near Boscastle

The End

At the time of Emma’s death Hardy had been in a relationship with a young woman called Florence Dugdale, who he would later marry, for several years. Florence was very beautiful and more than thirty years younger than Emma. It is possible that much of Hardy’s subsequent outpourings of loss and lovelorn nostalgia came from feelings of guilt and regret for the way he had behaved towards Emma while she was still alive. During his final melancholy visit to Cornwall in 1913 Hardy had a plaque erected for her in St Juliot Church, the place where they had first met.

Why go to Saint Juliot? What’s Juliot to me?

Some strange necromancy

But charmed me to fancy

That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

Yes, I have dreamed of that place in the West,

And a maiden abiding

Thereat as in hiding;

Fair-eyed and white shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed . . .

A Dream or No – February 1913
Cross and stile in St Juliot Churchyard

Whatever their later difficulties perhaps for us, as well as for Hardy, it is best to think of them in the warm summer-glow of the early years of their relationship. She the beautiful and daring horsewoman and he the love-struck writer. When Hardy died in 1928 his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey but his heart was interned with Emma in her grave in the Stinsford Churchyard.

Further Reading:




Walking Opportunities:

Circular Walk from Lesnewth to Tresparratt in the Valency Valley

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6 thoughts on “Thomas Hardy, a Cornish love affair

  1. In 1962 I was introduced to Hardy’s works via The Return of the Native… Having read your wonderful piece on his relationship with Emma I wonder how much of Eustacia was built upon her … Thank you for sharing the poems and a bit of Hardy’s life.

  2. Great research Elizabeth, I had no idea of the connection between Hardy and Cornwall!! As a Cornishman now living in a fellow Celtic country (Scotland), it is good to read about anything connected with home!! 🙂

  3. I had the basics of Hardy’s unhappy marriage but hadn’t realised that he met his wife in Cornwall. Thanks for this 😊

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