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Book review: Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins’s Max Gate is a memorable excoriation of literary craving and jealousy.

It sounds like the protagonist of a gun-and-run computer game, but Max Gate is the name of the villa in Dorchester that Thomas Hardy, an architect, designed in 1885 and shared with his wife, Emma, barely talking to her, until her sudden demise in 1912. Then, aged 73, he married his 35-year-old research assistant, Florence Dugdale.

Damien Wilkins

If Hardy’s new bride hoped she would be rewarded with a mention in a poem or story, she was out of luck. Instead, he wrote reams of verse to Emma, his passion reawakened once her reality was replaced with a winsome ghost.

This situation, dismal for Flo, creative for Tom, continued until January 1928 when Hardy, too, went the way of all flesh. Damien Wilkins sets his ruthless new novel in the last days and peculiar aftermath whereby the writer’s heart was interred next to Emma in a Dorset graveyard, while the cremains of his other parts went by urn to Westminster Abbey.

Events are waspishly narrated, from a distance of several decades, by maid Nellie Titterington. Great authors are not always great people, especially viewed by their domestic staff. The puzzle from Nellie’s evidence is how such a timorous wee tightwad wrote such powerful, big, generous-spirited tomes.

Hardy, however, remains mostly off-stage, dying. The focus is on jostling among the fleas determined to ride on his fame. Gifted with an astute ear, Wilkins has fun mimicking the pompous spin-doctoring of Sydney Cockerell (Hardy’s literary executor), the emollient platitudes of JM Barrie (Florence’s imagined saviour) and the smarmy guile of a cocksure young newshound eager for a scoop.

But he doesn’t just mock faded Georgian literati. “All comedy is tragedy,” Hardy observed, “if you only look deep enough into it.” Wilkins peers into his characters’ dreams and disappointments, particularly Florence’s. She’s too gutless and whiny to deserve tragic status, but this self-absorbed self-sacrificer’s contradictory tugs nevertheless fascinate.

What’s more, Nellie could be Florence’s equally resentful psychic twin. Near the end of her testimony, she blithely confesses to tampering with some facts. How much, then, should we trust her? Take, for instance, the claim that Cockerell read none of Hardy’s novels. His surviving diaries suggest otherwise, but perhaps he was such a humbug he fibbed even to himself. Or is Nellie libelling him out of spite because her own talents have gone unrecognised?

Max Gate is an unsettling and sometimes even unpleasant novel, but its excoriation of literary craving and jealousy will linger in the memory after all trace of more genial fare has vanished.

MAX GATE, by Damien Wilkins (VUP, $30).