Authors: Emma Tennant
There, in our mothers' heartland, Thomas Hardy built his stage for the next enactment of the tragedy he loved. As we walk on this lovely September morning, with swans already restless down at the
lagoon, shuddering by the water's edge in preparation for the winter, I'll tell you how
was written again, etched in chalk on these cliffs and vales and hills.
Or maybe â for here's a lorry laden with gravel, panting its way along the narrow road that has a hedge of wild roses on the sea side and a sheer drop down the side of the hill on the other â maybe we'll hitch a ride back to the Mill and ask the driver on the way if he knows anything about the digging and excavating in progress at West Bay.
Maybe â as I climb into the high cab with you, and you look sleepily round at the stained, torn, diesel-smelling interior of the lorry, I'll ask him, too casually you might say, just how much shale has been lifted out of that pit behind West Bay, the deep saucer of land that last filled up in a neap tide in 1968.
The lorry stops and we get in. The driver isn't at all as I'd imagined him. He's a young graduate, can't find employment, working for the construction company until the job is done and the summer is over. He wears an old brown jacket and jeans. Clearly he's interested in the sights of the area â for a Pevsner guidebook to Dorset lies open on the seat beside him. He doesn't smile as I climb in (but then men don't smile at women of grandmotherly age) and I search for something to chat to the lad about, after he's said he's going all the way to Portland with the shale and he'll drop us off at the turning in Abbotsbury where we cut across the side of the hill under the chapel of St Catherine to the Mill.
My eye lights on the bulging ledge â AA book, brochures of Mapperton Gardens, and Forde Abbey, in the extreme western corner of Dorset. Then I see it. I have to smile. A little handbill: Toller Porcorum Amateur Players:
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
. The Old Church Hall, Saturday, 21st September, one performance only. A photograph of the young actress â nothing like Tess, of course, nowhere near the dark, haunting looks of Gertrude Bugler. But acting out the part of the âPure Woman, Faithfully Presented' in a remote village hall. And, as I grimly note, on the twenty-first of the month, on the day of the equinoctial gales â when the sea will come right up and flood the shallow pit the construction workers have
emptied of the protective pebbles. When it swirls out again, what will they find?
âTess lives' â I think this, remembering the little stone on Batcombe Down, the nailed hand, the outline of the lichened fingers. And, posing as a tourist myself, I ask the serious young driver how much he has seen of the county â¦ whether he intends to go to the performance of
â Might, he says, smiling across at me and the sleeping baby. But I got pretty put off Hardy, having to do him at school!
I smile back at him â and I hold you close, Baby Tess, and against the roar of the engine I whisper to you, quietly and softly â
There were further trials in store for Florence. Oh, far far worse. She would be drawn in the end by the strength of her jealousy, to Beaminster, and to the house of the young actress whom she was sure was responsible for her illness, her fatal weakness: like a wicked stepmother in a fairy tale, she would come with her poisoned apple and make Gertrude bite deep, with those luscious lips Hardy loved so much, right into the red side of the apple. But first, the night of the woman who has risen from her sickbed and gone out to meet the poet, who promises her the part of her dreams. (No, not to act Tess yet. That's for the grand finale.)
Late November and the first snow has settled thinly on the town, making it look, in the rays of the moon that have come early tonight, throwing long blue shadows on the square and the little houses, as pretty as a postcard. Never mind that the pharmacist's wife has just died and a crowd of bewildered and miserable children stand in the small back room of Smiley's Chemist's in the main square, with a father they have never seen cry like this before. And it doesn't
matter that old Tim Warren's gone bankrupt, no one wants his carriage equipment now everyone's riding around in motor cars â only half an hour ago he went past with his wife who has such terrible arthritis, with their lifelong possessions all piled high in a cart, drawn by their tired old horse. Where will they go? They'll die of cold if they have to camp out on a night like this, under the stars. Never mind. The love, the infatuation, the passion of a great man spreads its wings over the humble little town of Beaminster. The most ordinary people are caught up in it, like pilgrims when the Holy Man finally visits the shrine. A light seems to emanate from the old cottage by the side of St Mary's Church. Something wonderful and terrible will happen tonight. The light streams out from the doorstep and â¦
Everyone knows that Passion is more important than anything else.
The ordinary, the daily, the humdrum, must bow down before Passion, like the oxen knelt before the infant majesty of Our Lord.
Passion comes before family or food â or simple comforts like a bed for the night.
And Passion makes the unfortunate victim, the hapless one chosen to be sacrificed next on its altar, blind and forgetful. Deaf to the cries from those who only a moment before received the most tender love and support from the victim.
Love is All. And tonight â after the vase of silver carnations carried aloft in bright daylight by the blushing messenger to the young actress who must be Tess â comes the great man himself.
He will meet his Tess in the churchyard â well, he would choose a spot like that, because he knows that death is very close to Passion. Only a reminder, a memento, a mossy grave with the letters rubbed out long ago and the aching knowledge of the bones so eaten away just a few inches from the perfect bloom of a young cheek, will egg on the demon of infatuation. He only wants a precious minute â that's all he asks for. He can't breathe unless he sees his Tess, his darling bud, his creation, his daughter and his darling.
A minute! What's wrong with that? After all, what harm can come to anyone in a minute?
Gertrude flies out of the house â stopping for one minute by the tarnished old glass in the hall, looking and seeing the wild rose of her cheeks, the big dark eyes alive with excitement. Her hair swirls out, in the dark of the narrow little hall â then, does she shudder? â is there a goose walking on her grave? â or does she see a faint face form in the mirror behind her left shoulder, like they say comes to maids on St John's Eve if they light a candle and pray?
But the face fades again. And Gertrude races out of the door â for she can't have seen what seemed to ebb there, the face of Death himself, sunken-cheeked as all the worst pictures of Hell would have him. What has Death to do with a young woman at the height of her health and beauty? Death is no husband for her tonight.
Thomas Hardy comes round the side of a high sarcophagus and the young actress almost lets out a shriek. It's the face she's seen just a moment before â of course it is â Hardy, carrying his eighty-two years and his contiguity to the grave, looking sunken-cheeked at his tender prey, in the moonlight.
Death comes forward and kisses the maiden.
The lorry stops suddenly in the narrow Abbotsbury road, where there's a sharp left turn marked Rodden. Pea-gravel spills from the back onto the road â and I can see in the driving mirror the angry, disapproving face of a man in a German car, a businessman by the looks of him, on his way to one of the posh hotels along the coast probably, the Plumptree, where family portraits hang on the walls and the descendants of the Earl who helped King Charles II hide out in Dorset in his flight to France, serve lobsters au gratin in their shells. But the businessman looks familiar. Suddenly I have a sickening feeling that I've seen him snooping around here before:
I've seen him by the Mill, posing as a tourist, a visitor to the tropical gardens and the swannery. He even unconvincingly bought an ice cream at the van parked by the gates to our father's old workplace and then tossed it in the bushes when he thought Ella's mum wasn't looking â but she was, of course; people like us who live by the sea are always watching and looking, picking up the flotsam of conversations and pieces of tittle-tattle and scandal that come in with the tides and then are washed out again.
â He looked like he was from the CID, Ella's mum said to me that night, as I was dropping Ella back from one of our nature walks along the stretch of pebbles that acts host to a strange variety of birds â birds that must be helped to stay alive, in the face of the contaminating, polluting oil spills and sewage that get washed up there.
â And what would a policeman want with the swans? I said, and made a joke of it.
But we both knew, I think, that time was running out. Even without anyone to give information, evidence of a crime has a strange way of manifesting itself, years after the event: even a shred of an old shirt that went into tatters as a body was dragged over the stones could blow from the swampy ground behind the George pub in West Bay and land on a clothesline where a curious housewife, handing it to her brother Fred, new in the force at Bridport â¦
But there's no point in letting this mosaic of memories come up in my mind now, throttle action, bring paralysis. Without looking again in the side mirror I tell our student driver that I've changed my mind, I'll go almost as far as Weymouth with him. We won't get off here after all.
The lorry jerks left as a blast of car horns mocks our change of mind.
â But I thought you wanted to go down to the sea here, the young man remarks mildly as he changes gear and, with another spillage of shale, we roar slowly along the road.
I tell him my mother lives beyond Rodden, at Langton Herring, and I need to see her. He turns sideways to stare at me, surprised â and I see I've really slipped up this time, been rattled by the businessman in the German car, who, sure enough, has taken the Rodden turning after us.
â Used to live there, I correct myself quickly â and I tell him we still have a cottage there, rented out, and I look after it for the tenants.
The young man nods but I feel his unease. Didn't I pose as a stranger to the area only a short while back? Who am I?
And I think to myself as I smile at him ingratiatingly and the plainclothesman hoots and overtakes in his little red car, that I never could explain to him that my mother isn't dead, because witches don't die â unless they're burnt or drowned â and she never was born either, if you care to go to the Bridport Register Office and search for her. So â for our driver, or for any man for that matter who believes in hard, cold facts and in facts only â my mother never existed. And if she is what our teacher Mrs Moores used to call a âfigment of the imagination', then so am I, my dear, and so are you.
Gypsies aren't prone to register their children, you see. And officially my mother never came into the world â and suffered and changed â at all. She was a lost child, from the very start.
But how could I tell our charming young student all that? Once the red car (the driver suspected nothing, he hadn't seen us at all) is a safe distance away, I ask for us to be put down. The driver looks surprised again, but I sense he's pleased to be rid of us. (He's picked up that there's something not quite ordinary about us: quite a few are like that when they come into close proximity with people like us. Or maybe he's extra sensitive and he's heard the ballad of Tess that I sing to you when no one else is about.)
â Have a nice day, the young man says, like an American, when I've assured him several times that the walk will do me good and the cottage is ready for us there, to move into.
And I wish him a pleasant evening at the Amateur Players' production of
The lorry lurches off. You're awake, and you look round at the fields and ancient forest that go down to Chesil Beach at this point, nine miles west of Weymouth and as distant from the traffic and suburban houses as the moon. You like the fresh sea breeze after the diesel stench of the lorry and a very small smile, like a thread being drawn across your face, flickers and disappears.
I will show you my mother. And I will tell you of that other Amateur Players' production of
â at the Corn Exchange in Dorchester on 26th November 1924 â when Hardy married his Tess â on stage, of course, figuratively, you might say.
My mother was two years old by then, and playing in the rough grass up at Silkhay, watching the tinkers as they worked on metal from the old scrapyard up there that even the most powerful conservationists couldn't get moved away. She didn't know anything of her past, though old Mother Hum from Waytown â who used to bring the little dirty, unschooled children milk from time to time â was quick to see something in her. She'd take my mother on her lap and tell her what life had in store. She knew the Tess story would be played out until another order came. She saw another Tess, unborn, in my mother's life. The gypsies said Mother Hum was as good if not better than they, at foretelling the future. But my mother just wriggled off and ran to clamber in the wrecked cars of old Rick's scrapyard: she couldn't see the tragedy that would come â nor did she see she'd end like Mother Hum â a witch, as the old woman was widely acknowledged to be.
My mother knew nothing of the dramatization of
, nor of the infatuation of the ancient poet for his Gertrude.
Unlike poor Florence, who wished most devoutly that she knew a great deal less of both of them.
It's 1923. The play Thomas Hardy was so keen to discuss back on that November day will surely come to fruition. Florence finds him
even more energetic than usual â it's as if all the loves of his life had come together, to make
The Queen of Cornwall
, a verse play which he says with a poignant air of combined melancholy and self-satisfaction has taken him fifty-three years to write â and is only eight hundred lines long. Cornwall â down there, Baby Tess, beyond the jaw of Portland, with its dangerous convergence of waters known as the Race â down to the south, towards Land's End, where Hardy and his Emma spent their happy days all of half a century ago.