The first woman in England to play the leading stage role of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles acted in an amateur theater near Hardy’s home in Dorset County on the coast of the English Channel. Hardy directed the 1924 production and insisted the young woman be cast for the part because of her resemblance to her mother, whose unforgettable beauty inspired Hardy to create Tess more than 30 years earlier, in 1891. The radiant actress, Gertrude Bugler, was the very incarnation of Tess, and Hardy became infatuated with her, although he didn’t act on his desires — Hardy was 84 years old, and Gertrude was in her 20’s, a wife and mother to a new baby. Nevertheless, Hardy wrote poems about Gertrude, including one imagining their elopement. His affection made his second wife, Florence, distraught with jealousy.
Christopher Nicholson has written an absorbing novel about this historic emotional tryst, using alternating perspectives of Hardy (who at the time was the wealthiest author in England), Gertrude and Florence. He seduces us with a lyric narrative about desires of the heart that never age. Also, he atmospherically evokes the place and time with elegant images and rich writing that’s not fussy, such as when he writes: “The broth steamed, and the silver of the spoons shone in the candlelight.”
The story takes place the winter Gertrude plays Tess in the local theater. It opens with Hardy, over tea at his house with Gertrude, wanting to recommend the beauty for the same leading role in a London theater, giving Gertrude the break of a lifetime. Needless to say, she’s thrilled by the opportunity. The novel’s dramatic arc rises and falls under the consequences that result from this simple offer — and with surprising intensity, primarily due to Florence’s anxious personality that’s captured with realistic pitch and verve.
Preoccupied with her poor health and distraught by the darkness of their country home, the 45-year-old Florence desperately and repeatedly implores her husband to trim the surrounding, overgrown pine trees. Hardy refuses, convinced these trees he planted when he built the cottage have human qualities. She feels shunned by his lack of sensitivity and love for his literary work. When Florence notices his attraction to Gertrude, she begins another, self-pitying rant that belittles the actress, attempting to convince Hardy the girl is neither beautiful nor talented enough to hold a London stage. “All you think of is her. I am no one, no one, no one,” she says.
Gertrude is an unaware innocent caught in the middle of the Hardys’ marital drama. She knows Thomas Hardy cares for her but believes it’s nothing more than admiration for her stage talent. Unfortunately, she pays a life-changing price without ever having done anything wrong other than exist as a beautiful and talented actress. Hardy dies three years later, and Gertrude brings us the conclusion in a calm voice that expresses a perspective of understanding and forgiveness.
The talented Christopher Nicholson successfully evokes a time in Thomas Hardy’s life that may be little known to readers in a story that is deeply affecting — including the real, famous moment when Hardy said to Gertrude at their last meeting, “If anyone asks you if you knew Thomas Hardy, say, ‘Yes, he was my friend.’ ”