Woman Much Missed by Mark Ford

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Reviewed by Harriet

If you studied poetry at school or university, or just read it for pleasure, you may well recognise this book’s title as a quotation from one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous poems, ‘The Voice’. It’s worth quoting the opening lines, which encapsulate the poet’s state of mind at the time of writing:

Woman much missed how you call to me, call to me, 
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

‘The Voice’ is just one a group of poems written by Hardy after the death, in 1912, of his wife Emma. They had been married for nearly forty years, but their initially happy relationship had deteriorated badly in the last years of Emma’s life. Losing her provoked in Hardy an outpouring of memories and guilt: as he  wrote to a friend on the day of Emma’s funeral, ‘One forgets all the recent years & differences, & the mind goes back to the early times when each was much to the other—in her case & mine intensely much’. These feelings were expressed in numerous poems he wrote after her death, twenty-one of which appeared in his Poems of 1912-13. This collection is rightly celebrated, but it contains only a fraction of the hundred or so poems he wrote to Emma both during and after her life. 

Professor Mark Ford is a poet himself, but he is also a essayist, a reviewer, and an expert on nineteenth-century literature. In 2017 he published Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner. His many interests come together in Woman Much Missed, a superbly researched and impressively detailed exploration of a complicated marriage, comprising ‘the first book-length account…of the entire corpus of Emma poems, as well as the first to pay attention to the role that poetry played in their courtship, both as a shared passion…and as a means of signifying his upward mobility’. 

After the first two chapters, a general but fascinatingly perceptive discussion of ‘What Poetry Meant to Hardy’, the book proceeds chronologically with three further sections of two chapters each:  ‘Lyonesse’ looks at Emma’s West Country background and the couples’ courtship; ‘The Rift’ moves forward through the marriage to the divisions that grew between them; and ‘Afterwards’ is concerned with life after Emma. Among the many issues the book raises is the dichotomy, in Hardy’s mind, between poetry – his first but initially unsuccessful love – and prose, which is explored in the early chapters. Writing novels brought in much needed finance, but after Jude the Obscure, which was harshly criticised, he focused exclusively on poetry.

Ford draws on many sources, primarily of course Hardy’s poems, fiction, letters and autobiography but also including Emma’s poems, Recollections and diaries. Here he shows how Hardy drew on Emma’s written recollections for some of his early poems, most notably in ‘During Wind and Rain’, where each stanza echoes a passage of her writing. He also argues that Hardy’s youthful preoccupation with Latin poets, especially Ovid, informed his presentation of Emma presence in the landscape in the elegies: ‘Hardy himself can often seem in these poems like Apollo or Zeus discovering an untouched nymph in some remote and beautiful nook, and falling instantly in love with her’. It’s interesting to note that Hardy’s decision to return, in 1883, to the Dorset of his youth seems to have played a large part in the divisions that grew up between the couple. The saddest part of the book is that which deals with Hardy’s increasing tendency to ignore Emma: his ‘ability to “unvision” or blank or exclude [her] was witnessed by numerous visitors’.  That, and his increasing tendency to fall in love with younger women, even moving one of them into the family home at Max Gate, must have been trying indeed. No less trying for Florence Dugdale, who Hardy married two years after Emma’s death, was the fact that ‘vestigia of her predecessor lurked everywhere, and are transformed…into the equivalents of a saint’s relics’. 

Ford’s close reading of Hardy’s poetry and his analysis of many of his influences and sources is impressive. There’s a wealth of fascinating material in this book, so it’s interesting and dispiriting to learn how much more there could have been. After Hardy’s death: 

All her letters to him, swathes of his to her, most of their personal diaries, ended up reduced to a ‘burnt circle’ in the garden or in a fireplace at Max Gate. Much of this material that survived these purges was eventually consigned to the flames by Hardy’s two executors, Sidney Cockerall and Florence. 

Given that fact, it’s remarkable what a vivid picture emerges from Ford’s research. The book contains many pages of useful bibliography and a full index and is a welcome addition to an already large corpus of Hardy studies.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Mark Ford, Woman Much Missed: Thomas Hardy, Emma Hardy and Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2023). 978-0192886804, 272pp., hardback.

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