I received an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher, Europa Editions.
I always thought it was sad that the Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero, in his moral treatise De Senectute (On Old Age), argues that not only do old men not engage in the pleasures of a lover any longer, but they are actually relieved to be free from such sensations. Seneca, in one of his Stoic epistles, agrees with Cicero’s sentiment by telling Lucilius that it is a relief to have tired out one’s appetites and be done with such things.
Christopher Nicholson, in his fictional autobiography about the last few years of Thomas Hardy’s life, greatly disagrees with Cicero and Seneca’s views on old age. Nicholson gives us an example, through the life of this famous author, of an old man enjoying love and fantasizing about pleasure even though such enjoyments are not necessarily attainable. The focus of the book is the winter of Hardy’s eighty-fourth year when he decides to become involved in an amateur production of Tess. He has resisted turning what is his most famous novel into a staged production, but when he meets Gertrude Bulger, a local townswoman, he believes she is the only one that can do his heroine justice.
Hardy lives a very quiet life in the small town of Wessex where he was born. He doesn’t go out and socialize very much, so it is truly remarkable when he agrees to become involved with the local theater company to stage this production of Tess. He develops a heart-warming relationship with the lead actress, whom he affectionately refers to as “Gertie.” He enjoys having her over for tea and talking to her about books, philosophy and life in general. He realizes that, even though he is in the winter of his life, he still has strong feelings of love and desire for this twenty-eight year-old woman. She inspires him to write love poems again and he produces over twenty such poems in the course of a few months.
The imagery and backdrop of winter is appropriate for Hardy’s reflections on what he feels could be the last few months, weeks or days of his life. The cold and ice and bleak landscape reflect what he feels is going on in the natural progression of his life. He, however, is not sad or bitter about this . And when he has the opportunity to interact with Gertie he embraces the opportunity and does not deny himself feelings of love, pleasure and desire just become of his advanced age. One of the sweetest moments of the book is when he finds one a piece of her hair and tucks it into one of the books in his library as a keepsake.
The other forceful character in the book is Hardy’s wife who is about forty years his junior. Although Florence is much younger than her husband she acts like she is the octogenarian in the relationship. She is obsessed with her health, paranoid, whiny and jealous. When she sees that Thomas has developed feelings for Gertie she is relentless in her nagging at him and does everything she can to make sure that they do not see each other again. I understand that Hardy could be a quiet, brooding, stubborn man and was not the easiest person to live with. But Florence’s constant obsession about her health and the perceived wrongdoings against her made it difficult to have any sympathy for her.
The reader should be warned that the ending is not necessary a happy one. There is, however, a larger message in the book to be found which is that Cicero and Seneca did not quite have the correct perceptions on old age. Human beings have the capacity to experience love, desire and pleasure right up until our final days. Cicero and Seneca most definitely would have judged Hardy to be a bad Stoic.
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