New installation at Max Gate reveals Emma's writings

Max Gate

A new installation at Thomas Hardy's home reveals the letters and poems of his first wife, Emma, who spent the last fourteen years of their marriage living in the attic rooms of Max Gate.

The 'In Emma's words' installation also throws a spotlight on her at times difficult relationship with her husband.

The extracts of Emma's letters and poems on display in her attic rooms allow visitors to get to know more about Emma, and  her long marriage to Thomas Hardy.

Thomas Hardy married Emma Gifford in 1874. She had had a more privileged upbringing than he, and neither of their families approved of the marriage. The conflict between Emma and Hardy’s family worsened over the years. In one of the extracts from her letters reproduced for the installation, a furious Emma wrote to Hardy’s eldest sister Mary “You are a witch-like creature and quite equal to any amount of evil-wishing & speaking – I can imagine you, & your mother & sister on your native heath raising a storm on a Walpurgis night”.

The Hardys remained childless, and they became increasingly estranged, with Emma eventually retreating to the two attic rooms of Max Gate where she chose to live for the last 14 years of her life, though they continued to share many interests, including a love of animals, and of cycling, well into older age. 

Emma's letters show her to be passionate about causes including women's suffrage and animal rights, as well as at times bitter about her marriage.

Writing to Elspeth Grahame, who had recently married Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, Emma offered  marriage advice. “Keeping separate a good deal is a wise plan in crises & being both free - & expecting little, neither gratitude nor anything you may set your heart on. Love interest – adoration, & all that kind of thing is usually a failure – complete – some one comes by & upsets your pail of milk in the end.”

Most of Emma’s correspondence remained in her attic rooms for years, but was later burned on the orders of Hardy’s second wife, Florence. A notebook discovered by Hardy on Emma’s death, entitled “What I think of my husband”, was also destroyed by him.