Sunday, 20 October 2013

I Heart Nellie Titterington

Max Gate (VUP 2013) by Damien Wilkins

It seemed fitting to pick up a novel that discusses the ownership of a writer’s remains (both physical and literary) on Katherine Mansfield’s 125th birthday.  The fact that her birthday is still noted and celebrated (even Google had KM on their webpage) brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating with the Dead where she suggests that one of the reasons writers write is because of the desire to be immortal.  While I’m not suggesting that every writer has this desire, it is true that KM has been alive in our literary imaginations for a lot longer than she spent on the earth.  While John Middleton Murry was in charge of KM’s legacy, Wilkins’s novel investigates the intricacies of handling Thomas Hardy’s reputation just before and immediately after his death.

 It was with some trepidation that I started reading Wilkins’s novel because I haven’t read any Thomas Hardy and I feared I may miss out on some literary allusions throughout the text.  By the end of the first sentence I had disregarded such fears, “When you wake in a warm bed in winter besieged all around by cold, for an instant you believe you have it in your power to stay right where you are for as long as you want” and snuggled down into the narrative voice of Nellie Titterington, a maid at Hardy’s house.  Nellie is a strapping lass with a delightful name, and an even more delightful talent with bawdy language.  Nellie recalls the visitors to Max Gate, the house where Hardy and his second wife Florence live, such as literary manager Mr Cockerill, J.M. Barrie, and Alex who is a local newspaper reporter and love interest of Nellie’s.  Thomas’s physical presence is off-stage, he is upstairs dying while Florence and her gentleman visitors discuss how to manage his legacy.

Nellie relates the workings of the house, her interactions with the other staff, and Florence who is at times practical and at other times distressed about how to care for Hardy’s reputation while being haunted by the legacy of his first wife, Emma.  The divide between the residents and the staff does have a feeling of ‘upstairs/downstairs’ about it, and also gives the book its comic relief at what is a stressful and emotionally charged time.  The subject matter doesn’t immediately suggest it, but this is a funny book.  While the theme of the novel is about literary legacy, who ‘owns’ a writer, and who is in charge of their reputation, and who wants to make a buck from it, Nellie’s perspective makes the novel feel playful while also being sensitive to those around her.

At times Nellie wants to slip into second person, she wants to say ‘we’ when recollecting incidents which reiterates the issue of who gets to speak about Hardy, who is to be believed, and whose story is accurate.  Nellie also makes this somewhat tongue in cheek statement when she relates a conversation between Alex and Mr Cockerill, “The hare sees the two men and takes a different path, hopping behind a tree.  I imagine it carries a recording device attached to one ear, which I placed there so that my account could be as full as possible” (32).  This wishful thinking shows the problem of a narrator trying to relate instances from the past with absolute accuracy.  Of course, individuals can usually remember the gist of a conversation rather than verbatim recollections, but the joy of historical fiction is that imagination acts as bunny ears which persuades the reader of accuracy, whether fact or not.  The research appears in this novel seamlessly; I could not tell when imagination took over from the historical record. 

At times I wondered whether Nellie was modelled on Hardy’s Tess (or another of Hardy’s female characters), but one that Wilkins has made empowered by her personal and sexual agency rather than a victim of patriarchy or class.  What I did pick up was Hardy’s love and protection of animals and nature in general, so much so it seems the house would be overtaken by the shrubbery and trees that surround it.  While this provided privacy, a gate to keep prying eyes out, and beauty, it also shows that nature untamed can dwarf and become menacing to its human inhabitants, as Thomas’s legacy becomes intimating to those that care for him.  

Wilkins’s book has made me want to read Hardy for the joy of his work itself, but also so I can bring out the resonances of Wilkins’s novel.  It is funny, with a touch of irony given Wilkins’s incredibly successful career as a writer and now as the Director of the IIML, but the novel is not a case of a writer naval gazing and contemplating burning first drafts in the backyard, it is joyful because Wilkins has chosen Nellie to tell the story who handles Hardy’s legacy with honesty, warmth and sensitivity.  I hope when I do get around to reading Hardy I will find a character that looms as large to me as Nellie does in Wilkins’s novel.

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