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MAX GATE: THOMAS HARDY'S VICTORIAN VILLA AND THE LADY IN THE ATTIC

Max Gate is the house designed and built by Thomas Hardy in the Dorset town of Dorchester, once he was a published and acclaimed author. Now owned by the National Trust, it is a substantial red brick villa set in a large garden, a marked contrast to the rural cottage where he was born. It was here he lived with both of his wives, both troubled relationships which led to some of his best work, but also led to the torment of his first wife, Emma.

The back gardens of Max Gate
The gardens of Max Gate in Dorchester

From his humble beginnings at the nearby Hardy's Cottage (which is also owned by the National Trust), and after his time spent working in London as an architect, Thomas Hardy bought a one acre site in Dorchester for the large sum of £450, and designed a two up, two down house for it, which was built by his father and his brother.


He and his wife Emma moved in 1885, and Hardy was to live there for over 40 years until his death in 1928. Over the years, Hardy added to the house, starting in 1895 after achieving financial success when he published Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Rooms were extended, a huge extension was added at the back of the house, attic rooms were put in and a conservatory was added. By the time he died, he had three studies.

Max Gate entertained the great and the good of the early 20th century literary world including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, A.E. Housman, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Holst, Siegfried Sassoon and T.E. Lawrence, who lived nearby and whose cottage is also open to the public.

The outside of Max Gate
The front of Max Gate

Thomas and Emma had met in Cornwall, and their courtship inspired his novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. They married four years later in 1874. It has been said that she forced his hand into marriage, then resented him, thinking she was superior as she was the niece of an archdeacon and that he had married 'up'. Friends said they did not get along at all, and they never had children, something which caused them both much unhappiness.


Their marriage deteriorated over the years and she retreated more and more to her attic suite in Max Gate, to keep out of the way of her husband and his many visitors. By 1899 she was a virtual recluse and lived in the attic rooms she referred to as 'a sweet refuge and solace'. She died there in November 1912 at the age of 72, a lonely and resentful woman. Hardy’s discovery of her diaries after her death led him to write his greatest poetry, The Poems 1912-1913 in her memory - poems of grief and remorse, many of which are set in the house and grounds.


In 1914 he married his secretary/researcher, Florence Dugdale, to whom he left the house on his death in January 1928. Florence ordered the house to be sold after her own death in 1938, and the proceeds to be placed in the Dugdale Trust. Hardy’s sister Kate bought the house to prevent it falling into the wrong hands, and it was she who left Max Gate to the National Trust in 1940.


Visiting Max Gate

The house is very much as you would expect a Victorian villa to look, filled with the formal arrangements and clutter of the era. Many of the rooms contain original possessions of Hardy's and show off his architectural skills.


The Drawing Room, also called the Music Room, was designed to be light and airy and has unusually large windows for the time, which were intended to give views across the garden into the woods and hills beyond. Above the fireplace is Hardy's Venetian mirror and the original fire surround is covered in Delft tiles which he collected while on a cycling holiday in Holland. This room was for entertaining the many visitors received at Max Gate.

The dining room in Max Gate
The dining room laid for his afternoon tea which was at 4pm every day

The dining room includes some of the original furniture such as the scroll arm sofa, the writing bureau and the bookcases which are either side of the fireplace. Hardy designed special shutters for the windows to prevent people peering in on him and his guests, as towards the end of his life tourists would arrive in charabancs and then to try peer over the hedges and walls to see him. The painting on the left of the bookcases is called the Three Marys and was originally owned by the Reverend William Barnes, a Dorset poet and mentor to Hardy. Hardy cherished it and had the painting hanging in the dining room and then his study, but after his death it was sold by Florence, until it was bought and donated back to Max Gate by the Hardy Society.

One of the studies in Max Gate
Hardy's desk where you can write your own poems

There are three studies in the house, one of which includes his desk, a kitchen which contains the original dresser and is now a café, and a staircase he designed himself which was deliberately wide enough to be able to carry a coffin down it without having to upend it.

Inside the Master Bedroom
The Master Bedroom

The Master Bedroom was where Hardy slept and eventually died in January 1928. He had wanted to be buried at Saint Michael's Church in nearby Stinsford with Emma and his family. However a contemporary thought he should be in Westminster Abbey to befit his status and in the end his family and followers compromised; his heart was removed while he still lay in bed, was sealed into a casket and is buried in Stinsford with Emma, while the rest of him was cremated and interred in Westminster Abbey.

A portrait of Emma Hardy
Emma Hardy

By far the most interesting room in the house is the small attic where Emma spent most of her time until her death.


Emma Gifford had had an idyllic childhood, and was living in Cornwall with her sister when she met Hardy. He was captivated by her charm and she supported his goal to become a writer, helping him with research. She had ambitions to become a writer herself, and eventually began to irritate Hardy by talking of 'our' books, and of the emendations she had made to his work.


She developed a fervent belief in religion and grew more eccentric in later life, possibly due to hereditary mental instability but probably more because of her unhappy life and marriage - Hardy's frequent infatuations with other women must have been hard on her. The attic rooms were built in the 1895 extension and she used them just as a daytime retreat until 1899, when she moved her bedroom there, calling the room her boudoir.


By 1910, she was in poor health and didn’t leave the room much at all. Hardy wrote about the last time Emma played the piano, not long before she died. She suddenly sat down to the piano, played a long series of her favourite tunes and said at the end she would never play again, which she didn't. The day before her 72nd birthday, she felt really unwell and the following morning she was found by her maid in great distress and asking for Hardy. The maid rushed to Hardy and told him what was wrong - he told the maid to straighten her collar and only then went to see Emma, who died within five minutes.

Hardy had her body brought to the foot of his bed, where it stayed for three days, while in her rooms he found two diaries - one called What I think of my Husband which gave a very harsh verdict of him, described by his second wife as being 'full of venom, hatred and abuse of him and his family' and which he swiftly burnt. The other one was a more affectionate account of her childhood and her early life with Hardy.


He wrote a poem in The Poems of 1912 - 13 after she died, describing her spirit leaving her grave and visiting Max Gate, in which he wrote about her ghost wandering around unhappy at the changes such as the walls being repainted, her favourite daisies in the garden replaced by a formal border, and at the end of the poem she promises never to return. The implication is that Hardy has forgotten her very quickly after her death, which on the surface he probably had, as he moved Florence into Max Gate just a year later, and married her a year after that.

A black and white photo of Florence and Hardy
Florence with Hardy

Hardy and Florence met in1905 when she was only 26; within a year she was doing research for him in the British Museum and they were meeting regularly. For the next few years, Emma and Hardy competed for Florence's company with Emma becoming more and more affectionate towards her. Florence just seemed very sorry for her.


Florence moved into Max Gate in 1913 to take charge of the household, but she was not well liked by the staff. They married in 1914, when she was 35 and he was 73, in a secret ceremony and she made big changes to Max Gate, getting rid of Emma's cats, completely redecorating the house and removing anything to do with Emma. Emma's attic rooms were locked shut.


Florence didn't seem to fare much better than the original Mrs Hardy - he was still having infatuations with younger women, he was writing poems about eloping with women he knew as well as a short novel The Well-Beloved, which describes a man who falls in love with a woman, then with the woman's daughter, and then the woman's grand-daughter. He was described as a secretive person, and reading about his life in the house you can tell he was notoriously tight with money and food, and there is a mention that there was a high turnover of staff, not something you would expect in a happy Victorian home. It is not surprising that Florence destroyed so much of his work and writing after his death, and perhaps insisted on the house being sold after her own death, perhaps as a form of revenge on her husband and his literary legacy.


The garden is a lovely one and has similarities with the beautiful cottage garden where he grew up, albeit far more formal and structured. Sadly though, you leave the house feeling slightly perturbed about his behaviours and the damage he inflicted on the two main women in his life.


 

Visiting Max Gate


Postcode: DT1 2FN

Opening Hours:10.30am - 4.30pm Closed Monday and Friday

Cost: £9 for an adult, free to NT members



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